Commentary

The Problems of Science Education Need Action Instead of Further Study

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The decay of science education in America's schools has been repeatedly certified by extensive national surveys over the past few years, leaving no doubt that we are producing successive generations of scientific illiterates, to the detriment of industry, defense, and culture.

Yet, in perverse fashion, the response of the Reagan Administration has been to anguish aloud about the problem, obliterate the relatively small federal fund for doing something about it, and appoint a commission for another study.

The new commission, under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, is composed of distinguished citizens, as such bodies usually are, with William T. Coleman, the former Secretary of Transportation, and Cecily Cannan Selby, a North Carolina educator, serving as co-chairmen.

But an examination of its schedule in the context of the federal government's annual budget cycle leaves no reason to doubt that the commission is merely a replay of the old ploy of substituting study for action. The tipoff, on page seven of the press release announcing the establishment of the commission, is that it is to run for 18 months and issue its final report when it terminates, on October 15, 1983.

Since the federal fiscal year begins October 1, the commission's schedule dictates that its findings and recommendations will, at the earliest, be written into the budget that starts on October 1, 1984.

But given the slow pace and cumbersome processes that usually accompany the start-up of federal programs, it would be extraordinary if a full measure of activity were underway within a year after that date.

So, in effect, what they're talking about is a slow runup toward doing something at least three years hence about an educational decline that was voluminously documented in the late 1970's.

With polemical acrobatics, the Reagan Administration contends that further study is required to avoid alleged mistakes of the past; also, as one of its science administrators argued in a recent letter to The New York Times, we need to learn how to "expose students at an earlier age to the underlying mysteries and uncertainties of science." And, of course, local initiatives and responsibilities must be encouraged.

What's odd about these arguments is that they follow in the wake of a modestly financed series of activities--$70 million a year when Mr. Reagan came to office--that pretty well met those criteria.

Conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is widely regarded as a model of thrift and intelligent management, the activities focus on stimulating youthful interest in science, updating the skills of veteran teachers, and spurring local school authorities to expand and modernize science and math programs. By numerous accounts of the program, it was a great success; its main flaw was that there was so little of it in a nation with 17,000 school districts. Nonetheless, the Reagan Administration, immediately after coming to office, wiped it off the books. (Interestingly, a residue remains--in Japan, which has shrewdly adopted many of the science-teaching techniques that originated under American government sponsorship.)

Meanwhile, as the Administration throttles the science foundation's education role, the old problems persist, particularly that much-lamented one about the need to stimulate scientific interest in youngsters.

The matter was recently discussed, with some bitterness, by the chief of education programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, James Rutherford, who has spent a lot of time visiting science classrooms and conferring with science teachers. He told a Congressional hearing:

"At the elementary-school level, instruction in science has almost ceased, being no more in most classrooms than a few minutes a week of reading from textbooks. This deplorable condition came about when the federal government withdrew from the states funds for science specialists to help teachers conduct interesting science activities for children."

Along with many other science educators, he is baffled at the thought that anything on this subject remains to be studied.

Vol. 01, Issue 37, Page 19

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