'Students Are Not Equipped For The Society They Will Live In'

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To explore various aspects of and perspectives on the problems in mathematics and science education, Education Week invited seven authorities on the subject--including representatives of government, professional groups, industry, and teacher education--to participate in a round-table discussion. Edited excerpts from the four-hour discussion begin below and appear throughout this supplement.

Participating were:

Bill G. Aldridge, executive director, National Science Teachers Association;

Alan McClelland, staff administrator, Central Research and Development Department, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company;

David McCurdy, U.S. Representative for the Fourth District of Oklahoma;

Douglas Pewitt, assistant director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy;

Mary Budd Rowe, professor of science education, the University of Florida;

F. James Rutherford, chief education officer, American Association for the Advancement of Science;

Zalman Usiskin, professor of mathematics education, the University of Chicago;

Ronald A. Wolk, editor of Education Week; Martha K. Matzke, executive editor; and Susan Walton and Eileen White, assistant editors.

Education Week: Is there really a problem in mathematics and science education, and, if so, what is it and how did it come about?

Mr. Usiskin: A problem exists if a lot of people think a problem exists. The nation's high-school graduates are not trained as well as we would like to see them trained. I think that is everyone's perception, whether you are a liberal or a conservative. We are not talking just about college-preparatory students. Many students are not trained well enough to get into the training programs that they would like to get into.

Ms. Rowe: Keep in mind that a great many of the people, particularly in rural areas, are getting one year of high-school science, so maybe the 9th grade is the last time they have any kind of formal experience for the rest of their lives. That is a part of the problem, to say nothing about the quality of that science.

Mr. McCurdy: You may see the problem from the educational standpoint--the delivery standpoint--but there is a service problem for the man out there in industry who can't get qualified people to learn the trade. He has to train everyone. The military has to tutor everyone. College freshman need remedial education.

We talk about economic competition with Japan, but the problem goes beyond that.

A reporter in a town in my district went to the superintendent of schools and said: "Congressman McCurdy says there is a national crisis in math and science education. Is this true?" And the superintendent replied: "No, absolutely not; there is not a problem here, not in my school district."

So there is a tendency to become defensive. It is not a local problem here, it is a state problem, or it is a national problem, or it is an economic problem, or it is an industrial problem, but it is not my problem.

If you take a poll, only 30 percent of the Congressional districts even know who their congressman is on a national average. If you talk about specific issues like the crisis in Central America today, where there is an abundance of press coverage, 50 percent of our citizens don't even know where Central America is. The point I am making is that sometimes those of us who are concerned about a particular issue think that everyone else should be. But there is a real problem of public perception that we have to address and solve before we ever can come up with solutions to a problem like the math and science crisis.

Mr. Aldridge: That is precisely the way I have come to see the problem. We have been at this for three and a half years, trying to collect data and analyze it and trying to arrive at some kind of conclusions as to what the crisis really is. We have found certain kinds of very dramatic data that tell us a very small piece of the problem, but the conclusions that we have drawn are that there is no way that anyone can describe this in a simple way. It has many components, and it is not clear at all which of those components are the result of others.

So you don't know whether one is a cause or an effect. You just know that it is involved in some way with the problem. So people will pick up pieces of that and talk about it, or try to address those as though they are the main issues. It is very hard to get at what the fundamental problems are, even when you have good information.

But getting good information on which to base reasonable conclusions about what ought to be done is extremely difficult.

Mr. Pewitt: It is clear that one can graduate from high school now having taken less math and science than you could when I graduated. At the office of science and technology policy, we spent a year looking at this question even before it became a national academic issue. We have been concerned about it.

It seems to us that the problem is not with the top 10 percent of people graduating from high school. The very top is better than it has ever been by any measure. We are not going to lose our future scientists and engineers because of the problems of precollegiate education. The wherewithal is there to educate the very best and the most elevated students.

So one is talking about the non-scientific, non-engineering students who are coming out of high school. We are talking about the sergeants who are going to be in the MX silos, who are going to run the ballistic submarines, the people who are going to be the technicians in Silicon Valley when Silicon Valley is no longer just in Palo Alto, when it has spread to Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. That is where the problem is.

