Solid Curriculum And Strong Teaching Outweigh Negatives In Math And Science Learning

June 11, 1997

U.S. fourth-graders' performance on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) proves that students can overcome factors that traditionally are blamed for poor learning, if challenged by a solid curriculum based on national education standards coupled with competent teaching, according to officials of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"The fourth-grade scores, released today in Boston and Washington, D.C., confirm NSF's policy to require standards-based curriculums and thorough teacher professional development in all of its education programs," noted Joe Bordogna, NSF's acting deputy director, at a press conference in the nation's capital.

"The TIMSS results are proof of what is possible in a competent educational system," said Luther S. Williams, who heads NSF's education and human resources directorate. "As the TIMSS report notes, factors such as the amount of television watching, class size, and time spent in school cannot explain student performance. What really matters is the quality of the day-to-day interaction between teachers and students around a coherent curriculum.''

The TIMSS fourth-grade results indicate that in science, U.S. students outperformed most participating nations in the study. In math, U.S. fourth-graders made a stronger international showing than U.S. eighth-graders, but were not yet among the best in the world.

Even so, Williams notes that the performance of fourth-graders has improved markedly on international comparisons between 1990 and 1995, a period which coincides with the application of standards-based curriculum and teaching methods in math supported by NSF. Even so, he added, too few school systems yet offer what NSF considers a competent math and science curriculum at any level.

Margaret Cozzens, who heads NSF's elementary, secondary, and informal education division, noted that U.S. students' showing in math can be traced directly to the influence of national standards for exemplary math teaching as well as NSF-developed instructional materials based on the standards.

Published in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the standards have slowly been incorporated into elementary school teaching, more so than at the middle-school level, and can be expected to have influenced student performance by the mid-1990's, when the latest TIMSS data were collected, she noted.

Williams also pointed out that the TIMSS also indicates that the sharp decline in US student performance between the fourth and eighth grades is probably a result of an unfocused curriculum. He noted that a report released last October as part of TIMSS showed that the U.S. eighth-grade math and science curriculum is vague and repetitive. The U.S. fourth-grade curriculum more closely resembles those in high-scoring TIMSS countries.

He added that the U.S. fourth-grade curriculum contains many more of the topics studied by a majority of children around the world than does its eighth-grade curriculum. He also notes that the basics-oriented arithmetic curriculum that U.S. students study in fourth grade still is found in schools in the eighth grade. Many foreign countries consider algebra and geometry "basic" in middle school.

National Science Foundation

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