How Can American Schools Measure Up?

National curriculum guidelines might help kids learn more

On Nov. 20, the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington will release the latest scores that show how eighth graders in the U.S. perform in math and science and that compare them with their counterparts in 40 other countries. The betting is that American students will lag behind--just as they have in the past. Even in national assessments, American students fare hardly better than they did more than a decade ago (chart). Yet the U.S. produces prize-winning scientists, and its universities are tops in math and science. Why don't its elementary and secondary school students do better, and what can be done to improve their performance?

It's not just in these subjects, of course, that U.S. instruction needs to improve. But in an increasingly competitive world with rapidly advancing technologies, math and science skills have become critical. "There has been a revolution in the amount of technical information people are subjected to," observes John W. Collette, director of scientific affairs in the central research department of DuPont Co. "People need a base of knowledge to be able to make informed and rational decisions."

Why do American students trail in math and science? Their teachers are often underprepared, and students are easily bored when subjected to repetition and mindless memorization. But the most important reason for the poor performance is that the U.S. has no "single, coherent vision of what students need to learn," says William H. Schmidt, professor of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Schmidt is also U.S. research coordinator for the study being released in Washington, called the Third International Mathematics & Science Study. TIMSS will come out with results for 4th and 12th graders next year.

The typical math teacher in the U.S. offers a variety of problems and exercises in a scattershot, "episodic" fashion, says Schmidt. Similarly, science instruction, while it aims for breadth, often ends up random and ad hoc, says National Academy of Sciences President Bruce M. Alberts. It is also exceedingly vocabulary-laden. "Knowing the names of the parts of a flower may be useful for cocktail parties" but little else, says Alberts.

VOLUNTARY. The lack of vision, says Schmidt, is the product of America's highly decentralized school system, which operates without a national curriculum. Voluntary national standards--guidelines really--were developed by math and science experts in recent years and are a good start toward achieving a more coherent curriculum. The math and science standards guide instruction toward real-world application of knowledge, and they urge more in-depth study of a narrower range of topics--much as in other countries whose students perform well.

But the standards have been adopted in a rather haphazard way. To get significant improvement in student achievement, Schmidt and others believe that more schools should embrace the voluntary standards. Not only would that improve classroom instruction, they say, but it would give publishers the incentive to develop better textbooks for a broad market. With a common curriculum, nationwide tests would be easier to develop and comparisons between states would be easier to make.

The math standards adopted in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) focus on offering children compelling problems to solve (box). Science standards issued in late 1995 by the National Research Council stress the cumulative acquisition of science knowledge through more hands-on exploration in the primary grades and inquiry at the secondary level. By grade eight, the NRC says, students should understand the process of scientific inquiry, motion and forces, reproduction and heredity, the earth's history, and the history of science.

Sound sensible? Not everyone agrees. "The math standards are too touchy-feely," argues E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, who advocates "core knowledge" standards. Critics contend that instructors who follow the standards, which discourage rote learning, have failed to inculcate basic arithmetic skills. Indeed, the real-world approach proved so contentious in California, whose students have performed poorly in math, that state officials recently reversed a four-year-old stance against repetitive math instruction. In science, meanwhile, some critics fear that in a misguided attempt to simplify, some teachers may too freely jettison topics.

But the standards' defenders say revamping the curriculum doesn't mean dumbing it down. In the math standards, "computational skills are as important as they ever were," says NCTM President Gail Burrill. As for science, the standards sensibly suggest, for example, that less time be spent in high school biology on taxonomy, or the classification of species, to allow more study of genetics, biochemistry, and other topics.

NOT IN LOCKSTEP. Despite their flaws, the standards hold promise of introducing coherence without rigidity. Most countries in the TIMSS study have curriculum guidelines set by the central government, yet instruction is not in lockstep from school to school, argues Harold W. Stevenson, an educational psychologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who has studied classroom instruction in the U.S., Japan, and China. "National standards say a child should understand, say, the relationship between a circle and a cylinder," says Stevenson. "But they don't say how and when to explain that."

Good science teaching has to start in elementary school, with hands-on experiments that can grab kids' attention and help explain the world around them. In the Dallas Independent School District, fourth graders study weather by looking at satellite pictures, taking measurements, and watching how storms progress using a program developed by IBM Corp. At Chatsworth Avenue School in Larchmont, N.Y., sixth graders studying electricity construct and test circuits in groups of three or four, while fifth graders plant and observe "fast seeds" that germinate quickly.

American schools will never adopt a national curriculum under duress. But peer pressure might accomplish much the same thing. A new information clearinghouse, Achieve, established under the auspices of the National Governors Assn., will permit state officials to measure academic performance in all subjects against other states. By spotlighting what works and what doesn't, Achieve should "drive the quality of the standards up," says Stanley S. Litow, IBM vice-president for corporate community relations. If that happens, when international researchers revisit classrooms in the U.S. in a few years, they may find a much improved picture.

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