The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 1

Rationale for the Study

By: Barbara Hofer


As U.S. educators strive to improve the quality of public schooling through comprehensive reforms, international comparative studies have become increasingly important. Recent studies indicate that U.S. students fare relatively poorly on standardized tests of math and science, but little research has been conducted that would enable educators to understand the complex nature of academic achievement within differing cultural contexts. Such studies are necessary in order to interpret achievement outcomes as well as to provide a foundation for improvement.

To address this need, the U.S. Department of Education contracted for case studies of education in the United States, Germany, and Japan as a complement to the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). The TIMSS study, conducted in the spring of 1995, measured math and science achievement of 4th-, 8th- and 12th-grade students in 50 countries and collected questionnaire data from the participants. The Case Study Project was designed to provide rich descriptions of the academic and cultural contexts in three selected countries: the United States, Germany, and Japan. This volume reports the results of the case studies conducted in the United States.

The interviews and observations in each of three countries focused on four topics of central concern to U.S. education officials: national standards in education, teacher's preparation and working lives, the role of school in adolescents' lives, and how individual differences in ability are addressed by the educational system. The qualitative analyses that follow provide a context for interpreting the TIMSS data.

Understanding math and science achievement in the United States is not an easy task, particularly because of the diversity among students and the multiplicity of experiences within schools. For example, we observed 12th-graders in calculus classes studying applications of number theory and other 12th-graders who were enrolled in basic algebra. Moreover, a significant number of 12th-graders in the United States are not enrolled in any math classes, having already fulfilled the minimum high school requirements in their state. There are enormous differences in schools, curricula, student preparation, and expectations of students that precludes simple descriptions of the nature of U.S. schooling. This study seeks to provide a window on this complex set of issues by providing a descriptive portrait of selected aspects of the context of math and science achievement in the United States.


An ethnographic case study method was used to explore the four topics. The research project was initiated with the preparation of reviews of the literature on each topic within each of the three countries. This information provided a basis for the development of research protocols, to be used to guide the interviews and observations. The protocols were constructed by a team of multilingual educators, psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists from the University of Michigan and reviewed by education researchers in Germany and Japan. Further refinement occurred in consultations with the field researchers, all specialists in the selected areas of the study. This approach ensured that the questions studied were applicable in all three countries. The National Center for Education Statistics' (NCES) review boards also provided guidance on the topics and questions, in order to confirm their relevance for U.S. education policy.

The field researchers participated in a week-long training session at the University of Michigan, where they received background information on the study, learned to use qualitative data analysis software, and met in teams organized both by topic and by country. Within these teams, researchers reviewed guidelines for each set of interviews and worked toward a common understanding of the research goals. These steps were essential to provide some consistency of collection of data in an ethnographic study that involved multiple sites, different languages and cultures, and researchers with varying academic backgrounds.

With assistance from NCES and consultants from Japan and Germany, three urban communities in different regions of the United States were selected as research sites that would be as comparable as possible to the sites in the other countries in terms of size, economic base, and status. Researchers spent up to 3 months each in the primary site and visited the others for shorter periods of 3 to 4 weeks. The purpose of the fieldwork in the secondary sites was to generate diversity in the sample of cities to test the validity of the findings from the main site.

School achievement data were utilized to select a range of schools within these communities. A total of 16 schools were chosen for participation, representing low, middle, and high academic achievement as well as socioeconomic and ethnic diversity. At each school, teachers, parents, administrators, and students were selected for participation. Because the TIMSS study focuses on achievement data at 4th, 8th, and 12th grade, efforts were made to select corresponding grade levels for classroom observations and to select students from these grades for interviews.

Six experienced researchers conducted most of the interviews and observations in the United States schools with additional fieldwork conducted by research staff from the Case Study Project at the University of Michigan's Center for Human Growth and Development. Each week researchers in the field summarized and reported their major findings. Also, members of the research team were in contact with each other and with the staff at the University of Michigan via e-mail.

In the development of a comparative, ethnographic study of education in three countries, one must be especially careful in attempting to characterize the education system of one's own country. We were fortunate in writing these chapters on the United States that many of the researchers were bilingual and were able to conduct observations and interviews in more than one country. Returning from fieldwork in Germany or Japan, they were able to see the United States education system through a new lens with heightened awareness of contrasts and ability to view from this new perspective what had previously been ordinary. Furthermore, we had several researchers contribute to the fieldwork for each topic, an unusual approach for ethnographic work, and conversations among these teams during the analyses, as well as careful reading of drafts for corroboration of findings, proved valuable.

