Message from the Forum Chair
As you undoubtedly have heard by now, yet another study has provided
documentation that students in secondary schools in the United States
compare poorly with those in other countries. Last February, the last
results of the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study
(TIMSS) were released. They reported the
results of tests in mathematics, general science, advanced mathematics,
and physics taken by students in their last year of school. U.S. students,
whether typical or top-level, ranked at or near the bottom in both
science and math. One of the few bright spots was that the gender gap
in U.S. 12th grade science was among the smallest of participating
Although the scores of U.S. students on tests have improved since
1990, those of students in other countries have increased faster. Moreover,
a smaller fraction of U.S. students now enroll in the last year of
secondary school (75% versus 82% in the other countries involved in
TIMMSS) and our student body is no more diverse, nor is its achievement
more widely spread than those in other countries. Although our top
students are closer to the international average, they are still below.
Studies of the test results have identified no clear cause of the
poor performance of U.S. students. Our students watch no more television
than those in other countries. While they work at after school jobs
more than others, working hours are not correlated with poor performance.
Our students do more homework and have a more positive attitude toward
mathematics, physics, and chemistry than do those in other countries.
Physics students report having more hours of instruction, more lab
experiments, reasoning tasks, and a greater use of computers and calculators
in class work. While reports of thefts of personal properties and threats
to individuals show that the school environment is less than ideal,
a poor environment is not correlated with poor performance.
There are certainly additional cultural factors. Many students don't
believe that math and science is important to them; only 49% of college-bound
high school seniors have taken four years of science. For many students
there is less pressure to do well in school than to earn money or achieve
in athletics. Others believe that there is no need to become serious
students until they reach college. Such factors are obviously very
hard to change.
According to a summary by Leland Cogan, at the TIMMSS research center
at Michigan State, "magic bullets" to solve the problem,
such as more homework, more emphasis on basics, greater instructional
time, and earlier exposure to algebra are not supported by the study.
Neither is a more centralized curriculum or decision making. He and
Secretary of Education Richard Riley point out that U.S. curricula
are have less rigor and depth and less focus on building understanding
of major concepts. Mathematics and science instruction in the middle
grades is highly repetitive and progresses little in terms of the demands
it places on students. It continues to emphasize arithmetic while students
in other countries have been introduced to more challenging concepts.
What can physicists in academic, governmental, and business environments
do? The first is to become aware of the Study. Visit the web sites
those listed in Sam Bowen's article) and
read the summaries. Download or purchase the resource kit. Recognize
that because decisions about curriculum and teaching are made at the
local level, arguments made about the serious implications of this
study should be made to local principals, superintendents, and school
boards. Recognize that many primary and secondary science teachers
have inadequate preparation for their important tasks. Work with local
districts to expose students to the way math and science is used in
the world; provide opportunities for high school teachers to deepen
and update their knowledge, work with the APS program to . Finally,
spread the word. If you are involved with a program that makes a difference,
e-mail one of the Forum officers or newsletter editors so that your
program can be featured in a future newsletter.