Americans may be chauvinistic about many aspects of life in the U.S., but the country’s international ranking in math has not been anything to boast about. In the Third International Math & Science Study (TIMSS) of 1995, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Belgium and the Czech Republic ranked as the six world leaders, while U.S. 4th-graders ranked in the 56th percentile, 8th-graders in the 32nd percentile and high school seniors in the 12th percentile.
In 1998, some California schools adopted a new math curriculum modeled on the curricula of Japan, Singapore and Poland. Their goal: Improve math achievement. According to a recent article in Educational Studies in Mathematics, performance of students in those schools improved significantly from 1998-2002.
“Our research, using experimental data, clearly demonstrates that quality Asian/European curriculum can be successfully transplanted virtually intact to North American schools and gives superior results almost immediately,” the researchers report. “This is true even in school districts where parental involvement is almost certainly well below that of the typical Asian country.”
Over a five-year period, California students in grades 2-6 from four school districts that taught the Key Standards curriculum significantly outperformed students in two school districts that did not make the curriculum change, write researchers Wayne Bishop of California State University, Los Angeles, John Hook of Ojai Unified School District and William Hook of University of Victoria in British Columbia.
8th grade algebra preparation
The 13,000 students in the four Key Standards schools went from far-below average to above-average achievement, improving at a rate of eight percentile points per year over the five-year span compared with 1.8 percentile points per year for the control group, the study found.
The six school districts in the study had high percentages of economically disadvantaged and immigrant students.
To determine why U.S. K-8th-grade students lagged behind in international rankings, the National Research Center-TIMSS at Michigan State University carried out an extensive study of math curricula in the top-ranked countries and in 21 participating states. The study found that the 6 leading math countries had remarkably similar curricular content and that there were also striking similarities among the curricula of participating U.S. states.
“The consensus curriculum of the six leading nations was labeled a ‘quality’ curriculum, and the less successful consensus curriculum of the U.S. states was labeled ‘inadequate’,” the researchers write.
Four content characteristics were found to be important:
- The number of topics for each grade (U.S. had too many topics, particularly
in lower grades);
- repetition of topics (U.S. curriculum was highly repetitive with topics
introduced too early, repeated, yet taught with too little depth);
- logical order of topics (topics in U.S. were not presented in a logical,
step-by-step order); and
- level of topics (topics were not very demanding, especially in middle
The Key Standards curriculum has a sharply reduced number of topics in the early grades. For example, the 1st-grade Key Standards curriculum has only three topics (whole number meaning, whole number operations, and patterns) while the old curriculum has 19 topics.
The new curriculum also addressed the other issues, including coherence, minimum amount of repetition and demanding topics in the middle grades.
A primary focus of the Key Standards curriculum, researched and written by Stanford University mathematics professors, is to prepare all students for 8th-grade Algebra I. The Key Standards curriculum was used in combination with Saxon Math textbooks. The Content Review Panel, comprising representatives of the mathematicians who wrote the new curriculum, determined that the textbooks for grades 1-3 were appropriate for the curriculum, but that grades 4-6 should use textbooks for grades 5-7 (grade 3 classes would have the option of using the grade 4 textbook).
No special training
The teachers in the districts that adopted Key Standards did not receive any special training that would explain the improved performance, the researchers write; interestingly, the teachers in the two control districts did participate in an ambitious teacher training program.
“It appears difficult to overcome the negative effects of an inadequate curriculum solely with teacher training,” the authors write.
“A Quality Math Curriculum in Support of Effective Teaching for Elementary Schools”, William Hook, Wayne Bishop and John Hook, Educational Studies in Mathematics, Volume 65, June 2007, pp. 125-148.
Published in ERN September 2007, Volume 20, Number 6