Book Sees Big Variations in Classroom Coverage of STEM

By Erik W. Robelen — June 12, 2012 5 min read
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A forthcoming book finds that U.S. classrooms are providing unequal access to math and science content, suggesting it’s not simply an issue that places low-income and minority students at a disadvantage, but that the variations exist for students of all backgrounds.

In fact, the two authors found the widest differences among schools that serve middle-class families.

“The data presented in this book strongly suggest that educational inequalities pose a risk to every child,” write co-authors William Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University, and Curtis McKnight, a professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma. “Variation in content coverage corrupts the entire U.S. educational system, in effect creating an enormous educational lottery in which every student takes part—whatever their racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background.”

The book, Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools, is expected out next month from Teachers College Press. It examines three aspects of content coverage in U.S. classrooms: 1) whether a topic is covered; 2) how much instructional time it receives; and 3) the sequence in which topics are taught.

“What this book does is make an attempt to look systematically at that variation, both in math and science, though heavier on mathematics,” Schmidt said in an interview. “At the classroom level is where you really find the title of this book, ‘Inequality for All.’ There is just such enormous variation in all three dimensions [of content coverage].”

He noted, for instance, in the teaching of basic arithmetic, “variations as much as 50, 60, 70 days from one 1st grade classroom to another. We’re talking weeks upon weeks of variation, even within the same district or even within the same school.”

For its classroom-level data, the researchers drew on surveys of primary and secondary teachers in 61 school districts in Michigan, Ohio, and Seattle.

The authors don’t simply look at the classroom level (though that’s where I’ll keep the main focus for this blog post). They examine differences in state standards and in content coverage by districts, as well as the impact of assessments, textbooks, and other issues. With regard to standards, the book highlights the Common Core State Standards (which Schmidt recently defended in a separate report), suggesting their widespread adoption by states is an important step that may well help better align how math and science are taught.

In the end, however, the new book suggests that while all these issues influence the content of math and science instruction, decisions by individual teachers are still at the heart of the matter. In fact, they suggest that the level of discretion exercised by U.S. teachers is unusual in the global sphere, based on an analysis of data from countries participating in TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study), which include Canada, Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Australia, Finland, Italy, England, and many others.

“In most TIMSS countries, teachers do not typically determine the actual content of classroom instruction,” the book says. “The United States is virtually alone among the countries in permitting teachers to have such a strong influence on what is actually taught. The U.S. approach places teachers in the role of content brokers.”

One reason this is of concern, the authors say, is that many teachers, especially at the elementary level, “are unlikely to have the mathematics background and the preparation needed to make such complex decisions.” (The same is presumably true in science.)

To be clear, the authors say they are not suggesting that every classroom should teach every subject in exactly the same way and for exactly the same amount of time. But they say the level of variation is deeply concerning.

Schmidt expressed sympathy for the position teachers find themselves in, suggesting that a broad set of sometimes conflicting factors shape their decisions.

“I don’t think it means that we should blame the teachers. What we should blame is the system in which we put a teacher. They’re put in a classroom, given a textbook, given signals from the district, signals from the state, given a standardized assessment, and none of them get consistent messages of what they should teach in 5th grade mathematics,” he said. “They do what they can.”

With regard to the classroom-level analysis, the authors devote a chapter to the topic, and include some detailed charts. One examines the percentage of elementary teachers at each grade level covering 29 specific math topics. The authors note that, especially in 1st and 2nd grades, a considerable degree of similarity might have been expected in what was covered, since this represents students’ first encounters with the formal study of basic math concepts. But this is not the case. For example, geometric shapes were taught by about 60 percent to 65 percent of the 1st and 2nd grade teachers surveyed. (The data in grades 1-5 included responses from 2,625 teachers.)

“If these percentages held at the national level, this would imply a tremendous difference in content coverage related to this particular arithmetic topic, with more than a million students lacking such coverage,” the book says. “And this is just an example of one topic.”

The book estimates the variation in the amount of time spent on different topics, finding that a typical math topic taught in elementary schools varies in 3rd and 4th grades by about two weeks, and by almost three weeks at the other grades.

While cautioning that some variation is surely desirable to adjust to the needs of individual students and classes, they suggest these differences are alarmingly high.

“Does there really need to be a difference of two weeks or more in teaching time for a typical topic?” the book says. “Remember, there are typically only 36 weeks in a school year.”

Overall, the authors said they found “substantial variation” at every grade level (1-8), and across both math and science, in which topics were covered, how much time was allocated to them, and in the sequencing of the topics.

Stepping back, the book’s final chapter draws a picture of inequality driven by multiple layers, and an issue that may even undermine the opportunities of children from the same family and school.

“The inequalities in content coverage begin with the state and local communities in which a child is to attend school—a reality over which many adults (let alone their children) have no control—and continue with the neighborhood school to which the child is assigned,” the authors write. “Furthermore, two children, even from the same family and attending the same school, but with different teachers for each of the first five grades, are not likely to have the same learning opportunities.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.