Where possible, respondents were matched with interviewers of similar ethnic backgrounds. An African-American ethnographer interviewed the majority of African-American students and parents, and an Hispanic interviewer interviewed Hispanic students and parents; where appropriate, these interviews were conducted in Spanish. After data collection was completed, these individuals met with the primary field researchers to provide perspectives on significant issues.

Interview and observational data were entered by the researchers into a qualitative data analysis program, HyperQual2. This step enabled the researchers to tag passages that referred to frequently occurring themes or topics of interest, so that data could be sorted for further analyses. Various members of the United States research team met periodically to discuss their findings, and the group communicated electronically with each other and with the research staff at the University of Michigan throughout the project. Following the field research, data were electronically transmitted to the University of Michigan. This allowed the authors of the chapters to use material collected by other members of the team as well as by themselves.

In the course of analyzing the data for each of the topics, each researcher reviewed many hundreds of pages of data. To present a reliable picture of contemporary American responses to the main topics of the study, it was necessary to try to find common themes but at the same time to adequately represent the wide variety of opinions, ideas, and practices that exist in the United States. In addition to the ethnographic data, authors at times refer to related literature and national statistics. The topical reviews of the literature conducted before our field investigation provided much of this contextual information.

Structure of the United States School System

The United States public schools are divided into elementary and secondary education, with a number of variations in how this division is configured, typically decided at the local level. One of three common patterns prevails in most communities:

There are many other subtle variations on these patterns throughout the country, and decisions about the structure may have a strong pedagogical rationale or may be the consequence of differences in funding, demographics, and physical resources. The current trend is toward the first pattern, with the recognition of early adolescence as a period requiring a form of schooling distinct from that of older adolescents. In the United States, elementary students are typically in one classroom with the same teacher most of the day, perhaps seeing other teachers for special classes, such as art and music, while high school students move from class to class each period, with new teachers and a new mix of students in each of the classes. Junior high schools mimic the high school pattern, while middle schools generally offer a means for students to ease into this system, usually with students moving as a group to teachers who work as a team, serving the same block of students within the school.

All children in the United States have access to free public schools and, in most states, are required to attend school until the age of 16. Most students attend public schools, but private schools, both religious and nonsectarian, are also available. Students must pay tuition to attend a private school. On average, the school year is about 180 days, and the school day averages 6.5 hours.

Funding and Governance

Public elementary and secondary education is primarily the responsibility of state and local governments, which contribute about 92 percent of school funding, about half of that from the state and the other half local. This decentralized approach has led to variability of opportunities for education, a problem the federal government has attempted to address through federal assistance grants designed to equalize opportunities.

Decisions regarding education policies and curricula are shared by the three levels of government. The U.S. Department of Education collects data on all aspects of the United States education system and makes recommendations at the national and state levels, but it does not regulate school operations or set standards. Public education is largely a state responsibility, with community control achieved through locally elected school boards. States regulate the number of school days, but local districts determine the length of the day and the school calendar. States also set the courses required for high school graduation, but curriculum guidelines are generally determined at the local level, and more specific decisions, such as choice of textbook and classroom instructional methods, are generally made at the school level by teachers and school administrators.

The Research Sites

For the three research sites, we selected cities of varying sizes, located in different regions of the country and with different ethnic compositions. Within the main research site, both urban and suburban school districts were represented, thereby increasing the diversity of the sample. Cities, schools, and individuals have been given pseudonyms throughout the study in order to protect confidentiality. The primary site is referred to as Metro City and the secondary sites as East City and West City.

Metro City is a major metropolitan area of nearly 6 million people located in the midwestern region of the United States; its economy is based on manufacturing, finance, and publishing. The city has historically attracted immigrants from all over the world, and the population is ethnically diverse. Nearly 20 percent of Metro City families have incomes below the poverty level.

West City is a large metropolitan area comprised of approximately 1.5 million people and is located in the western part of the United States. Once primarily agricultural, the community is now home to large manufacturing concerns and high technology enterprises. The population is ethnically diverse, with a large number of Hispanics. Less than 7 percent of the families in West City live below the poverty level.

East City, located in the southeastern United States, has a metropolitan population of approximately three-quarter million people. The rapidly growing community is a major transportation hub and is home to major industry, high technology firms, and various businesses and services. The population is more than two-thirds whites and more than one quarter African-American. Approximately 8 percent of the families in the city live below the poverty level.

