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News Release 97-043

Solid Curriculum and Strong Teaching Outweigh Negatives in Math and Science Learning

June 10, 1997

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

U.S. fourth-graders' performance on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) proves that students can overcome factors that traditionally are blamed for poor learning, if challenged by a solid curriculum based on national education standards coupled with competent teaching, according to officials of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"The fourth-grade scores, released today in Boston and Washington, D.C., confirm NSF's policy to require standards-based curriculums and thorough teacher professional development in all of its education programs," noted Joe Bordogna, NSF's acting deputy director, at a press conference in the nation's capital.

"The TIMSS results are proof of what is possible in a competent educational system," said Luther S. Williams, who heads NSF's education and human resources directorate. "As the TIMSS report notes, factors such as the amount of television watching, class size, and time spent in school cannot explain student performance. What really matters is the quality of the day-to-day interaction between teachers and students around a coherent curriculum."

The TIMSS fourth-grade results indicate that in science, U.S. students outperformed most participating nations in the study. In math, U.S. fourth-graders made a stronger international showing than U.S. eighth-graders, but were not yet among the best in the world.

Even so, Williams notes that the performance of fourth-graders has improved markedly on international comparisons between 1990 and 1995, a period which coincides with the application of standards-based curriculum and teaching methods in math supported by NSF. Even so, he added, too few school systems yet offer what NSF considers a competent math and science curriculum at any level.

Margaret Cozzens, who heads NSF's elementary, secondary, and informal education division, noted that U.S. students' showing in math can be traced directly to the influence of national standards for exemplary math teaching as well as NSF-developed instructional materials based on the standards.

Published in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the standards have slowly been incorporated into elementary school teaching, more so than at the middle-school level, and can be expected to have influenced student performance by the mid-1990's, when the latest TIMSS data were collected, she noted.

Williams also pointed out that the TIMSS also indicates that the sharp decline in US student performance between the fourth and eighth grades is probably a result of an unfocused curriculum. He noted that a report released last October as part of TIMSS showed that the U.S. eighth-grade math and science curriculum is vague and repetitive. The U.S. fourth-grade curriculum more closely resembles those in high-scoring TIMSS countries.

He added that the U.S. fourth-grade curriculum contains many more of the topics studied by a majority of children around the world than does its eighth-grade curriculum. He also notes that the basics-oriented arithmetic curriculum that U.S. students study in fourth grade still is found in schools in the eighth grade. Many foreign countries consider algebra and geometry "basic" in middle school.


NSF-Funded Mathematics Curriculum Projects

University of Chicago School Mathematics Project (UCSMP)
Elementary math: Max Bell (312) 702-1563
Secondary math: Zalman Usiskin (312) 702-1560

Elementary School:

Cooperative Mathematics Project
Laurel Roberston
Developmental Studies Center
Oakland, Ca.
(510) 533-0213

Investigations in Number, Data and Space
Susan Jo Russell
Cambridge, Mass.
(617) 547-0430

TIMS: Teaching Integrated Math and Science
Phil Wagreich
University of Illinois, Chicago
(312) 413-3019

Middle School:

The Connected Mathematics Project
Kathy Burgis
Michigan State University
(517) 432-3635

Mathematics in Context: A Connected Curriculum for Grade 5-8
Thomas Romberg
University of Wisconsin
(608) 263-4285

Middle School Mathematics Through Applications Project
Shelley Goldman
The Institute for Research on Learning
Palo Alto, Ca.
(415) 497-7963

Seeing and Thinking Mathematically
Glen Kleinman
Education Development Center (EDC)
Newton, Mass.
(617) 969-7100

Six Through Eight Mathematics (STEM)
Rick Billstein
University of Montana
(406) 243-2603

High School:

Applications/Reform in Secondary Education (ARISE)
Landy Godbold
(404) 355-8673

Connected Geometry
E. Paul Goldenberg
Newton, Mass.
(617) 969-7100

Core-Plus Mathematics Project
Christian R. Hirsch
Western Michigan University
(616) 387-4526

Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP)
Diana Resek
San Francisco State University
(415) 338-2071

Math Connections: A Secondary Mathematics Core Curriculum Project
June G. Ellis
Connecticut Business and Industry Alliance
(203) 244-1942

Systemic Initiatives for Montana Mathematics and Science (SIMMS)
Glenn Allinger
Montana Council of Teachers of Mathematics
Billings, Mont.
(406) 994-5351

Media Contacts
Peter West, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

Program Contacts
Margaret Cozzens, NSF, (703) 292-8628, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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