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New Study Blames Curriculum For Poor U.S. Math Performance

January 11, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ American mathematics pupils badly trail those in Japan and Hong Kong largely because of unchallenging and pointlessly repetitious school curricula, concludes a study of schools in 20 nations and territories.

″In school mathematics the United States is an underachieving nation and our curriculum is helping to create a nation of underachievers,″ said the study released Sunday, ″The Underachieving Curriculum: Assessing U.S. School Mathematics from an International Perspective.″

The report is to be a main topic at an international math symposium at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington on Jan. 15-16.

It follows by a week another study released by U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett extolling Japanese elementary and secondary schools. He suggested Americans borrow some ideas from Japan, especially the view that ″progress can be made by practically anyone who tries hard enough.″

The latest study places blame for the nation’s math woes squarely on the curriculum in U.S schools which, it contends, ″lacks focus, challenge and vitality,″ and needlessly repeats concepts year after year without building on them.

But it disputes oft-repeated claims that American students are out- performed by other nations’ students because of lack of sufficient time for instruction, large average class size, or because of poorly trained teachers.

In Japan, the average eighth-grade class has 40 pupils, and in 12th grade the average is 43. Both exceed U.S. averages of 26 students in eighth grade and 20 in 12th grade.

And the average amount of time devoted to math in U.S. schools was 144 hours per year, compared to 101 hours for Japanese youngsters, according to the study.

The report also questions the common practice of tracking students, or grouping them according to their mathematics ability, early in their school careers.

″The U.S. curriculum from an international point of view lacks challenge and focus. The curriculum typically keeps revisiting concepts, but the trouble is, with each revisit, we’re not adding anything new,″ said Kenneth J. Travers, a University of Illinois mathematics education professor who was one of seven co-authors of the report.

The problem, Travers said in a telephone interview, is that the typical eighth grade math curriculum in U.S. schools resembles a repeat of the elementary curriculum, whereas in other countries students move along briskly to new concepts.

″In the eighth grade we just do sorting and tracking. Significant portions of kids are kept in grade school arithmetic. That’s not found to nearly that extent in other countries, and the Japanese don’t track students at all,″ Travers said.

The report also recommended renewed scrutiny of math textbook quality, increased status and rewards for math teachers, and improved professional development programs for teachers.

The study draws heavily from the widely publicized ″Second International Mathematics Study″ released in 1984 showing U.S. eighth- and 12th-graders ranking no better than average, and often worse, in a variety of mathematical subjects compared with 19 other nations and territories.

That study of 12,000 pupils found, for example, that Japanese eighth- graders had the best achievement scores in all five topics covered: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, statistics and measurements.

The best showing by U.S. eighth-graders was in arithmetic, where they ranked 10th among the 18 countries studied. But they ranked 12th in algebra, and 16th in geometry.

Among 12th-graders in college preparatory high school programs, Hong Kong students ranked first among 15 nations studied in each of six mathematical areas evaluated, with Japan a close second.

But American 12th-graders were second from the bottom in advanced algebra, besting only Thailand students. And they ranked 12th out of 15 nations in calculus and geometry.

The countries and territories studied besides the United States were Belgium (both Flemish- and French-speaking), British Columbia, England-Wales, Finland, France, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Ontario, Scotland, Swaziland, Sweden, and Thailand.

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