Is American Elementary Education Good Enough?

Why are American elementary school students not reaching the same advanced levels of academic achievement as their counterparts in many Asian countries?

A new Trends in International Mathematics and Science study found U.S. eighth-graders are gaining on their peers around the globe in science and math, but fourth-graders are being passed as their test scores remain stagnant. The study comes a week after the institute released a study that found American 15-year-olds were behind other teens the same age in math.

"They have substantial portions of their students reaching those [advanced] levels and we have only a handful," said Ina Mullis, co-director of the study, which is the third in a cycle of studies conducted every four years.

While the results show American fourth- and eighth-graders do rank above the international average in both math and science, they raise questions about the quality of curriculum and achievement in U.S. elementary schools.

"I think that the curriculum in the beginning lags behind and with every year it gets further and further behind because we're more repetitive. They are moving on at a pretty good rate of progress and we're not," said Mullis.

The differences between American and Asian students were most noticeable at the advanced level. The study found that 44 percent of students from Singapore passed advanced benchmarks exams compared to only 7 percent of students from the United States.

At the basic levels, 90 percent of American students fared well, compared to 99 percent of Singaporean students.

One major difference in curriculum -- one that some critics suggest makes American programs more comprehensive -- is that Asian countries have a tendency to study fewer topics than are covered in the United States. Some experts argue, however, their style is still more complete.

"They do study them more thoroughly and reach a more sophisticated level, especially in mathematics," said Mullis.

At the Ready?

Another hot button issue is teacher preparedness. While a teacher shortage continues across the nation, some question whether American educators are as prepared as they should be?

"Teachers who don't know advanced geometry and math and problem-solving will find it difficult to teach advanced mathematics and [scientific] inquiry," said Mullis.

According to the National Council on Teacher Accreditation, countries such as Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands and Singapore have "more rigorous entry requirements for teacher education programs than are generally found in U.S. programs."

Moreover, these high-performing countries are known to have heavy regulatory controls overseeing educators that are much more stringent than what has been observed in the United States.

"We do have a teacher-preparation issue," said Mullis. "Those teachers really know their mathematics and science."

Culture Clash

The study -- which included more than 360,000 students from 49 countries -- also raises the idea that cultural differences between the United States and Asian countries may also be a culprit in lagging American achievement.

Mullis argues Asian customs emphasize educational achievement more than American culture does. These countries have a "culture that is appreciating learning in mathematics and science and understands the vital role that such achievement has for our future and our economic health as a country and global economy," she said.

Mullis adds that most American eighth-graders probably don't have that appreciation.