ED-WATCH: SCIENCE AND MATH CONFUSING, UNFOCUSED, FULL OF HOLES

(10/25/2008)

Science and math education in the state's elementary schools is confusing, unfocused and full of holes, a curriculum expert has told the West Virginia Board of Education.

The problems are not unique to West Virginia, according to William Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University and co-director of the Education Policy Center.

Schmidt presented the results of his audit of West Virginia's education content standards and objectives to state educational officials.

"You are like the rest of the United States, that's the good news. That's also the bad news," he said. "Our system is failing across the board."

Schmidt said educators expect young students to learn too little about too much too soon.

Students should be taught concepts in math and science successively, he said.

In the earliest grades, kids in other countries are expected to learn three or four key concepts in math and learn them completely.

In the United States, the same age groups are asked to learn dozens of things.

This "quantity over quality" approach can cause shallow learning and force teachers to repeat the same material each year without students ever fully absorbing it.

Schmidt said part of the problem is the lack of a coherent national standard.

Educators in West Virginia are forced to teach to an alphabet soup of tests - the SAT, ACT, WESTEST, TIMSS, NAEP.

State Superintendent Steven Paine said that the state gets "hamstrung" by some tests and the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

There seems to be growing agreement that a national standard could allow school systems to outline their curriculum objectives for testing companies, which then would design tests based on what students are learning.

Instead, schools are often structuring their curriculum to fit tests.

Schmidt says countries with the best education systems teach first-graders three main topics in math: whole number meaning, whole number operations and units of measurement.

In West Virginia, first graders are taught those three subjects and about a dozen more, including estimation, functions and aspects of geometry - topics that are reserved for higher grades in countries with top quality school systems, said the educator.

"We really are leaving our children behind, by design," he said.


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