Top U.S. Officials Confront Math, Science Crisis

By Susan Walton — May 19, 1982 8 min read
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In an unusual appearance before a convocation of educators and scientists, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger said last week that U.S. national security will be seriously weakened if some action is not taken to remedy the well-documented problems in precollege science and mathematics education.

Secretary Weinberger joined some 600 scientists, educators, mathematicians, and government and industry officials who gathered here for a National Convocation on Precollege Education in Mathematics and Science.

Sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the meeting was convened to foster a “national dialogue” on the problems that exist in these areas.

Symposium a ‘Turning Point’

The speakers acknowledged that the problems in precollege science and mathematics education are not new, nor are they amenable to quick and easy solutions. Many, however, expressed the belief that the academy’s symposium would mark “a turning point” and lead to positive action in the federal, state, and local governments, as well as in the private sector.

One outcome of this dialogue, they said, might be more “partnerships” between education, business, and industry.

“Given our vastly different perspectives, I doubt that by noon tomorrow we will agree even on the specifics of the problem,” said Frank Press, president of the nas and former White House science adviser during the Carter Administration. “However, I have no doubt that we will increase the consciousness of the American public that the problem exists--and that it is serious,” he continued.

It is not the first time that scientists, educators, and government officials have experienced concern about the dismal state of science and mathematics education, several speakers noted. The issues under discussion now bear a marked resemblance to those that cropped up after the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, said Gov. Albert H. Quie of Minnesota.

Governor Quie first came to Washington as a member of Congress in 1958, the year that Congress passed the National Defense Education Act. ''I feel like this is where I came in,” he said.

But the times are markedly different, other speakers were quick to point out; now, remedial action may have to take place in the near-total absence of federal support. The Reagan Administration has proposed a budget of $15 million for the National Science Foundation’s science-education programs, none of which would be spent to support programs at the elementary and secondary levels.

The Administration, however, is well aware of the situation, according to a statement from President Reagan that was delivered to the group by Edwin L. Harper, assistant to the President for policy development.

“The problems today in elementary- and secondary-school science and mathematics education are serious--serious enough to compromise America’s future ability to develop and advance our traditional industrial base to compete in international marketplaces,” the statement said.

The budget cuts, President Reagan said in the statement, were justified. “This administration,” he stated, “has deliberately suspended what had become a proliferation of small federal programs which--taken together--showed themselves to be ineffective in stemming the slide in science and math performance that has been evident for at least a decade.”

Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, however, suggested in one of 18 recommendations he offered the convocation that not all federally supported science-education programs were ineffective. One helpful action, the Secretary said, would be to “encourage state and local education agencies to devise challenging in-service and support programs for math and science teachers modeled after programs and practices that worked in the 1960’s and 70’s.”

Longstanding Problem

The troubled state of precollege science and mathematics education was documented in the late 1970’s and became the subject of considerable attention in 1980, when the Education Department (ED) and the National Science Foundation (nsf) issued a report to the White House.

That report, “Science and Engineering Education for the 80’s and Beyond,” described most Americans as “scientifically illiterate,” and said that most students took few courses in science and mathematics beyond the minimum required.

Since then, other studies have documented serious deficiencies in teacher training and in the qualifications of the science and mathematics teachers now teaching. (See Education Week, March 31.) A number of researchers have reported that other nations--Japan, the two Germanies, and the U.S.S.R., for example--require far more science and mathematics coursework of their students and as a result have workforces that are better prepared to compete in world industry and to increase productivity.

In the U.S., education was a key factor in the growth of national productivity between 1948 and 1973, according to Edward F. Denison, senior economist at the Brookings Institution. “A continuous upward shift in the educational background of the American labor force upgraded the skills and versatility of labor and contributed 20 percent of the growth of national income per person employed in nonresidential business’’ during this period, Mr. Denison told the group.

Secretary Bell concurred with the “generally sobering analysis on the sorry state of science and math in our schools,” and said he was concerned about the educational and economic ramifications. But he also noted that the primary responsibility for education, including science and mathematics education, lies with state and local agencies.

Secretary Weinberger said the Department of Defense regards solving the problems in science and mathematics education as “vital from the point of view of national security.”

“We’re becoming increasingly dependent on scientifically and technologically sophisticated personnel in the Department of Defense and the defense-industrial base as well,” he said.

Senator Harrison H. Schmitt, Republican of New Mexico, agreed that the situation has become critical. “Unless we soon make major and rapid advances in advanced science and engineering education for talented young people, and in general science and mathematics education among the electorate, America will fail to compete successfully in the world arena,” he said.

“This impending crisis in scientific and technological education is relevant not only to our economy and domestic well-being,” he said, ''but also to our ability to survive as a free nation.”

The speakers offered differing opinions of the reasons for the problems. “Why are we here today?” asked David Z. Robinson, executive vice president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. “What went wrong?”

“Many changes have occurred,” Mr. Robinson said, and educators have learned from the past. “We have learned that you cannot develop a teacher-proof curriculum,” he said. “We have learned that the curriculum does not thrive on controversy. And we have learned that the curricula scientists like are not necessarily those that students and teachers like.”

Other speakers cited teachers’ low salaries, poor or nonexistent education-school programs for science and mathematics teachers, and insufficiently rigorous requirements for students as factors behind the current “crisis.”

Solutions Elusive

The solutions to these problems, however, are likely to prove elusive. “What you’re setting out to do here is extremely difficult, and you know it,” said Richard Heckert, vice chairman of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

“Many of you can describe the problem much more accurately and describe the solutions with more confidence than you should,” he said. Those who are aware of the problems, but who are not working in the public schools, may have a tendency to oversimplify the situation, he suggested.

Those who work in the schools, he said, know that any attempts to change the situation must take into account the sometimes-conflicting interests of all parties involved.

The speakers offered proposals for ameliorating the situation similar to those voiced by participants in other professional science and mathematics meetings this year. Providing special stipends for teachers in areas of “critical shortage” would be one way of encouraging teachers to shun the higher salaries offered in the private sector, said B. Frank Brown, program director of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation and chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Secondary Schools for the State of Florida.

Some speakers, including Secretary Bell, proposed extending the school day so that students would spend more time in the classroom.

Many also proposed “partnerships” between education, business, and industry.

“Improvement in education must be viewed as a profitable investment for business,” said William C. Norris, chairman of the board of Control Data Corporation.

Good examples of such programs exist, Mr. Norris said, including some sponsored by Control Data Corporation.

The company’s Career Outreach program, for example, is designed to give 10th and 11th graders training in industry through summer and part-time jobs.

In Minnesota, a project called Minnesota Wellspring has brought together leaders in labor, business, agriculture, education, and government, according to Governor Quie. The project’s goal is to “mobilize Minnesota-based support for new and better jobs through imagination, scientific discovery, technological innovation, business growth, and wise public policy,” according to the Governor.

Mr. Robinson of the Carnegie Corporation noted that any steps to improve precollege science and mathematics education should be taken with care. The efforts must be sustained; they must include all constituencies--students, teachers, parents, and government; they must include realistic assessments of resources needed and available; and they must include a strong research component.

Many speakers also expressed the hope that the Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology, established recently by nsf’s National Science Board, would help formulate a national policy for precollege science and mathematics education.

Speedy action, however, is crucial, they noted. “The most important thing,” said James C. Crimmins, producer of the science-film series ''Search for Solutions,” “is to do something now.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 1982 edition of Education Week as Top U.S. Officials Confront Math, Science Crisis


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