U.S. Science Education: Where's the Beef?

Elementary and secondary schools are sacrificing in-depth understanding of science by trying to cover too much ground, concludes a report released today by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Being taught from a syllabus that's "a mile wide and an inch deep," the report states, could be one reason why U.S. students do relatively poorly on international achievement tests.

TIMSS is a 5-year international project to compare curricula and achievement in 50 countries. The new report, "A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education," compares the U.S. results to those of the rest of the world. Three other reports released by TIMSS today examine the international teaching of science as well as mathematics and offer in-depth case studies from six countries. The first student achievement results and reports on curricula in many other countries will be released in November.

The reports reveal marked differences in the way math and science are taught around the world, says William Schmidt, a statistician at Michigan State University and U.S. coordinator for the study. The U.S. curriculum attempts to cover many more topics in a single year than the international average. Teachers respond by attempting to teach a topic a week, says education professor Marcia Linn of the University of California, Berkeley, an adviser to the TIMSS study, but that approach "denies students the opportunity to find out what it is like to have a deep understanding of any subject."

Schmidt says the report calls for making tough choices on what to omit. "We leave the debate over how to do that to the public and to Congress," he says. "But there are no magic bullets."