Talk of U.S. Crisis in Math, Science is Largely Misplaced, Skeptics Say

By Debra Viadero — March 21, 2006 8 min read
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Back in 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a dire warning: The United States’ “once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.”

Fast-forward to 2006. The same kind of talk that was used by the panel famed for A Nation at Risk isnow being employed by business leaders, scientists, pundits, and public officials from President Bush on down to spur initiatives aimed at ensuring that the nation’s pipeline of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians does not run dry.

“We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost,” a distinguished panel of scientists and business leaders convened by the National Academies concluded in a report last October, “and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost—indeed, if it can be regained at all.”

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Math and Science Education in the U.S.

Policy observers say such calls have been a leitmotif in the national discourse on education at least since 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made orbiting satellite.

It’s little wonder, then, that contemporary warnings about the gathering storm—in the National Academies’ phrase—facing the U.S. economy are being met with some skepticism. Researchers are challenging the accuracy of some of the statistics being bandied about in the current debate. And some columnists, such as The Washington Post’sRobert J. Samuelson, have even gone so far as to call them phony.

“People have been predicting these terrible, dire outcomes for 50 years now, and they never happen,” said Gerald W. Bracey, an independent education researcher based in Alexandria, Va.

Wrong Problem?

The skeptics don’t challenge the need for improving math and science education at the K-12 level, a course of action that is at the heart of most of the current proposals aimed at protecting America’s economic competitiveness. They just wonder if it’s the right solution to the wrong problem.

Math and Science Coursetaking

Federal data show growth during the 1990s in the percent of high school graduates who completed advanced-mathematics and -science courses.

*Click image to see the full chart.


*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: National Science Foundation

“My own view is that improving mathematics and science education is highly desirable, but not because of international-competitiveness concerns—because it’s a set of skills that’s important to everybody,” said Michael S. Teitelbaum, a vice president at the New York City-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which underwrites initiatives in science and technology.

“I think it would be a mistake,” he said, “to put a lot more money into teacher training and science and math and then say, ‘OK, we’ve taken care of competitiveness issues in the American economy.’ ”

According to the latest annual Survey of the American Freshman by the University of California, Los Angeles, one-third of first-year students at the 385 four-year institutions surveyed intended to major in a science or engineering field—a proportion that has not changed since 1972.

The problem is that many students fail to persist in those studies. In engineering, for example, fewer than half the freshmen who say they are going to major in that field in fact go on to earn engineering degrees.

Though the drop-off might stem from failures of the K-12 education system, Mr. Teitelbaum said, it might also be due to students’ realizing that they can earn more money, faster, in other careers.

The current alarm stems from concerns about globalization, which has put American workers increasingly in direct competition with lower-wage workers around the world. China and India, with their many highly skilled but modestly paid workers, are viewed, in particular, as growing threats to the dominant economic status of the United States.

Those worried about such dangers often quote statistics showing that China and India produce, respectively, 600,000 and 350,000 engineers each year, compared with 70,000 for the United States. But researchers at Duke University in Durham, N.C., call those numbers “bogus.” That’s because the categories of graduates counted in China and India were different from the types counted in the U.S. tally, resulting in a misleading comparison.

On a strictly apples-to-apples comparison, the United States in 2004 produced 137,400 engineers, compared with 351,500 in China and 112,000 in India, according to the Duke researchers. And because those countries’ populations are so much larger, the United States produces more engineers per capita than either of them. (“Study: U.S.-Asian Engineering Gap Overstated,” Jan. 1, 2006.)

Vivek Wadwha, the study’s lead researcher and an adjunct professor in the university’s school of engineering, said he worries that the hype generated by the earlier, incorrect estimates effectively will become self-fulfilling prophecies as young scholars flock to nonengineering professions that they think are “outsourcing-proof.”

What policymakers and researchers should do instead, he said, is pinpoint potential shortages of specific categories of engineers within the broader field.

A similar statistical controversy ensued after the National Science Foundation forecast in the mid-1980s “looming shortfalls” of scientists and engineers over the next two decades, according to Mr. Teitelbaum. But a U.S. House of Representatives committee, looking into the numbers in 1992, concluded the agency’s predictions had been a mistake based on “very tenuous data and analysis.”

While such controversies may breed cynicism, no one seems to argue against the idea that the United States’ share, overall, of scientists and engineers is declining as other countries’ higher education systems catch up and U.S. universities open satellite campuses around the world.

Engineering Trends

Enrollment in engineering programs in U.S. higher education institutions fell and then rose again from 1983 to 2003.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE:National Science Foundation

And those who view the situation as a crisis also point out that foreign students have accounted for an increasing proportion of graduate and undergraduate degrees awarded in the United States in science and engineering—at least until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Even if the flow of foreign students has slowed since then, some analysts still see the heavy foreign representation in U.S. science and engineering programs as a problem. The worry is that such students will return to their home countries, taking their knowledge with them, as living conditions abroad improve. Yet surveys cited by the NSF in its 2006 Science and Engineering Indicators report note that from 2000 to 2003, three-quarters of foreign engineering and science students said they hoped to stay in the United States.

“It’s always the Chicken Little syndrome,” said Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, “but the question is: Is Chicken Little correct? I personally feel that [the prediction of an inadequate supply of scientists and engineers] is correct, because this time the concern is coming from corporate America saying they are actually experiencing the problem.”

Warning Signs

Experts have mustered plenty of other data to suggest that U.S. students suffer in comparison with other countries when it comes to math and science. Some experts note, for instance, that:

• While U.S. 4th and 8th graders have improved, or maintained, their performance levels on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, Asian students continued to outscore them by large margins in 2003.

• On another international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, American 15-year-olds scored below the international average in 2003.

• In 2002, between 17 percent and 28 percent of public high school math and science teachers lacked full certification in their fields.

• Twenty-two percent of college freshmen took remedial mathematics courses in 2000, compared with 14 percent needing remedial writing, according to the NSF.

Long, Hard Road

Equally, if not more, troubling, experts say, are the high numbers of U.S. students who abandon plans to study mathematics, science, or engineering. Alan Ruby, a senior fellow for international education at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, said his own daughter was among those who switched majors.

“Some of her roommates are still science and engineering majors, and the amount of time they spend in the lab is a huge grind,” he said. “It’s about time we understand what it means to support a kid in science and mathematics.”

Statistics show that the time it takes to earn a doctoral degree in the sciences has lengthened. In the biological sciences, for example, the average has stretched from seven to eight years in the early 1980s to nine to 12 years now, said Mr. Teitelbaum.

“To get a graduate degree in mathematics and science, you have to stay poor for a long time,” said James Lee Price, the research director for the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. Many budding scientists and engineers are lured instead to high-paying jobs on Wall Street and elsewhere, he said.

That’s one reason why experts such as Mr. Teitelbaum say the focus on K-12 education as a solution to the perceived erosion in nation’s economic status may be misplaced. His foundation is backing efforts to create “science masters” programs in higher education, which offer a shorter, more practically oriented route to scientific work in corporate laboratories.

Ronil Hira, an assistant professor of technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York state, suggests that U.S. colleges and universities should focus on preparing engineers who can be more productive than those in China and India. He also recommends finding new ways to draw more women, African-Americans, and Hispanics into the field, largely because previous efforts to do so have failed.

“There something about engineering that’s more sociological than most people realized,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Talk of U.S. Crisis in Math, Science Is Largely Misplaced, Skeptics Say


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