Inconsistent math curricula hurting US students, study finds

May 2, 2011

A new study finds important differences in math curricula across U.S. states and school districts. The findings, published in the May issue of the American Journal of Education, suggest that many students across the country are placed at a disadvantage by less demanding curricula.

Researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Oklahoma used data from the 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which included 13 school districts and nine states in the U.S., as well as nearly 40 other nations.

"Overall, U.S. are exposed to a less difficult school mathematics curriculum that places them at a disadvantage when compared to the students in many other countries of the world," write the researchers, led by William Schmidt of Michigan State. "Even sadder, a student's mathematics learning opportunities related to content coverage are deeply affected by where the student lives and in which of the 13 local school districts or nine states he or she attends school."

For example, algebra and geometry are generally taught in eighth grade by international standards. But U.S. states and school districts that participated in the TIMSS varied widely in the number of eighth graders whose focus on those two subjects. In one district, 95 percent of eighth graders focus on algebra and geometry, but in another district, only 14 percent do. A broader look at the data shows the content differences between districts are as large as one grade level. In other words, topics covered in sixth grade in one district are not covered until seventh grade in others.

The study found the variation in curriculum was correlated with students' overall eighth grade , with students in the less demanding states and districts performing much worse than those in more demanding schools. This was true even after controlling for student background, including a measure of students' seventh grade achievement.

The less demanding curricula tended to be in districts that had large numbers of poor students. The mathematics taught in districts where over 70 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch was about one-half of a grade level behind that of districts in which virtually no students were eligible.

However, the variation in content covered was not just a problem for poor districts. Even after controlling for socio-economic status, significant variation remained, suggesting that the problem is partly "a function of the very structure of the U.S. education system," according to the researchers.

"If these results hold more generally, the U.S. is not a country of educational equality, providing equal learning opportunities to all students," said Leland Cogan, an author of the study. "This is true not only for poor, minority, or disadvantaged students; any student can be disadvantaged simply due to differences in the rigor of the mathematics taught in the district in which they happen to attend school."

Explore further: Low-income US children less likely to have access to qualified teachers

More information: William H. Schmidt, Leland S. Cogan, Richard T. Houang, and Curtis C. McKnight, "Content Coverage Differences across Districts/States: A Persisting Challenge for U.S. Education Policy." American Journal of Education 117:3 (May 2011).

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3.7 / 5 (3) May 02, 2011
very true...i actually went to school in michigan and in texas through grade school, and michigan was definitely way ahead mathematically (in fact, in most if not all subjects). now im in PA, with my 4 children whom also attended school in TX previously, and PA too is much more advanced. that says there are definitely states lacking...
5 / 5 (2) May 02, 2011
Lowering educational standards to increase pass rates in school only transfers the failure to later in life where it counts more. It's better to properly challenge our children earlier in life.
5 / 5 (1) May 02, 2011
While those in Texas like to brag about how their teachers are non-union and their schooling is above average, anecdotial evidence like that from LuckyBrandon shows this to not be true.

Unfortunately the less we compensate our teachers the fewer Strong teachers we will have in the education system.

When a company wants a very good employee, they tend to compensate more, which attracts the more educated, motivated individuals, that may be seeking jobs in other industries.

1.6 / 5 (5) May 02, 2011
Unfortunately the less we compensate our teachers the fewer Strong teachers we will have in the education system.

Blame unions and democrats.
A math teacher is the same as a PE teacher or history teacher or English teacher as far as the union is concerned.
If you have been paying attention, teachers in WI and many other states are very well compensated.
However, a person with a math degree can earn much more NOT teaching and using their degree.
1 / 5 (1) May 03, 2011
Inconsistent math curricula? You mean we have curricula that aren't inconsistent? Teaching is an art when it should be a science, it is nothing but inconsistent.
not rated yet May 03, 2011
As usual, these issues are more complex than simply blaming union/non-union or any political party. It's obvious that simply throwing money at the issue won't fix it. There is no magical bullet and no single thing to "fix". Our expectations at the professional, societal, familial and individual levels all need to increase if we are to drive results in the direction we want them to go. Individuals, whether student, teacher or administrator need to be allowed to succeed or fail, and reap the results of their choices. Usually our success or failure is heavily dependant on the choices we make and we should be free and accountable to reap what we sow, as it were.
1.4 / 5 (5) May 03, 2011
As usual, these issues are more complex than simply blaming union/non-union or any political party.

No, it is quite simple.
All you need do is examine those programs and methods that are effective and adopt them.
Why is that so difficult for the K-12 union dominated school systems?
And I agree, Steve, students in k-12 must be failed if they do not meet standards. Social promotions do not help students.
0.7 / 5 (47) May 03, 2011
And who determines what is effective ryggesogn? Almost certainly the only people qualified to determine this would be academics and we know how you feel about them. Who would you have choose?
1 / 5 (2) May 03, 2011
And who determines what is effective ryggesogn? Almost certainly the only people qualified to determine this would be academics and we know how you feel about them. Who would you have choose?

