Clues to Why US Students Still Lag In Math, Science

The most comprehensive report on how students worldwide rank in math and science is providing American educators with a new Rosetta stone for why the United States lags behind many other countries.

One of the key conclusions of the survey, which shows that US eighth-graders perform above average in science and below average in math, is the need for better training of American teachers.

"It really comes down to what goes on between teachers and kids," says Marshall Smith, deputy secretary of education. "We don't really teach, we demonstrate how to solve a problem, whereas in the other countries they teach. That is really a devastating critique but it ... focuses our attention like a laser on what we need to change."

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, released yesterday by the US Education Department, tested the math and science knowledge of more than 500,000 eighth-graders from 41 different countries. The report examined not only the test scores of students, but also analyzed textbooks and curricula, and videotaped math classrooms. The global comparison suggests US students have improved in science from a 1991 survey that placed them below average, though the tests and countries have changed. US math performance has also moved up, but it remains below average.

Some of the findings debunk myths of why other countries, notably Japan and Germany, are ahead of the US. (Japan is near the top for both science and math, though Germany's scores are similar to the US.)

For example:

*US eighth-graders spend more hours per year in math and science than German and Japanese students.

*US teachers have more college education than their colleagues in all but a few countries.

*US teachers assign more homework and spend more class time discussing it than teachers in Germany and Japan.

*Heavy TV watching is as common among Japanese eighth-graders as it is in among the same group in this country.

*Class sizes are larger in Japan, Germany, and most countries than they are in the US.

In science, US eighth-graders' standing is stronger in earth science, life science, and environmental issues than in chemistry and physics. But while some experts say the above average US rankings in science are good news, they also emphasize that there is no reason to celebrate.

The report could be seen as a "horse race of who finished first, which can quickly oversimplify everything that is important," says Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "The big message is that we as a nation don't have a coherent shared vision of science education."

Part of the problem, experts say, is that although US teachers may get more college preparation in math and science, they receive almost no further professional development in those subjects once they enter the classroom.

Some school districts have been successful at improving student performance in math and science. Nine years ago the Orange County, Fla., district made a specific effort to boost math education in its elementary schools, which began to pay off in the last several years.

The district created a curriculum based on standards that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics devised. It also developed a teacher-training program. "Teachers come out of college with a real good feel for what they ought to be doing in reading, says Linda Levine, program specialist for elementary math in Orange County, "but I don't think they come out with that real good feeling about math, and they're almost afraid of it.... As teachers begin to think about their math instruction, math becomes a part of almost everything they do."

Test scores reflect the change. Fourth-grade achievement tests, once below the national median, now exceed the norm.

One of the aims of the Department of Education's Goals 2000 effort is that American students be the best in the world in math and science. A panel this week found pupils are improving in math in Grades 4 and 8, but it the country has a long way to go.

A series of regional and state workshops is planned on the results of the study. The department also says it will work with communities, the National Science Foundation, and teachers to share what works.

"We need to begin to focus back again on training the teachers to teach a little better and getting content in curricula materials that is more focused," says Mr. Smith. "It starts with very clear standards about what you want kids to learn."

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