|CORRECTING THE CURRICULUM
What should be done to improve our students' education?
March 24, 1998
in this forum:
Why are students going downhill as they enter high school? What are the pros and cons of a national curriculum? What can or what should we do to make education more relevant to our students? How important are math and science scores? Wouldn't reducing class size and teacher workloads improve the situation? Is it a question of not holding students to high enough standards or a lack of parental involvement? Are there better teaching techniques, such as Montessori? Marian Blair of Olean, NY asks: Why is it so important for our students to score higher than foreign students on International Math and Science tests? The U.S. is a leader in math and science technology? What else do we need?
Gerry Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, responds:
Science and math have long been considered key subject areas in the curriculum. So, in seeking to provide the best education for our students, it is natural to look at how other countries teach science and math.
At the same time, given so many variables among the education systems of countries, it has been very difficult, if not impossible until now, to make valid cross-country comparisons.
Through international studies we are able to learn from other countries. TIMSS has shown us, for example, that compared with their colleagues in Germany and Japan, U.S. teachers teach far more class periods, have less time for planning lessons, and fewer opportunities to work closely with other teachers and mentors. U.S. teachers also feel isolated from their teaching colleagues. In Japan, however, teachers have desks arranged in one large room similar to a newsroom so that they can interact and share ideas.
U.S. teachers also face mixed signals about what to teach, how to teach it, and what else they must do in addition to teaching. The bureaucratic obstacles they encounter can be daunting. Furthermore, many teachers have few opportunities to update their knowledge and skills through continuous professional development---something taken for granted in other professions.
Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center of Education and Economy, responds:The United States is a leader in technology. But it is also true that our science, math and enginering programs in our graduate schools are filling up with foreign nationals because our students cannot do the work, that our high technology firms are shipping not only manufacturing operations offshore but research and development operations as well, because they cannot find enough qualified people in this country to do the work. Our most presitigious law firms with intellectual property practices are beginning to hire students who come from night law schools - which would have been unthinkable for decades - because they cannot find candidates from leading universities who have both the legal and engineering training that they need. In short, an enormous bottleneck is developing in this country with respect to the supply of people with the kind of scientific, mathematical and engineering backgrounds needed, which can be traced directly to the low quality of math and science teaching in our schools. Sooner or later, the results of this bottleneck will show up in the economy. Unfortunately, if we wait until it does show up, it will be too late, because it takes many years to make the changes in our education system and actually educate the students before the result is seen in more capable people entering the work force.
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, responds:
While the U.S. may be a technological powerhouse, most of the students coming out of the educational pipeline are not. National Science Foundation data has found one-fourth to one-third of the doctoral students enrolled in engineering in the U.S. over the last 10 years have been foreigners. What international statistics do is demonstrate that which is possible and what we should know about how our students compare, particularly as more foreign involvement occurs in American companies and businesses begin to set up their offices elsewhere to take advantage of a more educated labor pool. Going forward into the 21st century, the American economy will continue to move more and more away from blue-collar manufacturing jobs and toward the technical sector.
Furthermore, U.S. students' weak showing against their international peers in math and science is symptomatic of more pervasive weakness in our educational system, characterized by low expectations and a water-downed curriculum. American students' academic shortfalls begin with the most basic literacy skills, reading and writing, that can't help but dictate their weaknesses in not only science and math, but history, geography and other areas that should make up the core knowledge preparing them for college and for life.
One last note -- local schools by school comparisons, and district by district, and then state by state, would be very effective and very helpful in informing parents about what most don't know -- that is, how much their children actually know and can do. But that requires real academic standards and practices in schools that work to meet those standards, and such accountability is something that is in serious jeopardy right now.