Physicists and engineers.
"What has this alteration in the nature of research to do with pedagogy? The answer is that most mathematics professors no longer teach either the uses of mathematics in science nor how to apply mathematics to scientific problems. Perhaps the best example of the detachment of mathematics from science is furnished by the teaching of calculus. This subject is the crux of applied mathematics, and next to the liberal arts course it is the one that serves the most students. Prospective engineers, physical and social scientists, actuaries, technicians, and medical and dental students take it to learn how to apply the subject. How then do the professors teach calculus?"
1.6 / 5 (5) May 03, 2011
"Until about 1945 mathematics students took analytic geometry before calculus. Analytic geometry deals with a new and vital idea, the coordination of curve and equation, [142] an idea that is used extensively in calculus. To "improve" the calculus course mathematics professors decided to start students with calculus and to teach the requisite analytic geometry as it was needed. Analytic geometry consequently got short shrift. This consolidation also meant asking the student to learn two major techniques simultaneously. Moreover, since the study of analytic geometry obliges students to utilize algebra and trigonometry, when they took analytics before calculus they were better prepared for the necessary uses of these tools in calculus."
Reference above.
My high school math teacher believed in this. Our sr math was trig. In university placement tests I was placed into the Calc.1 course where others had to take pre-calc.
1.6 / 5 (5) May 03, 2011
"The failure of mathematics departments to cater to science, engineering, and social science students has had the expected effect. The physical science, social science, and engineering departments of many universities offer their own mathematics courses. In some institutions, statistics and probability courses are given in half a dozen departments. In almost all colleges and universities computer science has broken away from mathematics and is a separate department. Clearly, the users of mathematics have decided that mathematics is too important to be left to the mathematicians. "
If university math programs are in such disarray, why should we expect teachers who emerge from such programs to be able to teach math?
Industry recognizes the problem and is working to improve math skills in k-12.
1 / 5 (2) May 03, 2011
"seven math curricula make up 91 percent of the curricula used by K-2 educators"
"NCLB emphasizes the importance of adopting scientifically-based educational practices; however, there is little rigorous research evidence to support one theory or curriculum over another."
What a surprise!
not rated yet May 04, 2011
As usual, these issues are more complex than simply blaming union/non-union or any political party.

No, it is quite simple.

Education by its nature is an issue of nurture, not nature. The influences on our children are many and varied. Attitudes of everyone they come into contact with can influence the educational process. Social expectations in the environment where the child grows up are also a significant influence. (Likely a large part of what is driving the data in the above article) Economics is also a significant factor, but less so in my opinion than the other factors. The public schooling system tends to even out economimics to some degree. If you think effecting these type of influences are a simple thing, then you should consider running for public office as I've noticed they seem to think just simplistically throwing money at teachers and schools should fix the system.
1 / 5 (2) May 04, 2011
The influences on our children are many and varied.

Sounds like excuses to me.

Students from other countries who have many more negative influences and poor economic conditions do better at math.
Poor inner city students with the proper motivation and teaching environment, like KIPP, DO perform.

Here is what industry is trying to do:


Central planners care more about their plan than what is effective.
5 / 5 (2) May 05, 2011
The influences on our children are many and varied.

Sounds like excuses to me.

Of course it sounds that way when your preferred perception and political alignment is more important than the realities many have to live with. There will always be the small percentage that will excell despite their environment. Something rare is taking place in those lives, likely both nature and nurture, but for whatever reason the vast majority are unable to follow suit.

Students from poorer countries that do better likely exist in a society with higher expectations. (Hence my point about how just throwing money at the issue is not the solution - changing the expectations of those who surround and influence the student is far more effective)

The US Department of Education is an abject failure because they don't have their eye on the right ball. They care more about test scores, programs of the year and pay scales than about helping to create productive people.
1.8 / 5 (5) May 05, 2011
exist in a society with higher expectations.

Sounds like a cultural issue.

Obama and dems wanted to kill the DC voucher program. A program where parents with limited economic means but high expectations wanted their children to have an sound education.
Dems and unions want to kill vouchers and charters all around the country as they enable and promote high expectations.
5 / 5 (2) May 05, 2011
Speaking from a state that currently has charter schools, i too think that their abolition is the best thing for my state.

Charter schools are (at least here) are NOT subject to the same testing standards as public schools, which means we have NO WAY (except anecdotally)to assess their success or failure at providing a better education.
1.8 / 5 (4) May 05, 2011
Charter schools ARE public schools. They are funded with state tax money.
If your state has charter schools, then the traditional union schools must not have been doing the job.

"According to a new report, 47 percent of Detroiters are functionally illiterate. The alarming new statistics were released by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund on Wednesday."
Can't do math well if you can't read.
5 / 5 (3) May 05, 2011
Interestingly enough the state i'm in is known for it's high standards in teaching, high SAT and ACT scores as well.

Charter schools ARE public schools. They are funded with state tax money.

If you want to call all schools that get state money, public schools, okay then, they are public schools, that are not held to the same educational standards as the "Traditional" school systems are. They are also not required (and therefore do not) take Special Education students.

Without being held to the same testing standards, how can we even begin to compare their ability to educate students? How do we know these schools are any better than the ones that are already there?
1.8 / 5 (5) May 05, 2011
high SAT and ACT scores as well.

Charter school graduates must take these tests if they wish to enter university.
not held to the same educational standards

Specifically, what standards are those?
not rated yet May 06, 2011
I like Charter schools if only because they provide an alternative and competition to traditional public schooling. However, they should still be required to meet the same educational standards. The entrenched who are being competed against rarely appreciate the idea of upstart competition, but in the end it's beneficial for the society.

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