Letters to the Editor
I would like to respond to your provocative article "Foreigners Outpace American Students in Science,'' (April 29, 1987). It caught my attention as I was educated in England and am now chairman of science and mathematics in an independent dayschool, as well as a research associate at a local medical school.
There are many fine teachers of science and mathematics in America, but it is unfair to compare their students' performance with that of students from other countries.
The data used, preliminary results from the Second International Science Study, were fundamentally flawed. It compared American students who have studied biology or physics for one or two years with students in England who--if they were scientifically inclined--studied from age 11, two years of general science and biology followed by five years of chemistry, biology, and physics.
Also, how long do you imagine British liberal-arts students study science? Cross-checking with English colleagues I found that they receive two years of general science and biology, followed by three years of biology, or chemistry, or physics.
In mathematics, for the non-mathematically inclined, English schools provide five years of math ending with pre-calculus. Math-inclined students further prepare for university with two more years of three math courses (pure math, applied math, and calculus).
Let us study this problem systematically. It must surely be the case that the more you study the better the results. Given this, why compare a two-year biology student from America with a student from England who has studied science for seven years?
How should we improve teaching students science and math in America? While I do agree that one important element in achievement of any sort is motivation and family support of a fine work ethic (both traditional in England and Japan), I disagree strongly with the curatives suggested by Bill G. Aldridge, the executive director of the National Science Teachers' Association.
He is quoted as saying, "We're not doing very well, that's a fact. But if we don't go in and produce qualified teachers, build laboratories, and raise teacher's salaries, we won't improve. Look at other countries and see what they are doing in this regard.'' This betrays a common error of American thought about how to improve standards.
If we simply pour more money into an educational process perpetuating the present system, we will not produce better teachers and our students will continue to be eclipsed by their European rivals.
England has minimal resources for education in comparison with America, so perhaps we should be looking for a reason other than dollar expenditure, for their high student achievement.
Chairman of Science and Mathematics