FEd August 1998 Newsletter - Chair Message

August 1998



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Message from the Forum Chair

Paul Zitzewitz

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 countries.

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 (http://www.nces.ed.gov/timss and 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.