An international comparison of math and science education finds that curriculum in the United States is “a mile wide and an inch deep,” according to a study released Tuesday by the Department of Education and the International Institute on Education.
“No one is at the helm,” said William Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University and an author of the study. “There is no focus.”
The study says, for example, that math students in Japan and Germany are exposed to algebra and geometry earlier than American students, and cover both subjects more intensively, with the big differences showing up by eighth grade. Science students in the United States do not receive the early, more intensive exposure to biology or physics that their international counterparts get.
Schmidt and federal education officials said their aim was not to urge a national curriculum, though organizations of math and science teachers used the new study to renew a call for states to adopt curriculum guidelines that they have already prepared.
The aim of the study, according to its summary, is to help provide information for policy changes.
The study, called “A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education,” is the first part of a larger international study. It does not cover student achievement or country-by-country rankings; that data is to be released next month.
Previous international rankings have put Germany and Japan ahead of the United States in math and science, though the same studies suggest that Americans’ broad access to high school education may be part of the reason. The gaps close when only the top students of each country are compared.
The reason for the American fragmentation, Schmidt said, has to do with the structure of public education, split among local, state and federal authorities. Other countries have national standards.
The study, which began five years ago, focuses on fourth, eighth and 12th graders. Researchers surveyed 6,000 textbooks and curriculums in more than 45 countries. Fourth-grade curriculum is similar around the world, but gaps appear beginning in eighth grade, the study said.
Textbooks augment the superficial scope of American high school courses, Schmidt said.
Because curriculum varies from state to state, some publishers overload their math textbooks with shallow analysis on many different topics, so they can appeal to as many school systems as possible. Textbooks in other countries are thinner and more focused.
But the study found that at the eighth-grade level, science and some math books were more focused than the international average.
The study also found that American teachers spend more time in front of the class than their Japanese or German colleagues and have less preparation time. For instance, American teachers teach about 30 classroom sessions a week, compared with 20 by their German colleagues and fewer than 20 by the Japanese.
With so little time to prepare, in the end, teachers follow the scattered arrangement outlined in the textbooks.