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Is your math curriculum coherent?

In international comparisons, US students have traditionally not been doing well in math. According to the 2003 TIMSS study, US fourth graders were just above average, eighth graders were just below average, and twelfth graders were well below average. Thankfully, these results improved somewhat in the 2007 and 2011 TIMSS studies, where US fourth and eighth graders scored above average. In the PISA 2012 results, the United States performed below average in mathematics among the 34 OECD countries and was ranked 27th.

There are many reasons for this lagging behind. William Schmidt, Richard Houang, and Leland Cogan have done research into the curricula in the best performing countries versus US, giving us one clue as to why it happens. The following article is based on their report A Coherent Curriculum: The Case of Mathematics, which appeared in Summer 2002 in American Educator.

Schmidth et al. compared the national curricula of the best performing countries versus US state standards and district standards for math (since US does not have a national curriculum). Several differences emerged:

US math curricula tend to be:

  • not focused. No country in the world covers as many topics as US in their mathematics textbooks. For example, in Japan, eighth-grade textbooks have about 10 topics whereas US books have over 30 topics.

  • highly repetitive. The 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. Like Schmidt says, "We introduce topics early and then repeat them year after year. To make matters worse, very little depth is added each time the topic is addressed because each year we devote much of the time to reviewing the topic."

  • not very demanding by international standards, especially in the middle-school. In the USA, students keep studying basic arithmetic till 7th and 8th grade, whereas other coutries change to beginning concepts in algebra and geometry.

  • incoherent. The math books are like a collection of arbitrary topics. Like Schmidt et al. say, "...in the United States, mathematics standards are long laundry lists of seemingly unrelated, separate topics."

What this means is that typically in the US, a math topic is studied for a short time, and then the next one, and then the next one, and on and on. A good part of this short time is spent reviewing previous year's knowledge. It follows that any particular math topic is NEVER studied very deeply in any given school year.

Also, during the school year, many topics are covered but not in a coherent and logical order. Instead the topics tend to jump here and there in somewhat of an arbitrary fashion.

The end result of following such "hodgepodge" curriculum that is "inch deep and mile wide" is that by the end of eighth grade, US students are about two years behind their counterparts in the best performing countries.

In America, students are often still learning basic arithmetic (such as fractions and decimals) in 7th and 8th grades, whereas students in other countries have moved on to algebra, geometry, and trigonometry topics.

See for yourself! The following two charts show which topics are typically covered in which grade, either in the US or in the best performing countries.

Notice the upper triangular structure in the first chart. It means more difficult topics are studied in later grades.

The difference between the two is striking. In the US, there are several topics that are studied in all 8 grade levels. Also, the US has many more topics per grade in each grade level. The topics do not seem to flow coherently and logically from easy to difficult.

Mathematics topics intended at each grade by at least two thirds of the best performing countries in TIMSS
Click to enlarge
Mathematics topics intended at each grade by at least two thirds of 21 U.S. states
Click to enlarge

The Common Core Standards

The Common Core Standards (CCS) that are being implemented in the US especially since 2012 are changing all this. The CCS require less topics per grade level and introduce some depth into them that has been lacking in the US math curricula. They are also more challenging than most states' previous standards. Therefore, the curricula in the US should be moving towards more coherency now.

Check your math books

Just check your own math books for several grades: do you find lots of overlapping? If you're using a homeschooling curricula, you might not find too much because this problem is especially present in math books used in public school.

Check 1st and 2nd grade books together, then 3rd and 4th grade books, then 5th and 6th grade books, and lastly 7th and 8th grade books. How much overlap and reviewing of previous year's topics do you find?

Are fractions for example studied in each of the grade levels from 1st till 7th/8th, with little bits each year? Does your math curriculum teach the concept of perimeter or an octagon in many grade levels? How about decimals? How many school years does it take to learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals?

What to do?

If the books have lots of overlapping, you can eliminate some of that just by skipping some pages. You can also consider teaching the same topic from two neighboring grade levels one right after the other, skipping the overlaps.

For example, you could teach the geometry sections of 3rd and 4th grade books one right after the other in one grade level only, or combine the sections on decimals from two different grade levels into one longer section, eliminating some of the review you will undoubtedly find. Remember, there is no need to study decimals in 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades — students can surely learn them quicker than that.

Now, this doesn't mean that students don't need review because they do. However, going deeper and for longer periods of time into one topic should help students understand the concepts better so that less review is needed later.

An alternative

As an alternative, consider Math Mammoth Blue Series topical books and Math Mammoth Complete Curriculum (Light Blue Series). These books are mastery-oriented, and emphasize mental math, conceptual development, and number sense.


The Role of Curriculum - short article by William Schmidt.

