Chapter 5:

Elementary and Secondary Education


This chapter presented indicators of changes in U.S. elementary and secondary schools in student achievement, curriculum, instructional practices, and the teaching profession. Observations made about U.S. mathematics and science education in 1947 noted that textbooks were thick and included unnecessary information and that teachers did not have sufficient training in mathematics. Significant efforts have been made to reform elementary and secondary schools since 1947 such as those stimulated by Sputnik in 1957, the National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983, and the National Education Goals that grew out of the Governor's summit of 1990. The national policy goals and educational standards for mathematics and science education set new and higher expectations for U.S. schools, students, and teachers. In the 1990s, NSF carried out a program of systemic reform to seek improved methods of education. The indicators in this chapter were chosen to measure how close the Nation has come to meeting those expectations.

A higher proportion of students graduate from high school having taken advanced courses in mathematics and science than did their counterparts three decades ago. As measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, student achievement in mathematics and science has increased since the mid-1970s, but little change has occurred since 1990. The achievement of students in most demographic groups has improved significantly since the late 1970s. Much of that improvement, however, has been in lower skill areas. There have been small increments in the proportion of students achieving at higher levels of performance, but not nearly enough to conclude that National Education Goal 3 has been well met. Many students leave elementary and middle school without strong foundations in mathematics and science. This is a particular concern when regarding black and Hispanic students who continue to perform far below their white counterparts.

The performance of females compared with males on tests of mathematics and science has changed somewhat during the past two decades. At elementary school, few significant differences in performance levels for either mathematics or science were observed in 1996, the last year NAEP was available. At middle school, no differences are detectable for mathematics, but some difference between genders exists in science. At high school, the tendency of males to outperform females is still detectable in mathematics and clearly evident in science, although the differences have been narrowing since 1977.

Among the National Education Goals is the assertion that the mathematics and science achievement of U.S. students will be first in the world by the year 2000. Fourth grade students come close to meeting this expectation in both subjects, but grade 8 and grade 12 U.S. students perform below their peers in other countries according to results collected in 1995 for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

An explicit goal of educational standards for mathematics and science is that all students—without regard to gender, race, or income—participate fully in challenging coursework and achieve at high levels. The disparate performance among racial/ethnic groups is still observed in NAEP assessments. Asian/Pacific Islander and white students are better represented in advanced courses than are black and Hispanic students. Asian/Pacific Islander and white students continue to outperform black and Hispanic students. Students of color and less-affluent students still have less access to high-end technology and less access to teachers with the proper education and certification in the subjects they teach. Although differences among ethnic groups continue, there have been important improvements: black and Hispanic students are now taking more advanced courses in high school, their performance on mathematics and science achievement tests has improved substantially, and discrepancies among racial/ethnic groups have narrowed in some cases in the last two decades.

The role of education technology in U.S. schools has been changing rapidly. Hand-held calculators are commonly used in both U.S. homes and classrooms. About one-fourth of fourth grade teachers and three-fourths of eighth grade teachers report that they use calculators for solving complex problems. By 1998, nearly all schools reported that at least one computer was linked to the Internet and half of the classrooms had access to the Internet. Computers are less often used in mathematics classes than in other subjects. Teachers who had several computers in their classroom were the most likely to report that the Internet was of use to them for student research projects, but at the same time, only about 20 percent of teachers feel "very well prepared" to integrate technology into the subjects they teach.

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