Chapter 1:

Elementary and Secondary Education


The central question motivating this chapter is whether the K-12 education system in the United States is doing a good job of providing students with a solid foundation in mathematics and science in order to prepare them for work or continuing study, or simply to be literate members of society.

The answer depends on the perspective taken. From the perspective of curriculum, national and cross-national studies give somewhat different answers. National trend studies suggest that U.S. schools are doing a better job of addressing long-standing inequities in the mathematics and science preparation provided to students in different demographic groups. Compared with the late 1970s and early 1980s, higher proportions of male and female students now complete the core college preparatory courses in mathematics and science, and more black and Hispanic students do so as well. On the other hand, as recently as 1994, a significantly larger fraction of white than black and Hispanic students completed advanced courses in mathematics and science, and more male than female students completed physics. Therefore, there are still substantial inequities to be overcome.

International comparisons suggest that U.S. curricula are lacking in depth and focus. The content of the science curriculum is within the international norms for grades 4, 8, and 12. But relative to science curriculum documents and textbooks in other countries, U.S. schools provide too much repetition, too many topics to be learned, and too little coverage of core science topics.

These limitations are even more characteristic of the mathematics curriculum. There are indications as well that at least the eighth grade mathematics curriculum is pitched at a lower level than in other countries. U.S. curriculum guides and textbooks emphasize topics related to whole numbers and fractions while in most other countries, students are studying more topics in geometry and algebra. Cross-national observations of what takes place in eighth grade mathematics classrooms confirm these findings. Lesson goals and the activities provided to support those goals reflect quite limited cognitive expectations. More often than not, the goal is for students to learn specific skills rather than develop a deep understanding of mathematics.

From the perspective of achievement, national and cross-national studies again point to somewhat different conclusions. Following declines in the 1970s, the performance of U.S. students improved in basic skill areas. Nine- and 13-year-olds are scoring higher on mathematics and science assessments than they did in 1973, while 17-year-olds' performance in 1996 was about the same as in 1973. Although progress has not been substantial in the 1990s, U.S. students have lost no ground. Achievement also improved from 1990 to 1996 in mathematics assessments geared to national mathematics standards. And analyses of the performance of girls and boys in the 1990s show few meaningful differences.

But students of different demographic backgrounds are not achieving at the same levels. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and white students outperformed black, Hispanic, and Native American students-even when comparisons correct for the disparities in the courses students have taken. Standards-referenced science assessments introduced in 1996 are too different from earlier tests to permit comparisons with earlier years. But the same pattern of ethnic differences was observed in science as in mathematics.

Findings from the most recent international studies of achievement are mixed, depending on subject matter and grade. Better performance was demonstrated by U.S. fourth grade than eighth grade students when compared with other countries. They scored above the international average in mathematics and well above the international average in science. Eighth grade students performed above the international average in science but well below the international average in mathematics. Because of differences in the ways earlier international comparisons were conducted, it is difficult to tell if U.S. students are performing comparatively better or worse than they did in previous years. Although the relative standing of U.S. fourth grade students in science has gone up compared with earlier studies, it cannot be said definitively that this represents a real change in standing.

Returning to the original question: what do these findings suggest about the progress and quality of U.S. education? First, they show that the mathematics and science education of students is improving somewhat in terms of equity and excellence-the dual goal of educational reforms. Second, there is much room for improvement, and we are still far from reaching our national goal of being first in the world in mathematics and science. Third, students are not yet performing at the levels of expectation recommended by the mathematics and science standards. Fourth, the curricula could better define and focus on core content in mathematics and science as recommended by the standards. And fifth, teachers could better help students develop a genuine understanding of mathematics and science by engaging them in active tasks that challenge their intellectual capabilities. On the whole, although progress has been made, our schools and school districts will have to do much more if students are to be well-prepared for a future that demands that we, as a nation, have a citizenry solidly grounded in mathematics and science.

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