Education: Math and Aftermath

By Peterson, Ivars | Science News, January 31, 1987 | Go to article overview

Education: Math and Aftermath


Peterson, Ivars, Science News


Education: Math and aftermath

When asked, schoolchildren in theUnited States seem quite happy with how well they do in mathematics classes, according to a recent study. The majority say they find the subject easy. Moreover, U.S. parents are generally satisfied with their children's performance in mathematics, and mathematics teachers, at least at the eighth- and twelfth-grade levels, report finding their classes easy to teach and most students attentive.

But measurements of mathematicalachievement among U.S. students reveal a much bleaker picture, especially when compared with that of students in other countries. A slew of studies now suggests that precollege mathematics students in the United States lag far behind their contemporaries in countries such as Japan, China and the Soviet Union.

Consequently, attention in the UnitedStates is starting to focus on why students attain such different levels of achievement and on what can be learned from the way mathematics is taught in other countries. As one step in this learning process, the Mathematical Sciences Education Board, a new branch of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., earlier this month sponsored a symposium highlighting the policy implications of international comparisons of mathematics education.

To set the stage, Kenneth J. Travers ofthe University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign described results from the Second International Mathematics Study. According to that study, U.S. students in eighth-grade mathematics classes, when compared with students in some 20 other countries, rank near or below average on a special international test covering arithmetic, algebra, geometry, statistics and measurement. On the same test, seventh-grade Japanese students score highest on all five topics. Moreover, U.S. scores have declined slightly since the first international study 20 years earlier. The picture is even more dismal for U.S. students in advanced mathematics classes at the twelfth-grade level.

These data and much more appear in"The Underachieving Curriculum," a newly released report summarizing the U.S. component of the international study. "In school mathematics," the report says, "the United States is an underachieving nation." The study's results affirm the concerns of many that "mathematics education in the United States is in need of renewal."

Harold W. Stevenson and Shin-ying Leeof the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and James W. Stigler of the University of Chicago studied mathematcis classrooms in Japan, Taiwan and Beijing to find out why first- and fifth-grade children in those classes do considerably better than U.S. schoolchildren. Because the differences appear as early as kindergarten, the researchers looked closely at cultural differences that may be related to academic achievement.

One key difference they found is therelative importance that both children and their mothers attribute to ability and effort in accounting for higher achievement. U.S. mothers and children place greater emphasis on ability, whereas Chinese and Japanese mothers and children place it on effort. …

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