Improving Science Education: 'Beware of Tunnel Vision'

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Gloomy returns from many inquiries into the general condition of science education leave no doubt of the need for major improvements in learning standards and financial support.

But the difficulty with many of these inquiries is that they are carried out by science enthusiasts--and like enthusiasts of various persuasions, they sometimes are prone to hallucinate about the nirvana that would result from mass conversion to their way of thinking.

There is little evidence, for example, of a direct relationship between the admittedly poor current state of science education and the soggy condition of the American economy. In fact, many people who have been well educated in the sciences--industrial engineers and biologists prominent among them--are just as unemployed as teen-age high-school dropouts.

(Computer specialists remain in demand, but they are a small slice of the national workforce, and the demand for them has been decreasing lately.) And according to forecasts by the Department of Labor, the big areas of job growth over the next 10 years will be in fields with little or no technical content--construction, food service, janitoring, and general office work.

Nevertheless, a new study, commissioned by the National Science Board's Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology, asserts that a massive expansion and improvement of science education is indispensable to protect "the quality of our manufactured products, the viability of our trade, our leadership in research and development, and our standards of living." Among the recommended changes are a "substantially lengthened" school day to accommodate additional science and mathematics education, and special pay increases for teachers in those fields.

Because the National Science Board's study (Educating Americans for the 21st Century) was conducted mainly by scientists, it might be expected to offer some evidence that lack of education is an impediment to economic survival. It offers a bit, but the evidence is hardly persuasive: A survey of industrial firms turned up many complaints about the math and science background of recent high-school graduates.

As the study reported, "the lack of adequate preparation for work of current high-school graduates has not been serious enough to affect most company operations." The one in five firms afflicted by such educational inadequacies responded with inservice remedial programs--a response that is not unusual when firms seek to mold their staffs to their particular needs.

Without even a nod to mounting evidence that there is more glitter than education in the highly vaunted computer "revolution" in the schools, the National Science Board's study embraces computers as a kind of miracle cure for numerous ills of our society. In fact, it becomes so gushy over the pace of computer developments that it says of them, ''Almost any statement made today will, therefore, be obsolete in a few years, if not months."

Perhaps. But one of today's statements about computers and schools that might be considered comes from yet another study of the woes of education, High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America, by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In a rare departure from the chorus of enthusiasm for computers, Ernest L. Boyer, the former U.S. Commissioner of Education who heads the foundation, sensibly points out that "technology revolutions have failed to touch the schools largely because purchases frequently have preceded planning." The result, he says, has been heaps of expensive equipment, often adding to the prestige of the school, but with little educational value.

Mr. Boyer doesn't dismiss the computer's educational potential, but he does eye it with refreshing skepticism that is scarce these days.. He notes that one need not know much about a computer to use it effectively. This is the nature of much modern technology, from television sets to automatic transmissions. Students going on to technical professions should master the innards of the wondrous new machines, he states; others can spend time more profitably on other subjects.

What is curious about the promotion of science education and computers as the key to economic revival is the unquestioning deference that the press confers on missionaries for the cause.

Thus, news accounts took little or no note of the leadership of the National Science Board that produced the report equating national survival with computer training and usage. The study was commissioned by the chairman of the foundation's policymaking board, Lewis Branscomb', whose full-time post is as vice president and chief scientist of the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), the world's leading computer manufacturer. The study was co-chaired by William T. Coleman Jr., a member of the board of directors of IBM

Mr. Branscomb's and Mr. Coleman's integrity and dedication to public service are not open to question. But their tunnel-visioned concept of the route to economic survival does invite curiosity.

Similarly, there is no doubt that the educational system needs a thorough shaking up, but that shouldn't stop us from strictly appraising the ideas of people rushing in with their various agendas and pet schemes.

Vol. 03, Issue 05, Page 19

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