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Why Johnny Can't Compute

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If you know a young person who has recently finished high school, chances are he or she is scientifically and technologically illiterate. The United States seems to be losing ground not only in qualifying its young people for careers in science and engineering, but also in preparing them for contact of almost any kind with the modern world of technology.

The past decade has seen a continuing decline in both the quantity and quality of science and mathematics education. There is a shortage of teachers to correct these defi-ciencies, and many who do teach are improperly prepared. These concerns become more serious when comparing U.S. programs with those of other countries.

Let's start with quantity. Our children are introduced to science and arithmetic in elementary school. Of the 25 hours available for teaching in a school week, children receive, on the average, one hour of science and fewer than four of arithmetic. Students continue math in junior high, but most don't start algebra--the first rung on the ladder of higher mathematics--until the ninth grade, and then only two-thirds do so. Science programs fare even less well: Most junior-high schools offer few opportunities to explore scientific topics in any systematic or cumulative way.

More than 3 million young people graduate from our high schools each year. Most seniors have had a biology course, a little over a third have had chemistry, but less than a fifth have had three years of science. A traditional physics course is part of this sequence for only 10 percent of high-school graduates. Only 34 percent have completed three years of math. This may help explain the 70-percent increase in remedial math-ematics courses offered by public four-year colleges over the last five years.

How does this happen? One clue is student attitudes. The popularity of mathematics drops from a high of 48 percent in grade 3 to a low of 18 percent in grade 12. Science fares worse still, the result of a dislike acquired early. By the end of the 3rd grade, nearly half the students say they would not like to take more science. Only 20 percent of 8th graders have a positive attitude toward science courses, a percentage that remains constant through high school. One encouraging note is that students like science when they learn about it outside school: through museums, planetariums, "marine worlds," and television.

What about the quality of science and math learning? Three successive nationwide studies showed a decline in science achievement. In two successive national studies of mathematics, elementary-school children showed a negligible decline overall, but the decline widened for 13-year-olds and was greatest for 17-year-olds.

In addition, average science and mathematics scores on standardized tests have steadily declined over the past 20 years. The mean score in mathematics on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (sat) dropped from 502 in 1963 to 466 in 1980. Even the proportion of students scoring above 700 (out of a possible 800) on the s.a.t.'s mathematics section declined 15 percent between 1967 and 1975. During that time, the number of students scoring below 300 on the math section increased 38 percent.

(There is a bright spot in this dismal picture, however. In the 1970's, the number of students taking advanced-placement examinations more than doubled, and the mean grades in science and mathematics increased every year from 1969 to 1979.)

Who is doing the teaching? The shortage of qualified mathematics and science teachers is a matter of serious concern. In 1980, 28 states reported a shortage of math teachers and 16 states listed the problem as critical. The situation is similar in both general science and science specialties. During the 1970's, the United States experienced a 77-percent decline in the number of secondary-school mathematics teachers being trained and a 65-percent decline in science teachers. Moreover, of those trained to teach science or mathematics, fewer are going into teaching; many choose to work in industry instead. Nationwide, 50 percent of the teachers employed by high schoools to teach math or science for 1981-82 were unquali-fied; they taught with emergency certificates.

Not only is there a shortage of qualified science and mathematics teachers, there is also a shortage of college programs to educate them. The training of science and math teachers has become nobody's business. And the extensive programs set up by the National Science Foundation during the 1960's to retrain teachers after college no longer exist.


Consider precollege science and mathematics education in other countries, such as the Soviet Union, East Germany, the People's Republic of China, and Japan, where the importance of science and technology is widely recognized.

In these countries, the school year averages 240 days; ours is typically 180 days. There, absence from school is minimal; in the United States, students are absent an average of 20 school days (one month) per year. They have school weeks of five-and-a-half or six days and school days of six to eight hours. U.S. children attend school four to five hours a day, five days a week. In these countries, school vacations are short and dispersed throughout the year, minimizing interference with learning; U.S. children have a three-month intellectual hiatus in the summer.

Each of these countries has a national policy emphasizing the importance of science and mathematics education to economic and cultural progress. We have no national education policy.

As in the United States, children abroad begin instruction in science and arithmetic in elementary school. For the first three years, all their subjects are taught by one teacher. Specially trained science and mathematics teachers take over in grade 4--the pattern through all remaining grades. Most U.S. elementary-school children have one teacher for all subjects during the first six years.

Specialized study begins for children in other countries in the 6th grade, with separate courses in mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, and geography. Each course extends over four to six years and is required of all students.

Students spend about three times as many class hours on these subjects as even the most science-oriented American students (those who elect four years of science and mathematics in secondary school). Yet even with the emphasis in these countries on math and science, at no time does it exceed the amount allocated to the social sciences, humanities, and languages. Indeed, language study--usually English--is encouraged to make it possible for students to tap the world's largest source of scientific and technical information--ours. Currently, there are more students and adults learning English in China than there are English-speaking people in the U.S.

And science and mathematics teachers are trained in special programs. In the Soviet Union, precollege science teachers must carry out a research project in their major field before they can teach in a secondary school. The study is reviewed by a faculty committee similar to that for a doctoral dissertation in a U.S. university. Each of the four countries provides continuing programs of inservice ("adult") education; local colleges and universities are expected to assume much of this responsibility. Members of the academy of sciences in each country share responsibility for keeping curricular materials up to date.

I do not mean to imply that we should duplicate these efforts. But they do tell us that other countries recognize the importance of science and mathematics, not only in encouraging a large percentage of students to pursue related careers, but in developing a citizenry supportive of scientific endeavors. I am not sure we are doing the same.

Vol. 02, Issue 10, Page 16

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