US math curricula are incoherent

You probably know that in international comparisons, US students don't do real well in math.

Research into curricula in the best performing countries versus US is giving us one clue as to why this is:

US curricula tend to be
  • incoherent and a collection of arbitrary topics instead of focused and logical
  • Average duration of a topic in US is almost 6 years (!) versus about 3 years in the best-performing countries. Lots of spiraling and reviewing is done
  • Each year, US textbooks cover way many more topics than the books in the best-performing countries
What this means is that typically, any particular math topic is NEVER studied very deeply in any given school year, and that a vast amount of time each year is spent reviewing.

Is this really the best and most efficient way?

Just check your own math books (if you have them for several grades): do you find for example the topic of fractions on each of the books from 1st till 8th grade? Or, does your chosen math curricula teach the concept of perimeter or octagon on many many grades?

How about decimals? How many school years does it take to learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals?

US books tend to still be teaching kids basic arithmetic (such as fractions and decimals) on 7th and 8th grade, whereas those other countries textbooks move on to algebra topics, and leave arithmetic behind.

"By the end of eighth grade, children in these countries have mostly completed mathematics equivalent to U.S. high school courses in algebra I and geometry."
(Quote from The Role of Curriculum by William Schmidt.)

The increasing emphasis on testing is making this even worse. Teachers are forced to hurry through lots of math topics each year. The curriculum is "mile wide and inch deep".

In homeschool you have at least some freedom to organize the instruction a little better.

Please read the short article The Role of Curriculum by William Schmidt.

For those interested for more, you can read this longer report with some stunning charts about the difference in US math textbooks versus those of the top countries:


A Coherent Curriculum: The Case of Mathematics, Dr. Schmidt’s Summer 2002 article for American Educator (PDF file).

See also my article Is your math curriculum coherent?

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