Education Commentary

Assessing the Need for Science Education: Knowledge of Science Vital for All Children

By Beryl Dorsett — November 23, 1988 6 min read

By the turn of the century, an estimated 7 out of every 10 American jobs will be related to the technologies of advanced computers and electronics.

But despite the nation’s traditional leadership in these fields, many educators--as well as businessmen--are not optimistic that the United States is ready to reap the benefits of this transformation.

As a result of the country’s lagging performance in science and mathematics education, the information revolution could endanger rather than enhance American prosperity.

The nation must answer the challenge not only of preserving its economic preeminence but also of opening new careers and better lives for its young people. If we are to provide these opportunities, sound instruction in mathematics, science, and technology must be part of every student’s education.

Three recent studies--sponsored by the Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education--all underline the urgency of the problem identified five years ago in A Nation at Risk: ''We are raising a new generation of Americans that is scientifically and technologically illiterate.”

Indeed, comparisons of results on a recent international test present a bleak picture of American performance in science education. In figures released by the National Science Foundation, American 5th graders ranked 8th out of 17 countries in science achievement, and 9th graders 15th of 17. Advanced Placement high-school chemistry students placed 11th and A.P. physics students 9th among 13 countries.

In math, the outcomes are similar. Our 8th graders score well below students of other countries in solving problems that require analysis rather than just memorization. And the average Japanese 12th-grade math student performs at a higher level than 95 percent of American 12th graders.

And not simply are many students failing to learn because of ineffective instruction; large numbers are losing interest in science and mathematics.

Compounding this concern, as Erich Bloch, director of the N.S.F., has noted, are ongoing demographic changes: The population of college-age Americans peaked in 1983 and is expected to decline for several decades.

To maintain the current level of scientists and engineers in the United States, we will have to attract a higher proportion of students into these fields, as Japan and other nations in economic competition with the U.S. are already doing.

These trends suggest the special importance of driving more women and minority students into science and math--particularly in light of predictions that by 1995, blacks and Hispanics will make up as much as 40 percent of the country’s college-age population.

To improve science and mathematics education for all students-and expand the pool of potential scientists and technologists--we must first develop new approaches to early-childhood instruction.

In a project funded by the U.S. Education Department, the John Hopkins Center for Research on Elementary and Middle School found that a majority of girls, minority students, and disadvantaged students are lost to these subjects by the time they leave elementary school.

To correct this problem, educators must learn to treat every child as an individual Above all, teachers must avoid stigmatizing a youngster because he is poor and does not fit the image of a science student.

Often, we do not know young children’s potential; mathematical ability, for instance, can develop at different ages. Each child should be encouraged by high expectations and held to strict standards.

And all children should be exposed to the study of mathematical concepts rather than limited to instruction in computation supported by sound teaching, challenging curricula promote students’ confidence and interest in these subjects.

While children from disadvantaged backgrounds may require special attention and encouragement, they should not be relegated to “slow” or remedial tracks-the existence of which perpetuate an academic as well as social underclass. Indeed, these students need the best teachers.

Second, we must improve the teaching of mathematics and science at all grade levels. “Seen only as a laundry list of theorems in a workbook, science can be a bore,” wrote former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in his report on elementary education, First Lessons, “But as a ‘hands on’ adventure guided by a knowledgeable teacher, it can sweep children up in the excitement of discovery,”

Indeed, “hands on” teaching has become the watchword of a reform movement to tie science education more closely to current developments in the field and, where possible, to real-life experience. Space exploration, for instance, offers numerous opportunities for such study.

As such outstanding teachers as Jaime Escalante, of Garfield High School in Los Angeles, have demonstrated, science and math teaching can and should stimulate children. In this area, as in all of education, the old rules apply: high standards and expectations, substantial homework, rich curricula, and good teaching.

Schools have a duty to provide well-qualified teachers. But according to the N.S.F., about 30 percent of all high-school science and math teachers are unqualified. Only about one in three elementary school teachers has taken a college chemistry course, and one in five a physics course.

Third, we must devote more instructional time to science and mathematics.

At the elementary-school level, science generally receives less attention than other subjects--often because the teacher is not qualified or interested.

Even worse, about 30 percent of American high schools offer no physics courses, about 18 percent no chemistry courses, and 8 percent no biology.

The federal government’s principal role in science education is to support efforts at improvement developed by those with the direct responsibility for schooling-the state and local education authorities.

In passing the Education for Economic Security Act in 1985, the Congress recognized the magnitude of the problem. This legislation authorized assistance to improve teaching in mathematics, science, computers, and foreign languages, and to widen access to these fields for all students, especially historically underrepresented minorities and females. In the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, the federal government spent $109 million toward these ends; in the current fiscal year, expenditures will reach $137 million.

Business and science institutions can also play major roles. In Massachusetts, for example, Digital Equipment Corporation is working with public schools to train females and minorities--especially in the early grades--in using the new technologies. This program, which has received the White House Award for Superior Private Initiatives, could serve as a model for other states.

Science laboratories could allow teachers access to their work; such exposure to new developments in the field would add immediacy to classroom instruction.

The investment of business in its own education programs is huge--by some estimates, almost as large as total expenditure on public education. And the programs it has developed--such as satellite technology and interactive video--hold great promise for the public schools. With the nation’s future economic standing at stake, business and academia must work together much more closely.

In the final analysis, however, the crisis in math and science education poses as much a human problem as an economic one. The quality of instruction in these fields affects the future lives of millions of children.

On sound education in science and mathematics may hinge not simply children’s discovering fascinating subjects and fulfilling careers, but also the very flowering of their minds.

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 1988 edition of Education Week