Specifically, it is that three-quarters of our students who are coming out of school not equipped with the tools they need to face the society they are going to live in. I can't put it more succinctly than that.

Mr. McClelland: I would agree wholeheartedly. From the industry standpoint, there is not really a shortage of scientists and engineers in the United States today. Science and mathematics education continue to do a good job of preparing people for careers in science and engineering. In fact, the problem right now is going to be the kids who are coming out of engineering school with degrees and wanting a job, and we don't have a job for them. That is a tragedy, because that causes a reverse effect.

But there is a major shortage of technically trained people. I'm talking about the middle-ground people who are going to have careers which involve a lot of new scientific and engineering principles, but who are not going to get what they need with a four-year college degree; they are people who get two-year technology degrees, and a lot of the general public. The real limitation in computers is not going to necessarily be the development of new computers, it is going to be who keeps them running, and that is an intermediate level of technical activity not based on a four-year college degree. More people need to be prepared and motivated to go into those careers.

The biggest part of the problem is just the general lack of understanding of the nature of science, and the nature of our world by the general public. From the chemical industry's standpoint, this is becoming an absolutely crucial issue, the national paranoia which is developing on unsound grounds about the hazards of chemicals.

Going back to the causes of this, and here I am really out of my depth, but I think it really goes back to grade school. Somebody in our discussion said that science was hard, but it's no harder than a lot of things. But kids are taught in grade school that science is hard and they are mostly taught that by teachers who never took any science themselves and are afraid of it. Science training should start in kindergarten. I have given lectures to the 2nd grade on how to make nylon. I help the kids make it, and they understand it beautifully.

Mr. Usiskin: I think there are three populations, and I would agree that the top population is being fairly well served in most parts of the country. There are parts of the country where perhaps it isn't. We should understand that these things are different in different areas. They are the expert scientists and math experts; they are about 10 percent of the population.

The second group are educated people who do not need to be as expert, who don't need calculus. They represent 40 or 50 percent of the nation's population.

Mr. Aldridge: How do you know who these people are in advance?

Mr. Usiskin: You don't know; you want to keep avenues open, but they do need statistics, and they do need computers, that kind of population.

Mr. Pewitt: There are opinion leaders who are not scientists.

Mr. Rutherford: Journalists, legislators, businessmen.

Mr. Usiskin: Right. Then there is the third group of people who are the followers, the workers, the technicians, the people who may have to make decisions in a robotics age. They vote. They need to know enough chemistry to understand the issues.

I would like to think that 25 years ago, we were actually pretty successful with the top population. Our mistake was that we had one curriculum that we tried to impose on all three populations, and you can't impose that top curriculum on all three.

Then, I think, even in the 1970's, we developed what I would call a minimal-competency sort of psychology, and that has had an effect also on the two other populations. It has helped raise the bottom a little bit by simply raising standards. I think the real problem is with the middle population.

Mr. Pewitt: I hate to hear a characterization that scientists are at the top of the heap and the nonscientists at the bottom.

Mr. Usiskin: I didn't mean that. These populations are really equivalent populations; they are parallel, at least the first two, in terms of the amount of education that the people usually get.

Mr. Aldridge: There is something seriously wrong. I hear this talk about the selection process, how we have the finest people right now. The question is: If we really have the brightest, why is it that in physics, for example, it represents something like 5 percent women and 95 percent men?

Are we claiming that the men are superior, and that the selection process is going on in such a way that we are always picking the brightest and bringing them up? What about the minorities that are not into these kinds of programs? I think there is something seriously wrong with those filters.

Mr. Rutherford: The claim is not that they are the brightest, but that you get enough physicists and chemists.

Mr. Pewitt: I don't know whether there is a right color or a right sex for a physicist, but I think that women make fine physicists and Orientals make fine physicists.

