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Math and science: Good enough for high tech?

EMC Chairman Mike Ruettgers warns that today's schoolchildren aren't developing the skills and knowledge to step into their role as tomorrow's front line in managing complexity.

If anything can be said to have a bright future today, it's complexity. The tools, systems and infrastructures that make the world go round are increasingly intricate and interdependent. Discontinuities--technological, geopolitical, economic and social--are proliferating. Surprise and uncertainty are endemic.

Fortunately, there are more than a few smart people in the world today who have been trained to think about and solve complex problems. But one wonders whether the current crop of schoolchildren--tomorrow's frontline in managing complexity--are developing the skills and knowledge to step into this role. The signs aren't encouraging.

U.S. math and science texts are often a mile wide and an inch deep.

If you look at state and national assessments of math and science competence among our country's elementary and secondary schools today, you'll discover small pockets of excellence amid a broad swath of mediocrity. In fact, only a minority of U.S. students are meeting math and science proficiency benchmarks.

International assessments from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show U.S. students are at or below the international average and significantly behind their peers in Japan and Canada. TIMSS compared our most advanced students with those from 15 other nations, and the brightest U.S. students scored dead last against international competitors in advanced math and physics assessments.

Picasso said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when he grows up." Likewise, most young children are also scientists and mathematicians in the sense that their innate curiosity about the world prompts them to probe, count, experiment and ask: If I do this, what will happen?

So something seems to go wrong along the K-12 development path that blunts their natural interest and facility. Two serious impediments are the curricula and the textbooks.

Wrong approach
Consider the curricula first. Other nations introduce challenging math concepts such as algebra, geometry, probability and statistics in middle school and even prior to middle school. By contrast, U.S. students stay focused almost exclusively on arithmetic throughout middle school, long after they've presumably mastered the material.

The lead U.S. researcher for TIMSS, professor William Schmidt of Michigan State University, concluded that the United States is the only major industrialized country that starts algebra "as late, as abruptly, and in so isolated a way." Compared with curricula in other nations, he found that our math curriculum has an "absolute absence of any kind of coherence."

What about textbooks? Are they focused, thorough, accurate and accessible? Rarely. U.S. math and science texts are often a mile wide and an inch deep.

The point is not that technology alone will drive up student test scores. No one believes that.
This may be a reflection of our education system's smorgasbord approach in which more topics in math and science are taught at every grade level than in any other nation.

For instance, some eighth-grade math texts attempt to cover as many as 35 concepts. The result is little direction for teachers and little depth for students. By contrast, the textbooks in top-performing countries cover fewer than a dozen topics in depth. This gives teachers a framework for introducing increasingly complex concepts and skills.

None of these observations are meant to diminish public education. But there is room for serious improvement, and here are four considerations.

Proposing a fix
• Provide students with a more challenging curriculum so they can meet or exceed proficiency benchmarks. The good news is that clear, rigorous academic standards and accountability for student learning are taking hold across the nation, spurring curriculum reform.

• Begin algebra and more advanced math in earlier grades. Four years of science and math should be mandatory in high school, and physics and calculus should be included in all high school curricula.

• Create more coherent, focused, and rigorous math and science textbooks. These texts should be designed not to satisfy the lowest common denominator but to build world-class math and science students. And they should convey how connected math and science are to all parts of students' lives.

• Make better use of technology to enhance traditional curricula and textbooks. Online resources can help keep traditional science textbooks current by providing regular updates on the latest advances and breakthroughs. And the use of interactive content can enrich standard "chalk and talk" teaching.

The point is not that technology alone will drive up student test scores. No one believes that. Rather, technology is a great way to amplify the effect of teachers through, for example, Web-based tutoring on demand or remote access to coursework.

There's an old Chinese proverb that says, "The schools of the country are its future in miniature." As the next round of the TIMSS assessment approaches in 2003, let's give our students the opportunity to break from the middle of the pack and lead the world in math and science. The stakes are high and include our nation's ability to continue to excel in all aspects of high-tech development and to manage the world's relentlessly increasing complexity.