America's Failure in Science Education


For anyone concerned about strengthening America's long-term leadership in science and technology, the nation's schools are an obvious place to start. But brace yourself for what you'll find. The depressing reality is that when it comes to educating the next generation in these subjects, America is no longer a world contender. In fact, U.S. students have fallen far behind their competitors in much of Western Europe and in advanced Asian nations like Japan and South Korea.

This trend has disturbing implications not just for the future of American technological leadership but for the broader economy. Already, "we have developed a shortage of highly skilled workers and a surplus of lesser-skilled workers," warned Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan in a Mar. 12 address at Boston College. And the problem is worsening. "[We're] graduating too few skilled workers to address the apparent imbalance between the supply of such workers and the burgeoning demand for them," Greenspan added.

As a result, "the future strength of the U.S. science and engineering workforce is imperiled," the National Science Board warned in a sweeping report issued last year.

GLOBAL COMPETITION. Until now, America has compensated for its failure to adequately educate the next generation by importing brainpower. In 2000, a stunning 38% of U.S. jobs requiring a PhD in science or technology were filled by people who were born abroad, up from 24% in 1990, according to the NSB. Similarly, doctoral positions at the nation's leading universities are often filled with foreign students.

However, because the "the global competition for science and engineering talent is intensifying...the U.S. may not be able to rely on the international market to fill our unmet needs," warns the NSB. Indeed, as globalization accelerates, bright young Indian or Chinese scientists may well have better opportunities at home than in the U.S.

The consequences of this could be enormous. Because the quality of a nation's workforce has such a huge influence on productivity, effective school reform could easily stimulate the economy more than conventional strategies, such as the Bush tax cuts. Consider what would happen if the U.S. could raise the performance of its high school students on math and science to the levels of Western Europe within a decade. According to Eric A. Hunushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, U.S. gross domestic product growth would then be 4% higher than otherwise by 2025 and 10% higher in 30 years.

That may not sound like much. But Hanushek figures that the 4% annual increase alone would be enough to offset the entire cost of America's public K-12 school system for the same year.

SCIENCE LEFT BEHIND. Here's where the problem begins with science education: By the time U.S. students reach their senior year of high school, they rank below their counterparts in 17 other countries in math and science literacy, according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, completed in 1996-97, the largest international study of student achievement ever conducted. In physics, U.S. high school seniors scored last among 16 countries tested.

Ironically, President Bush's education-reform initiative, No Child Left Behind, may be exacerbating the problem, at least for now. Because NCLB now requires that students be tested just in reading and math (science tests won't be added until 2007), "some teachers are being told to stop teaching science and get back to reading and math," complains Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Assn., which represents more than 50,000 science teachers.

One result is that most high school graduates aren't adequately prepared for college-level science courses. Indeed, the NSTA reports that just 26% of 2003 high school graduates scored high enough on the ACT science test to have a good chance of completing a first-year college science course. That's one reason why enrollments of U.S. students in science and engineering majors has been flat or declining -- even as demand for many of these skills increases.

ILL-EQUIPPED TEACHERS. The upshot: The U.S. now ranks below 13 other countries - -- including Japan, Germany, and South Korea -- in the percentage of 24-year olds with a college degree in these subjects, down from third place 25 years ago. You don't have to be a scientist to recognize that the status quo is a recipe for big trouble -- or that reversing this slide will require stronger federal leadership and more money.

Consider one root cause of the problem: The severe shortage of qualified science teachers. An astonishing 28% of those who teach at least one science class in 7th to 12th grades don't have a major or minor in science, according to Richard M. Ingersoll, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Moreoever, even those who have a science degree are often teaching outside their area of expertise. In the physical sciences -- including chemistry and physics -- 60% of the instructors don't have a major or minor in the subjects they teach.

Earlier this year, The Teaching Comission, headed by former IBM Chairman Louis Gerstner, argued in a report that the U.S. must pay science teachers more if it hopes to solve this problem. But that isn't likely to happen without leadership from Washington. As things stand now, science graduates simply have too many lucrative alternatives to teaching.

As America sleeps, other nations that have long since recognized the critical importance of science and technology education to their futures are moving ahead. The U.S. has grasped this lesson in many Olympic sports, where strong national programs have been established to ensure that America has world-class athletes. Unless the nation applies the same approach to science education, it stands to lose far more than a few gold medals. It could ultimately squander its leadership of the world economy. By William C. Symonds in Boston


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