Mathematics

Math, Science Curricula Said To Fall Short

By Millicent Lawton — October 16, 1996 5 min read

Math and science curricula in the United States lack a coherent vision of how to educate students, compared with the coursework of other countries, a long-awaited federal study concludes. And that fuzzy perspective, the report says, may leave students in this country at an enormous disadvantage when it comes to pursuing academic success.

The international curricular analysis, “A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Mathematics and Science Education,” was scheduled to be released this week in Washington. It found that the avalanche of K-12 science and math topics that teachers are expected to cover leaves them little time to treat more than a few in any depth.

“The U.S. curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep,” said Larry Suter, the deputy director of the division of research, evaluation, and communication at the National Science Foundation.

The Arlington, Va.-based federal agency co-sponsored the four-year, $5 million study, which collected data from about 50 countries. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics also helped finance the study. It was conducted by a team headed by William H. Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University.

The conclusions drawn in the study may not surprise many educators, Mr. Suter said, but the report is important because “we’ve never had it measured so precisely and baldly. This is a real scientific study of the problem; it’s not just an impression.”

The results also illustrate the downside of the United States’ devotion to setting curricula at the state and local levels.

“That diversity adds to the difficulties of getting that coherent vision,” said Curtis McKnight, a professor of mathematics at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and an author of the study.

Students Deluged

The curriculum report makes some gloomy observations. “It seems wishful optimism to expect our students to achieve highly in science and, especially, mathematics compared to students in other countries,” it says. The resulting limitations on success, the report continues, “may be so strong and pervasive that our students are unlikely to achieve the outcomes often identified as necessary for continued national well-being.”

U.S. curricula--examined as a composite for the study--try to cover a huge number of fragmented topics, the researchers contend. In the 1st grade through the 8th grade, the number of math topics to be covered exceeds the number covered in three-fourths of the other countries. Only in American high schools, where math tends to be taught in specific courses, does the number of topics drop compared with other nations.

A similar trend holds for science, though it is not as pronounced. Ninth graders are deluged with the most science topics--nearly 55.

American textbooks also treat, and teachers typically teach, more topic areas than those in other countries do. Following state and district guidelines, “teachers ... often cover something of everything and little of any one thing,” the report says.

One of the most important points the study makes, Mr. Suter said, is the need for administrators to help teachers target their efforts and give them more time to undertake nonteaching professional activities. The study found that U.S. teachers spend much more time in the classroom than do teachers elsewhere.

U.S. curricula, the study found, tend to accumulate as many topics for students to learn over the years as is typical in other countries, but drop the topics later.

Without a clear, sequential U.S. curriculum in math or science, topics pile on and literally make U.S. textbooks heavier than their foreign counterparts, said Senta A. Raizen, an author of the study and the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education in Washington. “The 5th grade teacher doesn’t necessarily know what the 3rd grade teacher did,” she said.

Reforms Not in Place

Most of the data for the curriculum report were collected in 1992 and 1993; information on teachers was gathered last year. The study looked at 628 textbooks and 491 curriculum guides from around the world, including 18 U.S. textbooks and 43 curriculum guides.

The researchers based their analysis primarily on a random sample of U.S. state curriculum frameworks or guides and on reports by math- and science-education experts in the foreign countries studied. Some data were collected as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. More than 40 countries participated in that large-scale comparison of student achievement, which is scheduled for release next month.

The authors of “A Splintered Vision” point out that it offers only a snapshot of a curricular landscape that may have changed.

In 1992-93, the widely accepted standards written by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics had been available for only about three years. And voluntary national standards for science had yet to be released.

But the study found that the data collected last year on teacher practices jibed well with earlier reports on the all-inclusive and superficial curricula and textbooks.

Two of the report’s authors said in interviews last week that it is clear that reform efforts had not taken hold even by last year.

The textbooks the researchers examined tended to incorporate some reforms along with the traditional contents, leaving the books bloated--one consequence of a slow transition to rigorous academic standards, experts said.

In time, educators and policymakers will have to address the issue of a nationally shared core curriculum, said Shirley M. Malcom, the director of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. “We have got to exercise some discipline to say what is core,” she said.

But politically, it is not now possible, Ms. Malcom said, to reinvent the culture of education from one of local control to central, national control. “In the absence of a mandate, can we, through strength of quality and strength of vision, help these districts to do that right thing?”

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1996 edition of Education Week as Math, Science Curricula Said To Fall Short

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