Refocusing U.S. Math and Science Education

By Valverde, Gilbert A.; Schmidt, William H. | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Refocusing U.S. Math and Science Education


Valverde, Gilbert A., Schmidt, William H., Issues in Science and Technology


The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is the most ambitious cross-national educational research study ever conducted, comparing over half a million students' scores in mathematics and science across 5 continents and 41 countries. TIMSS is far more than the "academic Olympics" that so many international comparative assessments have been in the past. It included a multiyear research and development project that built on previous experience to develop measures of the processes of education. Classroom observations, teacher interviews, and many qualitative and quantitative information-gathering strategies played a part in this development effort. The result was a set of innovative surveys and analyses that attempted to account for the varying roles of different components of educational systems and to measure how children are given opportunities to learn mathematics and science.

The situation regarding what children learn in the United States is disheartening. We are not at all positioned to reach the high expectations set for our nation by the president and our state governors. We are not likely to be "first in the world" by the end of this century in either science or mathematics.

In the fourth grade, our schoolchildren performed quite well on the paper-and-pencil test in science; they were outperformed by only one country and were above the international average in mathematics. Yet the eighth-grade U.S. students fell substantially behind their international peers. These students performed below the international average in mathematics and just above the average in the written science achievement tests.

The better performance of U.S. fourth-graders than eighth-graders is not cause for celebration. It suggests that our children do not start out behind those of other nations in mathematics and science achievement, but somewhere in the middle grades they fall behind. These results point out that U.S. education the middle grades is particularly troubled; the promise of our fourth-grade children (particularly in science) is dashed against the undemanding curriculum of the nation's middle schools.

TIMSS points to aspects of our school systems that bear close reexamination. In the past, many critics have attempted to place the blame for U.S. schoolchildren's poor performance on cross-national achievement tests on a variety of factors external to schooling. However, early analyses of TIMSS data suggest that schooling itself is largely responsible.

What you teach is what you get

How did this come to pass? What features of the processes of schooling appear to be related to the overall mediocre performance of U.S. schoolchildren, and how are these processes related to the deterioration of achievement levels in the years between grades 4 and 8?

Findings from this study are still being released, and TIMSS researchers the world over continue to work on reporting and analysis. Thus, much of what has currently been published merely scratches the surface of the vast interrelated information sources available in TIMSS. Yet preliminary results have been remarkably consistent in the message they send about the role of U.S. curriculum and instruction in fostering mediocre achievement.

"Curriculum" is a word with many commonly accepted meanings. In this article, we understand curriculum to be made up of at least three interrelated levels. The "intended curriculum" is what our schools, school districts, states, and national organizations have set as goals for instruction in each of our school systems. This aspect of the curriculum is examined in TIMSS through its study of textbooks, curriculum guides and programs of study, and surveys of educational authorities. The "implemented curriculum" is the pursuit of goals in the classroom -- the array of activities through which students and teachers engage in the process of learning. In TIMSS, this aspect of the curriculum is studied through videotapes and surveys of teachers' instructional practices, beliefs about education and the subjects they teach, and other features of the opportunities they give students to learn mathematics and science.

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