Math, Science Improvements Must Involve Female and Minority Students

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Worry over the sorry state of mathematics and science education burst onto the national scene just one year ago. In April 1982, the National Science Board announced the appointment of a distinguished national Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology to "define a national agenda for improving science and math education." A month later President Reagan called the state of mathematics and science education "serious enough to compromise the nation's future ability to compete in international marketplaces." "Action," he said, is "long overdue."

Since then, education, government, and business leaders in every state and city have spoken up. The latest reports of national deficiencies in mathematics education have become front-page news. Even the advocates of less government are looking for ways to channel scarce public dollars into new programs to boost mathematics and science education.

The chorus of concern is already beginning to produce results. In March, the House of Representatives passed the first major education bill to surface in the age of cutbacks--HR 1310, the Emergency Mathematics and Science Education Act. Local school boards are raising math and science requirements. Corporations are beginning to offer philanthropic dollars and company expertise for improving math and science education.

This attention should prove a boon to public education, especially since it comes at a time when support for public schooling is in question and school effectiveness has been on the decline. It's bringing new interest and energy, fresh perspectives, and additional resources.

That's the good news. The bad news is that without more attention to the needs of the majority of the student population--which is not white, middle class, and male--all of these efforts could miss the mark.

Science and technology, by and large, have survived into the 1980's as a white, male club. By the end of the last decade, out of the nation's 2.7 million scientists, only 1.5 percent were black and 5 percent were female. Men held 87 percent of the jobs in math, computers, and the life sciences and 99 percent of the jobs in engineering. Over half of the minority scientists and engineers were Asian and 90 percent of those were foreign-born.

Education--or the lack of it--is by far the biggest culprit. As parents and educators, we have allowed--even aided and abetted--our female and minority youths to avoid the educational experiences that form essential building blocks for scientific and technical training. We've fed the myth that science and math are male domains, and the property of the white middle class at that. Consider the following items:

  • Research indicates that math and science teachers have higher expectations of and make more demands on their male students, as Lynn Fox of The Johns Hopkins University points out in her review of the research on women and math. They ask more questions of boys and they ask them more difficult questions.
  • College-bound girls lag behind boys on math Scholastic Aptitude Tests by approximately 50 points. That performance difference reflects a disparity in the number of high-school math courses young men and women take: On the average, girls take fewer math courses than boys.
  • In a recent statewide study conducted by the Project on Equal Education Rights in Michigan, boys outnumbered girls by almost two to one in high-school computer-science courses.
  • What stops many young women from taking advanced courses are low self-confidence, lack of support from teachers and parents, and the belief that math and science will not be needed in future careers. In their teen-age years, young women are unwittingly selecting themselves out of a wide range of career opportunities.
  • Math and science avoidance is a common pattern for black and Hispanic students as well. A national longitudinal study found that black and Hispanic students take fewer algebra and geometry courses than white students and are enrolled in fewer advanced and honors math courses.
  • Minority students are heavily concentrated in low-income areas and schools where the level of learning in math and science--and in language skills as well--is a national disgrace. In the newest math results just released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the bottom quartile in math performance included 18 percent of the white students, 49 percent of the Hispanic students, and 50 percent of the black students.

So far, most of the public policy debate on improving math and science education has focused on how we get more and better trained teachers in math and science. None of these measures, though, go to the heart of the culture gap that threatens to produce yet another generation of female and minority "techno-peasants."

Nobody knows exactly where new technologies and the shift from a manufacturing- to an information- and service-based economy will take us. But we do know that millions of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are disappearing, and that the fastest-growing job categories demand a higher level of education and math/technical literacy than the jobs we are losing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 1990, the shortage of computer specialists will reach half a million. The shortage of engineers is now serious and growing more so each year.

The fastest way to ease those shortages is to remove the roadblocks to math and technical education that have made women and minorities our largest untapped technological talent pool. The white, male club is an anachronism we can no longer afford. Our workforce is increasingly female and nonwhite. White men are already a minority in the labor force--women and minority men now make up 53 percent of our workers, and the figure is rising.

By 1990, almost one-third of the school-age population will be nonwhite, and in some states it will approach 50 percent. And among the young people now in school, a rising proportion of females will be working to support themselves and to keep their families afloat.

If we don't act now to give our female and minority young people the basic educational tools they will need to survive in an economy dominated by new technologies, we court disaster. And if we don't tap the creative brainpower of the best and the brightest female and minority young people in reshaping our economy, U.S. leadership is likely to continue its downward slide.

The key is what happens in the schools during the next few years. The best thing we can do for all our young people is to equip them with the basic building blocks for any number of careers. Those include math, science, language, and computers.

To break down the special barriers many of our female and minority students face in acquiring a solid science and math education, educators will need to adopt some fresh approaches. Fortunately, we have many successful models. For example, the California-based EQUALS group provides inservice-training programs to help math teachers be more effective with women and minority students. And Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) prepares minority high-school students for college engineering programs.

For Congress and policymakers at the state and local level, bringing the female and minority mainstream into the technological future is going to require serious attention and the thoughtful use of resources. Congress took a ministep in the right direction in action on the emergency science and math legislation by asking states and local districts to consider the needs of young women and minorities. But neither Congress nor the executive branch has yet been willing to invest dollars in the targeted programs to knock down barriers for the majority of students who are female and/or minority.

We don't need a new set of expensive programs. We do need a careful investment at all levels in special projects that will open the wealth of science, math, and technical opportunities to all our young people. That means attacking the myth, still visible in the classroom today, that technology is a white, male world.

Vol. 02, Issue 33, Page 24

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