Public Release: 

Lacking a Clear Focus, U.S. Science and Mathematics Courses Cover Many Subjects But Provide Little Depth

National Science Foundation

Compared to their counterparts abroad, U.S. science and mathematics teachers are expected to cover a dizzying variety of subjects every school year, and, as result, students seldom get to explore key topics in any depth, according to a groundbreaking, international curriculum study funded by the National Science Foundation.

U.S. science and math teaching "is a mile wide and an inch deep," when compared to our international competitors, notes NSF's Larry Suter, who oversaw the research summarized in A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education.

A Splintered Vision was prepared by a team of researchers led by William Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University. The U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) also supported the study.

"The TIMSS results confirm that educators in other countries demand a greater depth of education for elementary and middle-school students than do their counterparts in the United States," said Luther S. Williams, who heads NSF's education and human resources directorate. "They simply demand more of every single student."

Williams adds that the research validates NSF's support for curriculum development, teacher professional development, and "systemic" reform of entire state and urban school systems -- all of which emphasize providing every student with inquiry oriented science and math education. He noted, however, that most of the data for the study were collected prior to the adoption of national standards for science education, which NSF helped to fund, and that there are indications that the standards are providing a rallying point for reform.

The NSF-funded research represents the first scientific examination of the differences between how 8th-grade math and science are taught in classrooms and presented in textbooks in the U.S., compared with other countries. The release of the U.S. curriculum study is part of Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a much larger international comparison of science and math teaching and student achievement in 45 countries.

International student achievement data collected by TIMSS will be released in November.

Schmidt said his research shows that the structure of the U.S. educational system makes it more difficult to agree on a limited set of science and math topics to teach here than it is abroad. "No single, coherent vision of how to educate today's children dominates U.S. educational practice", according to A Splintered Vision.

Some of the key findings in A Splintered Vision include:

  • U.S. teachers teach more often each week than do their counterparts in Japan or Germany, leaving them less time than their foreign counterparts to prepare their lessons. In the U.S., teachers teach about 30 classroom sessions every week. German teachers, by contrast, teach slightly more than 20 periods per week on average and their Japanese counterparts teach fewer than 20 each week.

  • U.S. schools retain the same topics in the curriculum much longer than schools abroad, suggesting that U.S. elementary and secondary schools may repeat the same math and science subjects grade after grade.

  • Only a few U.S. 8th grade courses, those specifically classified as algebra, actually teach a significant number of algebraic concepts. Many other nations teach these concepts to every student.

  • U.S. textbooks make minimal demands on students to learn and represent a limited notion of what should be discussed as "basic topics."


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