Best and brightest fall behind Achievement: In an international mathematics and science study, the elite of U.S. high school students trailed their peers in most other countries in physics and calculus.

The Education Beat

March 04, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

AN INTERNATIONAL comparison of school achievement in math and science struck a raw nerve last week. The study concluded that even the United States' elite high school seniors, those in advanced physics and calculus, are behind their peers in most of 14 other nations.

Previous reports from the respected Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) had given U.S. partisans reason to believe that our kids are holding their own. Even the 1997 results found U.S. fourth-graders slightly above the international average in five of the six topics measured.

But U.S. eighth-graders scored below the international average and 12th-graders continued the downward trend.

The news was worse for advanced U.S. high school seniors. In 12th-grade calculus, U.S. students were outperformed by students in 11 countries (including the Russian Federation and Canada), while in physics they were outdone by peers in 14 countries.

The nerve was raw because U.S. defenders in previous TIMSS reports had claimed the comparisons were unfair, that average children in the United States were being unfairly judged against the elite in other nations. But the 1997 TIMSS study compared the elite 14 percent here with the elite 14 percent elsewhere. And worse, the Asian countries that traditionally have outshone the United States declined to participate in this year's TIMSS.

An initial circling of the wagons occurred. One major newspaper published a front-page story about how U.S. schools are admired overseas for fostering "creativity."

But creativity won't go far in physics, chemistry and computer labs.

"The problem is that Americans aren't getting the science and math they need to be successful in the technological world they're facing," said Judy Franz, executive officer of the American Physical Society, the national organization of physicists.

Physics is most problematic, Franz said, because many students wait until their senior year, when they're often distracted, to take the course, "and then only about a quarter of them do so."

Compounding the bleak outlook is a shortage of high school physics and mathematics teachers, especially in urban school systems. Joseph Wilson, principal of Baltimore's highly regarded City College, said demand is heavy for the dozen or so qualified physics teachers in the city school system.

"I went to Taiwan in 1993 to observe their students taking the fifth-grade MSPAP [Maryland School Performance Assessment Program] test," said Gary Heath, section chief for math and science at the State Department of Education. "What I found out quickly is that the country offers free college training for students who want to be teachers. Then it pays them well, and 20 years out they can retire with full salary. We can't match that here."

Freeman Hrabowski, a mathematician who is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, offered an even more pessimistic assessment. The "most focused and disciplined" students on his campus, Hrabowski said, are from other countries.

"We are the most powerful nation in the world, with more resources than anyone else and with larger numbers of families who are financially comfortable and able to give their children what they need to succeed," he said. "Yet we're not able to compete in mathematics and the sciences.

"It says something about our values and habits as a nation."

City College's new program goes forward to the past

"It's our way of going back to the future," said Joseph Wilson, the City College principal, about the school's new International Baccalaureate program, which will be formally launched in ceremonies tomorrow.

Forty-three students will be in the initial program, a rigorous curriculum for juniors and seniors offered in 715 schools in 90 countries.

"This is the old A-course we would have had, had it been allowed to flourish," Wilson said of the college-prep curriculum familiar to generations of City alumni, among them Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and former mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Here's what a City College senior was taking in the A-course in March 1959: survey of English literature, calculus, survey of Western civilization, U.S. history, chemistry or Latin or an advanced foreign language.

Here's what Arlethia Goines, a 17-year-old honors senior, is taking this semester: Philosophy II, creative writing, Spanish, introduction to law. (City's school day comprises four 90-minute periods.)

Here, according to Wilson, is what an International Baccalaureate senior will be taking at City in March 2000: European history, advanced foreign language, U.S. history, Biology II and Chemistry II. European history gives way to an elective the second half of the semester, while Biology II gives way to health.

24 years ago today, city's longest school strike ended

The city's longest school strike ended 24 years ago today. Nobody won in the monthlong teacher walkout, which the Public School Teachers Association called off even though the city's last contract offer had been rejected by 74 votes.

In an article in this winter's issue of Maryland Historical Magazine, George Washington University Professor Ed Berkowitz analyzes Baltimore public education of the early 1970s.

"Indeed," Berkowitz writes, "the entire episode of the school strike could be read as a betrayal of the city's blacks by the entrenched white political leadership. Preservation of the property tax rate in an effort to maintain a good business climate triumphed over a proper concern for the education of the city's schoolchildren."

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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