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U.S. Math and Science Curricula Too Broad

February 1997

American students and teachers are expected to cover more topics in math and science than are their peers in other countries. Consequently, they don't cover them in depth, according to an international curriculum study funded by NSF.

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

For example, eighth graders in the United States were expected to study 33 topics in math in a school year. Their counterparts in Japan cover only 19 in the same period. Furthermore, U.S. teachers are given less time to prepare their lessons than are their foreign counterparts.

The study, led by William H. Schmidt of Michigan State University, could help explain why schoolchildren in some of the 45 other countries studied often outperform U.S. students in math and science.

Schmidt and his colleagues also found that throughout the 15,000 school districts of the United States, teachers used widely differing approaches to teaching. "No single, coherent vision of how to educate today's children dominates U.S. educational practice," he writes in A Splintered Vision. In addition to differences in teaching techniques, schools vary the topics they cover and the sequence in which those topics are taught.

"It is wishful optimism to expect our students to do well in science and especially mathematics compared to students in other countries in light of our fragmented curriculum," he concludes.

The study indicates that high-achieving nations employ inquiry-based "hands-on learning," says NSF Director Neal Lane. The concepts and philosophies of hands-on learning are imbedded in math and science education programs supported by NSF.

In addition, notes Lane, the study re-emphasizes the importance of science and math education. "This study addresses the most important investment any nation can make: the preparation of future generations for a fast-changing world. A strong foundation in science and mathematics is not a luxury; it is a necessity ... America needs a scientifically and technologically literate workforce in order to compete in the global marketplace; and all American students need a sound education in science and mathematics in order to compete in an increasingly demanding workplace."

A copy of this report is available on the World Wide Web: http://ustimss.msu.edu


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