Selection of Schools

At the main study site, we selected schools that represented the range of schools sampled for the TIMSS study. High-achieving, middle-achieving, and low-achieving schools, as measured by state standardized test results, were included among the elementary, middle schools, and high schools that we chose for the Case Study Project. In addition, the schools represented the full range of ethnic diversity, from predominantly white and predominantly African-American populations to schools, which enrolled students of several ethnic groups in nearly equal proportions. At the secondary-school level, we also included a vocational high school, since vocational schools were included among the Case Study schools visited in Japan and Germany. In the two secondary sites, we selected one elementary, one junior or middle school, and one senior high school.

Descriptions of Schools

The following descriptions of the schools selected for this study are based on field notes and written materials provided by schools, school districts, and state reports.

Metro City Area Elementary Schools

Rockefeller Elementary School is located in Lakeside, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Metro City. Surrounding the school are large homes with spacious, well-manicured lawns. Per capita income in Lakeside is more than double the national average. The school was well maintained and well equipped with an impressive library, creative and imaginative play spaces, and computers with educational software and video games for student use. Spending per student was much higher than the state average, as are teacher salaries.

On statewide tests, students at Rockefeller scored well above average in math and science. The school population was 93 percent white, 6 percent Asian, and 1 percent Hispanic. Children of Japanese parents on assignment in the United States made up the largest minority group. Less than 1 percent of the students were of limited English-language proficiency, and none were from families classified as low income. The student mobility rate, the number of students who enroll in or leave a school within a given year, was less than 6 percent.

Midtown Elementary School is located in a moderate to low-income suburb of Metro City. The school is adjacent to a congested roadway; across the street is an old strip mall with a restaurant, a dry cleaner, and other small businesses. Just to the east of Midtown Elementary is a factory.

Midtown Elementary students scored at about average levels of achievement in science and math on statewide assessment tests. Only 2 percent of 3rd-grade students did not meet state goals in math achievement; but 20 percent of 4th-graders did not meet state goals in science. The school had a diverse student body. Just over half of the students were white, about 30 percent were African-American and about 10 percent were Hispanic. Over 90 percent of the teachers at Midtown were white. One-fifth of the students were from low-income families, defined as those receiving public aid, living in institutions for neglected or delinquent children, supported in foster homes with public funds, or eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Just under 10 percent of the student body was of limited English proficiency. The annual student mobility rate was about 20 percent. Spending per pupil was below average for the state.

Parks Elementary School is located in an inner-city neighborhood of Metro City. There is a large cemetery on the north end of the school. The building is comparatively small and the playground is a fenced-in parking lot. Surrounding the school are row houses. Nearby are major city streets and a large variety of storefront shops, many with iron gates to prevent robbery and vandalism.

Students at Park performed below average on statewide tests of achievement. The student population was 40 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African-American, 14 percent Asian, and 14 percent white. Over 90 percent of Parks' students came from low-income families. A third were of limited English-language proficiency. The student mobility rate exceeded 50 percent.

Metro City Area Junior High/Middle Schools

Vanderbilt Middle School is located in the affluent community of Rolling Hills near Metro City. Expansive lawns and large homes dominate the area around the school. The school is exceptionally well maintained and has recently been professionally landscaped. The average home in the area costs approximately half a million dollars, providing property values that create a rich tax base for the school. Per-pupil expenditures in the district are nearly double the state average and teacher salaries are also relatively high.

Students at Vanderbilt Middle School scored well above average in math and science. More than 95 percent of the students at Vanderbilt were white. The largest minority population is Asian Americans, who comprised about 3 percent of the student body. Student mobility rates were below 5 percent. Around 2 percent of the students came from low-income families, and about 1 percent was of limited English-language proficiency.

King Junior High School is located in a moderate to low-income community near Metro City. Although the school is located near congested retail areas, the school itself is somewhat insulated by a well-kept working class, older neighborhood. The area is one of the more integrated neighborhoods in the city. About 60 percent of the students at King were white, a third were African-American, 3 percent were Hispanic, and another 3 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander. Only about 5 percent of the students came from low-income families, and less than 1 percent were of limited English-language proficiency.

Overall, test scores for students at King indicated performance in the middle range for the state. The student mobility rate was just under 5 percent. Spending per pupil exceeded the state average by a small amount. Teachers salaries in the district also exceeded the state average.