Mr. McClelland: There is a very fine point that emerges here and that is that so much depends upon the perceptions that are built into people when they are young. We have, fortunately, a change in the perception that women don't understand quantitative things, and consequently the female enrollments in engineering have been surging. Twenty percent of all the bachelor's degrees in chemical engineering are now going to women, and they perform just as well as the men. It is really because we stopped teaching little girls that they shouldn't understand mathematics.

A lot of this whole science problem goes back to the same thing. Many intelligent people--highly educated--many of these nontechnical people will proudly say, "I don't understand these technical things." They should be ashamed to say that.

Mr. Usiskin: I think the problem really is not with the top. I think we are in agreement that the problem is not with the top. We have been fairly successful at the top.

Mr. Aldridge: We are not in agreement with that.

Mr. Usiskin: We are not?

Mr. Pewitt: No, we are not. I certainly don't agree with that at all.

Mr. Aldridge: You have a selection process at the so-called top, and that problem is very serious. You may be losing, and in fact are losing, many talented and capable students. And I will cite some evidence.

There is a recent study of secondary-school dropouts from the National Center for Education Statistics which shows that something like 45,000 young people who make all A's or all B's drop out of high school between grades 10 and 12 nationally. Now there is something wrong with a system that allows that to happen--17,000 of those kids had all A's!

Mr. Pewitt: That may have nothing to do with the educational system.

Mr. Aldridge: I am saying that there is something wrong. I am also suggesting that the so-called "best students" going into engineering and science may not at all be the best students coming out of the secondary schools. In fact, less than half of them may be the best. There is something wrong with the filter, even for those students.

Mr. Usiskin: There is a problem at the top, but it is not of the same magnitude and it is not of the same seriousness. There is a bigger filter in the middle. These are people who take no mathematics in some sense beyond, let's say, algebra in high school, no science beyond biology. These people, their ignorance is so great that they don't realize how ignorant they are.

Mr. Rutherford: Let me comment on the analysis, if I may, just a bit. I think it is a fair one. In general, we have known how to deal with the motivated, bright kids, but we have not paid enough attention to the kids who are going to be the technical support staff for the enterprise. I think there are a couple of things to be said about that.

There is a group that wasn't mentioned as especially important, and those are people who get college educations who are not going to be scientists and technical people. They are going to be journalists. They are going to be business people. They are going to be legislators. They are going to be other people who will have to deal with scientific and technical information day in and day out, but who have pretty flimsy scientific and mathematical backgrounds.

Mr. Usiskin: They are about 30 percent of the college population.

Mr. Rutherford: So I think that is a special audience and the curriculum in the schools is not any more appropriate for them than it is for the kids who don't go to college.

Most of the solutions we have come up with before have been inappropriate and that is part of the problem. If you pass legislation requiring kids to take physics, but the physics courses are designed for some other kids or some other purpose, then you have not dealt with the real problem. You have only acted in a superficial way, and then you compound the problem. So part of the problem has been, for a quarter of a century at least, inappropriate approaches to the effort.

I think one can also see that the teacher-training enterprise is more out of whack than one would have imagined in a couple of ways. One is, we haven't really talked about the people who are going to be math and science teachers who deal with this broad audience. Even if they are good, if they are solid science majors, they will inevitably end up in a school teaching physics to motivated students. The enterprise does not prepare them in their heads to deal with the ordinary student.

Furthermore, of course, one aspect of the problem right now is that the whole process of producing the next generation of teachers has collapsed. The nation has not produced them, not even for the bright kids. We are not producing physics teachers or math teachers in the quality or the quantity that it takes to do the job.

My final comment on the problem is that we have to look back at what we did 25 years ago, and the conclusion is that 25 years ago we had a shot at it and we fundamentally missed it in two ways.

One, we didn't deal with systematic changes. We dealt with the symptoms of the time, rather than trying to turn the thing around so that it would work better. We didn't view the process then as one that was intrinsically continuous--that it is a continuing reform that takes place. We viewed it as a problem to be solved. We went out and did it, so that we could turn our attention to other things. And that is failure.

Vol. 02, Issue 39

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