US schools: trailing the Russians in math and science

American high schools report declines in the percent of students enrolling in advanced mathematics courses. It is sad but not surprising that the current situation has been accompanied by declining SAT scores and, according to the latest National Assessment of educational Progress (NAEP), low performance in problem solving.

At the same time most colleges advise that students can't take enough mathematics and science in high school. Employers echo this position and encourage prospective workers to take as many mathematics and science courses as possible. Increased technological demands place even greater pressures on these academic areas. These conditions should produce a fleet of students enrolled in mathematics and science courses at all levels, but they have not.

America's inadequate attention to mathematics in elementary and secondary schools became alarmingly clear at the recent international conference on mathematics education in San'a, southern Yemen, sponsored by the Arab League of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations, a conference at which I was the United States representative.

At that conference, with representatives from Arab countries, France, and the Soviet Union, US mathematics and science programs stood in stark contrast to those of the USSR.

Galina Maslova, who works to implement the mathematics curriculum in the USSR , provided a profile of her country's centrally controlled mathematics and science education.

Ninety percent of the current generation of secondary school graduates in the USSR will be highly literate in mathematics and science. In the US less than 20 percent will have similar backgrounds.

Soviet children enter school at seven years of age, and more than 90 percent complete the 10 years of education, attending classes six days a week for 35 weeks a year. In the US students begin school at age five, and nearly 90 percent complete high school.

For a Soviet child, mathematics begins in the first grade with at least 45 minutes devoted to daily study of mathematics in all 10 grades. In the US, where curriculums vary from district to district, the picture is less clear. However, recent surveys of elementary schools reveal that approximately 20- 45 minutes per day is devoted to mathematics. In junior high school (grades 7-8) mathematics is studied daily.

In Soviet secondary schools all students study algebra; in the US 72 percent. All Soviet secondary students study geometry, trigonometry, and precalculus/calculus; in the US comparable figures, for 17-year-olds are 51 percent, 13 percent, and 4 percent, according to the NAEP.

Dr. Maslova reported that formal study of algebra begins in sixth grade and continues through eight grade. Geometry begins in fourth grade with further study spread across grades 6 through 10. More advanced topics in algebra and trigonometry are integrated into the study of analysis, including analytic geometry and differential calculus in grades 9 and 10.

Science study, too, begins early in the USSR -- in the second grade. Emphasis on biology begins in the fifth grade, physics in the sixth, and chemistry in the seventh. From grades 7 through 10, students devote at least six 45-minute periods a week to biology, chemistry and physics, with increasingly heavy emphasis on physics and chemistry. A student in the next to the last year of secondary school studies algebra, geometry, and analysis for five 45-minute periods a week along with eight 45-minute periods devoted to physics, chemistry, and biology.

Similar statistics on science backgrounds are not available from the NAEP, but other reports suggest American students fall far behind their Soviet counterparts. This current lack of attention to mathematics and science in the schools is further documented in "Science and Engineering Education for the 1980 s and Beyond" prepared by a special presidential task force on the status of these programs.

The increased depth and breadth of mathematics and science literacy which Dr. Maslova pointed out will greatly increase the technological level of the Soviet Union's work force. If it is true that mathematics and science are important for our society -- also a technological one -- then drastic changes are needed quickly. To this end the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommends that at least three years of mathematics be required in high school.

It is ironic that in the last few months one of the strongest proponents for improving mathematics and science programs in the US, the National Science Foundation, is fighting for its very existence. Current recommendations call for a 50- 60 percent reduction in 1982 with no new support for science education.

The launching of Sputnik in 1957 created an increased national awareness in the US for strong mathematics and science programs. Our many space firsts have dulled our senses and convinced many that the race is won. One only needs to look at the attention given to current defense buildups to realize that much hard work lies ahead. In the long run, victories will be won in the classrooms and later in research laboratories.

At this state it is clear that mathematics and science programs in the US do not receive the attention they are given in the USSR. If changes do not occur soon, we may suffer the consequences for generations.

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