Metropolitan School is located in a poor inner-city neighborhood that serves as one of the major ports of entry for immigrants to the United States. Local housing consists entirely of multiple-family dwellings. The school is an old fenced-in, three-story building, with an asphalt lot for a playground. A surge in the neighborhood population had created severe overcrowding in the school, and auditoriums and gymnasiums had been converted to classroom use. A recent solution to the problem has been the move to a year-round calendar, with one-quarter of the students out for vacation at a time.

Student scores on math and science achievement indicated performance that is below average for the state. Almost two-thirds of the students were African-American and just under one-third were Hispanics. Fewer than 5 percent were white. Over 90 percent of the students came from low-income families, and 1 in 5 students were of limited English-language proficiency. The student mobility rate was over 80 percent.

Metro City Area Senior High Schools

Hamilton Township High School is located in a community adjacent to Metro City. The campus covers 60 acres, the size of a small college. Built for a population twice the current size, the school includes huge athletic fields, six gymnasiums, extensive computer rooms with the newest equipment, a vast library, an auto body shop, a printing room for the school newspaper, woodworking shops, fully equipped chemistry laboratories, and a day care center.

Students at Hamilton scored above average on math and science tests. The student body reflected the composite racial distribution of the neighborhoods it served, with almost identical proportions of whites and African-Americans, about 45 percent each, with the remaining 10 percent made up largely of Hispanics and Asian Americans. About 30 percent of the students were from low-income families, and under 10 percent of the students were of limited English-language proficiency. The student mobility rate was 12 percent. The graduation rate was almost 90 percent.

Springdale High School is located in an older middle-class neighborhood in a suburb bordering Metro City. The foursquare block campus sits among well-kept middle-class homes. The school has three computer labs for student use, nine gyms, two pools, and three theaters.

Students from the school scored above average in statewide tests of both math and science proficiency. About two-thirds of the students at Springdale High School were white. African-Americans comprised over one-quarter of the student body. The community prided itself on being racially integrated. Less than 10 percent of the students were from low-income families. About 1 percent of the students had limited English-language proficiency. The student mobility rate was 14 percent. The graduation rate was nearly 85 percent.

Uptown High School is a large urban school located in the heart of the city and surrounded by small shops and old brick apartment buildings. The turn-of-the-century building, which has experienced considerable wear, has an imposing classical entrance. However, this entrance was closed, because all students had to be funneled through one narrow side entrance in order to pass through security guards and metal detectors.

Students at Uptown scored well below average in state tests of math and science achievement. The majority of students failed to meet state goals in math and science; furthermore, 19 of 20 students at Uptown failed to meet state standards of writing. About 40 percent of the students were African-American, 30 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian American, and 10 percent white. Nearly four of every five students were from low-income families and nearly a third were limited English proficiency. Student mobility rates at the school were approximately 30 percent. The graduation rate at Uptown was less than 50 percent.

South Central Vocational High School, a 100-year-old school surrounded by an iron fence, is located in the inner city in a neighborhood of abandoned buildings, empty lots, and several large housing projects. To maintain security there was only one open entrance through heavy steel doors, where everyone entering had to pass through metal detectors. Some 20 surveillance cameras assisted the principal, teachers, and security staff in monitoring the halls. The hallways were lined with damaged lockers, the limited computer equipment was obsolete, broken basketball rims dangled from their posts, litter was strewn around the old oak running track, and throughout the school the paint was chipped and peeling.

South Central students were among the lowest scorers in the state on tests of math and science achievement, and the average entering student reads at the elementary school level. Over 90 percent of the students were African-Americans. About 7 percent were white, and there were small numbers of Hispanics and Asian Americans. According to the principal, most of the students came from three Metro City area housing projects, although the school accepted students from a wide geographical area. More than half of the students were from families certified as low income; some were homeless and lived on the street. Daily attendance was low, reported at 50 percent, although several teachers indicated that the figure might be closer to 25 percent. Only 20 percent of the students graduated.

West City Area Schools

West Elementary School is at the center of a low-income neighborhood, a community of small bungalows with gardens. The school is made up of long single-story, pink buildings with classrooms opening up to breezeways. The school playground is paved and the central play yard is brightly painted. Classrooms appear well stocked and personalized with colorful educational material and artwork. Students score below average on achievement tests administered statewide. The student population was about 75 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, 3 percent African-American, and 1 percent white. Students with limited English proficiency made up 62 percent of the student body, and nearly 90 percent were from low-income families. The mobility rate is 33 percent.