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

Curriculum Focal Points is a 2006 report by NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics). In it, they advice everyone to have focal points for each grade so that the curriculum is focused and coherent.


While I disagree with comparing our America with foreign nations, I do agree that our school children are being taught most subjects on a superficial level. This is one of the many reasons that we, my husband and I, chose to home school our children.

My state's Department of Education has published standards on its website. I do have to conform to those standards if I wish to home school our children. However, I don't like to teach "a mile wide and an inch deep," and our children don't like to be constantly switching topics. Fortunately, our state has heard the call from mathematics educators and has changed its standards beginning next school year. It's similar to the "Figure 1" page.


I got my confirmation by reading your article. I am foreign born, and could not understand why the American children could not grasp math as any other foreigner. I can see it from both sides of the coin, and realized that one major problem is they are not versatile in the times table, because their brain is the calculator. It tried my utmost best to have my kids learn and and know it, because in some exams you are not allowed to use a calculator. In the earlier grades, the children are not pushed enough to grasp this nice subject "math". I agreed it's a long drawn, waste of time subject which confuses the students. I think it's time for the Educational System in this country to get the message, and do as the foreigners. I did some college courses, and when I see what is being taught, I smiled to myself, because I already did it in my country. I was way advanced in the class. Another area, the children are crammed with too much homework in grades 5-8. If a different pattern occurs, maybe the children could relax, and get on with an easier flow. It's time to get up America.


I am a retired public school teacher. I taught first, third, and 1-5 self contained LD and resource classes 1-5. As I walked the halls of my school and heard the lessons being taught, I was so enraged! I knew students sitting in those classes that had learned those skills I still heard being taught and retaught. The work on display outside the classrooms showed very little improvement beyond what the same children had done in the earlier years. We spin our wheels over and over teaching the same thing year after year and wonder why they can't do better on testing. They are bored to death. This is not just in math. It is in phonics, language skills, creative writing, basic logic skills. As a nation we teach a swallow and spit back out curriculum that is mandated by the state standards. If a child is capable of going beyond, teachers are not allowed to take them higher. "It's not on the grade level standards". Likewise, if a student needs to review last year's standards, it is not allowed. We must stay on grade level standards. Now do you see why Johhny can't read, spell, write, solve problems, of think. He never had to. He just memorized information for a test and never saw it again until the next year when he rememorized the same facts and passed with flying colors. Homeschool teachers, please don't teach the memorize and spit back out method. Make you children reason, explain why or why not, defend a position with research data. Don't put out robots. Public school has already handled that job very well.


I whole heartly agree with you. Just this week I was reading about America's educational status compared to the international community (www.oecd.org/pisa). While I'm not home schooling (unfortunately don't have the time or patience) we are doing alot to supplement school and encourage logical thinking.

I see your data is referencing 2001. There is a newer study by PISA which shows our lack of progress. [See https://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results.htm]. Thanks for the great product and info,

Stacy Andrews

I really appreciate your blog. Math is not and never has been my strongest area, so I am no genius, but at times I've been frustrated by the sheer number of concepts to be taught at each grade level. I have texts for 3-5th grade and I see lots of overlapping, but thanks to your article, I know how to remedy the problem. Thank you so much for this timely article!

Patricia Greene

Now I see what the problem stems from as far as our students not grasping concepts. Its not the curriculum but overlapping and not sticking to the basic concepts until the students have mastered the topic being taught. I don't see how our sudents will ever catch up with other countries in math if they never learn or master any of the concepts before moving on to any of the other areas of math. Thank you so much for this article. I am glad that I am not alone in thinking about what the problems stem from and how I can better my teaching strategies in mastery alone!!!!


I am a 8th grade mathematics teacher that homeschools his four kids. There is no way in the world I am putting my kids back in public school for the exact reason I just read in your article. As a matter of fact, I am going into my 3rd year of teaching (I am 27) and I have been ranting and raving about precisely the same argument that is being posed within this article. There is too much stuff in a math curriculum over here (in the states) and we spend entirely too much time reviewing. I should not have 16 year olds in my 8th grade class who have no idea how to change a improper fraction into a mixed number, that's 3rd, 4th grade stuff. It's absolutely ridiculous and I commend you for this article.

Marcus D. Sanders

Thanks for this article. Having always seen math as a threat and recently attempting to face it head on, I realized that it is not an impossible task, but have still been wondering why so many of my classmates (including myself) have difficulty grasping the concepts. A professor recently mentioned to our class that the U.S. rates lower in math than any other country. I know the standards of teaching in other countries are much higher but could not understand why the entire US population did so poorly in math. I now have the answer!!!!! I appreciate knowing that I am not alone.


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