Messenger - Vol. 2, No. 1, Page 10
Fall 1992
Time to Close the Math Gap

Two University of Delaware economists have just completed a study that
suggests summer vacation is holding U.S. math students back. They recommend
lengthening the school year by three weeks and assigning required summer
math homework similar to summer reading programs.

      Profs. Kenneth A. Lewis and Laurence S. Seidman, with their research
assistants Helen Erickson and Tony Stilt, in the College of Business and
Economics, spent the better part of a year compiling data about the
classroom and study habits of eighth grade mathematics students from 17
nations. Seidman says he believes it is the only study of its kind.
      The economists wanted to learn whether there is a direct correlation
between high scores and the time spent on math.
      "When we started the study, we were surprised to find educators who
said the amount of time devoted to math doesn't matter," Lewis says. He was
referring specifically to The Underachieving Curriculum, a 1987 study based
on the results of the 1982 math test given to 13-year-old students in 18
nations by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational
Achievement (IEA). Of the 18 nations and 20 school systems IEA tested,
students in Japan scored the highest. The United States was 14th. "Even at
the top, U.S. students aren't competing with Japanese students," Seidman
      The researchers arrived at this conclusion by computing individual
student scores for the whole exam and for each of five subjects:
arithmetic, algebra, geometry, descriptive statistics and measurement. They
then broke those down into quartiles and into the top 5 and 10 percent. In
each case, both for the entire test and in four of the five individual
subjects, U.S. students tested behind Japanese students at every level.
Only in arithmetic did the gap close.
      The Underachieving Curriculum dismissed the lack of time spent on
math study in the U.S. as a reason for this nation's poor showing.
      The report ranked Japan number one in achievement but 13th in time
devoted to math while the U.S. ranked 14th in test scores but third in
      This influential work urges intense concentration on curriculum to
close the gap.
      "The report jolted us. The claim that Japan was a low math-time
nation and the U. S. high math-time ran against our information," Seidman
says. These influential leaders in their field made a mistake, he says.
      Lewis explains that these researchers had confined their time
calculations to math studied in school during the seventh grade. "It turns
out that the Japanese put their seventh graders in math class only three
times a week. So, when you measure time that way, the researchers are
      Seidman and Lewis reasoned that the acquisition of math-capital is
cumulative. To accurately assess time against test scores, they say,
requires an examination of all hours devoted to math over the student's
elementary school career, not just the flow in the year of the test.
      They found that Japanese elementary school children devote more time
to the study of math than does any other nation. By the sixth grade,
Japanese students had spent as much time studying math as had eighth
graders in the U.S. By the end of eighth grade, Japanese students had
compiled 1,370 hours of math study compared to U.S. students' 1,054 hours.
      Even more telling were the figures representing the after-school
hours Japanese and American students devote to math. The Japanese devoted
269 hours to math work after school, in sharp contrast to 80 hours for the
U.S. Students from both countries spent about the same time in class.
      Lewis and Seidman found another glaring difference--summer vacation.
      A study conducted by the New York Board of Regents found that an
average of four weeks is needed each new school year to review math
forgotten during the 12-week summer break.
      Japan has a six-week summer, but students are required to do math
homework every weekday. When they return to school, Japanese students do
not need review.
      Lewis and Seidman calculate that if U.S. schools add three weeks to
the school year and require 10 minutes per day of summer math homework,
summer deterioration would decrease by one-third and the U.S. could rise
from 13th place to 8th in math scores.
      "The question is how can we structure summer math to make it work?"
Seidman asks.
      So, to find out, Lewis and Seidman jointly created a summer math
pilot project with the University's Center for Economic Education for sixth
graders at Bayard Elementary School in the Christina School District of New
Castle County, Del. McDonald's offered to reward students who finish weekly
assignments with various treats at its restaurants.
      All Lewis and Seidman are hoping for this first year is that students
complete the assignments and that less review time is needed in the fall.
      They are convinced that the United States will not be competitive in
the future unless it increases its accumulation of math-time capital.
                                   --Barbara Garrison.