West Middle School is located in a low-income section of West City, a neighborhood of small single-story homes with chain link fences and often with iron bars on the windows. The school, a single-story building of parallel wings opening onto breezeways, is dark, with little student work or school material on display. But community members have worked to built an attractive and modern activity center just behind the school and have planted new playing fields.

Students scored below average on achievement tests administered statewide. The school served a population that was 77 percent Hispanic, 17 percent Asian, 3 percent African-American, and 1 percent white. Sixty percent of the students had limited English proficiency, and 85 percent were from low-income families.

West High School is located in a low-income district of West City. The campus includes clusters of single-story buildings with low tile roofs, a central courtyard, terraces with grass and trees, an outdoor amphitheater, tennis courts, and sports fields. The diverse student body included 43 percent Hispanics, 38 percent Asians, 7 percent whites, and 5 percent African-Americans. Several other groups represented the remaining 7 percent.

Students at the school performed below state averages in both the mathematics and verbal sections of the state achievement test. Approximately 40 percent of the students were from low-income families, and 46 percent had limited English proficiency.

East City Area Schools

East Elementary School is an old two-story brick building, surrounded by large oak trees, and nestled into a suburban community of East City. One of the magnet schools in the district, East Elementary School provided a full-day program that included after-school care for students. According to the results of statewide tests, students at East Elementary scored at about the state average in math and science. The student population was ethnically mixed: 53 percent were white, and 42 percent were African-American. The percentage of students eligible for a free lunch was 25 percent.

East Middle School is an immense, modern school built within the last 5 years. It is located amid rolling hills and horse farms that is rapidly being transformed into a suburban community of new housing subdivisions. Because it is a year-round school, students attend 45 days, then have 15 days off, so that at any one time three-quarters of the students are in school and one-quarter are on break. Student achievement in math and science was average for the state. Close to 90 percent of the students were white and less than 10 percent are African-American. Seven percent of the students were eligible for free lunches.

East High School, built about 20 years ago, is a large split-level structure on the east side of town, serving a district that was created to ensure racial and socioeconomic balance. The school is overcrowded and seven trailers served as supplementary classrooms. The school includes a large gymnasium, multiple athletic fields, a football stadium, and a child-care center. Computer access is provided in all curriculum areas, and the school was one of two in the county to offer English as a Second Language program.

Student scores on math and science tests were in the middle range for the state. White students made up 62 percent of the student body, and 38 percent were African-American. Fourteen percent of the students were eligible for free lunches.

Organization of the Volume

National Standards

This chapter explores the issue of standards for students' academic performance in the United States. Recent national-level initiatives are reviewed, and perceptions and attitudes of teacher and parents are described. Similarly, state and local initiatives are profiled. The chapter also describes curriculum development and implementation, assessment issues, and the factors that influence academic achievement, including the learning environment and parental expectations and involvement. Implications of academic standards for the transition after high school are also discussed.

Individual Differences

The second chapter focuses on individual differences in academic achievement, how they are perceived within the United States, and how the schools address them. Practices in ability grouping and tracking are described, along with the implications for gender equity in math and science, and the impact of these practices for various racial and ethnic groups. The chapter also provides information on the education of those who are learning disabled, severely handicapped, and those considered gifted.

The Role of School in Adolescents' Lives

This chapter focuses on the role that school plays in the lives of adolescents in the United States. This begins with a section on how adolescents use their time, with descriptions of the school day, extracurricular and after-school activities, homework, time with family, leisure, social lives, and employment. Students were also interviewed about their perceptions of schooling and education. The chapter includes broader issues of adolescent concerns, such as academic pressure, relationships, safety issues, drug use, sexuality, and family problems. The multiple influences on adolescents' lives are explored, as is the transition to adulthood and students' views of the future.

Teacher Preparation and Teachers' Lives

This chapter looks at the conditions that influence the effectiveness of teachers. The first section describes two aspects of teacher's lives that were of special interest: the personal characteristics of teachers, and teacher training and professional development, including student teaching, past and current efforts at professional development, salaries, benefits, and union involvement. The second section discusses working conditions in terms of physical environments, cultures of expectations, sources of instructional support, and locus of instructional decisionmaking and planning.

These chapters provide an overview of four important facets of the United States education system and offer descriptive information from the sites where we observed and interviewed.


[Executive Summary] [Table of Contents] [The Development and Implementation of Education Standards in the United States (Part 1 of 4)]