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U.S. Leaders Fret Over Students’ Math and Science Weaknesses

By Vaishali Honawar — September 13, 2005 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 8 min read

Corrected: The title of the book cited in this story was incorrect. The correct title is The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools.

Bill Gates, the chairman of the behemoth Microsoft Corp., says he’s a little “scared” by it. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., declares it a steadily worsening crisis. And the Business Roundtable says the United States cannot wait for another challenge such as the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite before the country starts working on it.

What they and other national business and political leaders are worried about is U.S. schools’ ability to stimulate students’ interest in math and science—an area of weakness that they say has led to the growing influence of Asian countries, most notably India and China, in the fields of engineering and technology.

Others, meanwhile, wonder if the fears are akin to those that arose in the early 1980s, when many prominent Americans were sounding the alarm over Japan’s ascendance in the world economy. The watershed 1983 report A Nation at Risk was in some ways a direct outgrowth of such worries. It warned of the “educational foundations of our society … being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people,” and raised the specter of other countries’ matching and surpassing the United States.

Some observers said today’s fears that a decline in the number of engineering graduates poses a threat to American leadership could be exaggerated.

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“When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m travelling aborad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow.”

— Bill Gates, Chairman, Microsoft Corp.

“It’s not engineers that make an economy hum,” David C. Berliner, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University in Tempe, wrote in an e-mail. “It’s tax policy, entrepreneurial environments, lack of graft, reasonable tax rates, infrastructure investments like roads, for example.”

No correlation exists between school achievement and economic might in industrialized countries, he added. “That correlation is strong in underdeveloped countries. We shouldn’t confuse the two,” said Mr. Berliner whose 1995 book, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, co-written with Bruce J. Biddle, argued that politicians distort reality when they draw conclusions about U.S. education on the basis of international comparisons of student performance.

But those who say the crisis is indeed real warn that without stronger student preparation in math and science, the United States cannot be competitive in a globalized world.

“The jobs of the future are going to require the basic understanding of principles of math and science. If we aren’t able to educate our children, they won’t get decent jobs, and I am not just talking about scientists and engineers,” Mr. Ehlers said.

International Tests

Among the most commonly cited examples of U.S. deficiency in education attainment are the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study that has for years found American high schoolers performing at levels lower than those of their peers in other developed countries.

Some observers of international education say that comparing the United States with foreign countries based on such test results may not always lead to accurate assumptions.

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“The critical situation in American innovation threatens to undermine our standard of living at home and our leadership in the world. we cannot wait for another Sputnik to propel our energy forward in this area.”

— John Castellani, President, The Business Roundtable

“Students are asked a set of questions in a variety of countries that are not linked to what they are being taught in school,” said Elizabeth Leu, a senior education adviser at the Academy for Educational Development, a Washington-based group that operates education programs abroad. “It is somebody’s idea of what students at a certain level should know. There always is a problem of that sort with international assessments, and they end up being unfair in one way or another.”

But Ms. Leu did point out a TIMSS classroom videotape study that she believes does shed light. It looked at classrooms in Japan, Germany, and the United States, and found that in Japan, teachers gave students time to reflect on the problem and develop a clear understanding of underlying mathematical concepts. In the United States, teachers intervened quickly and dictated procedures to help students solve them.

“That is one of the most important things that I think about when I think about secondary education here, particularly in science and math, and how we compare rather poorly with many of the other great nations,” Ms. Leu said.

Waking Up

A number of initiatives have been launched in recent years to turn the U.S. standing in such subjects around. Those include the congressional Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math caucus, formed to build support for those fields of study. Also, some states have acted to require that students take more years of mathematics in high school. And with the focus on testing in math and now science under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools have been forced to pay more attention to those subjects.

The finger has also been pointed at unqualified teachers for American students’ lack of knowledge of and interest in math and science. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy estimates that half the high school students taking physical science in the United States are taught by “out of field” teachers.

03ehlersvj

“There is a crisis, and it is getting steadily worse...If we aren’t able to educate our children, they won’t get decent jobs, and I am not just talking about scientists and engineers.”

— Vernon J. Ehlers, U.S. Representative R-Mich.

To bolster teachers’ knowledge in those fields, the U.S. Department of Education awards Mathematics and Science Partnership grants. A House version of the Higher Education Act, now awaiting reauthorization in Congress, seeks to increase grants for students at teachers’ colleges who take up math and science.

Mr. Ehlers, who last year, along with Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., set up the Science Technology Engineering and Math, or STEM, caucus, says the problem of low achievement in math and science has been simmering for a long time, but has only recently grabbed headlines.

“When I started talking about this in 1996, there was scarcely a person who would listen to me,” he said. “Today, almost everywhere I read about it. … It has taken a while for us to wake up.”

The most striking statistic that demonstrates how far behind the United States may be, besides the mediocre showing of American students on international tests, is the number taking on engineering in college.

The Business Roundtable, a Washington-based coalition of leading U.S. corporations, released an action plan to accelerate student achievement in the fields of math, science, technology, and engineering in July, with the goal of doubling the number of graduates in engineering over the next 10 years. According to the group, the number of students in the United States planning to pursue engineering degrees declined by one-third between 1992 and 2002. (“Business Coalition Focuses on Math, Science Careers,” Aug. 10, 2005.)

Last year, the United States produced 60,000 engineers, while some reports say China produced a million. What’s more, the Business Roundtable report estimates that half the doctoral students graduating from engineering colleges in the United States are foreign nationals.

Mr. Ehlers said that China’s success has been the result of years of hard work.

“People think Chinese and Indians are hired because it is cheaper to do so, but both countries have made an effort to train people over the last two decades, and that’s bearing fruit,” he said.

But Mr. Berliner says that while there may be some minor and short-term deficits in the number of engineering graduates, “we may, in fact, now be producing too many college graduates for the economy.”

The U.S. Department of Labor says that the highest demand will be for such jobs as janitors, home health-care workers, salespeople, and waiters.

“So China and India may need [engineers] to develop, and we may need to steal the best of them for our own industries some of the time, but the fact of the matter is we are not grossly short of these types, given the economy’s needs for them,” Mr. Berliner argued.

Starting Early

To be truly effective, initiatives to foster an interest in math and science need to start as early as kindergarten, according to Mr. Ehlers, a physicist by profession. “Children coming into 1st grade have a lot of curiosity. … They enjoy math and science at that level,” he said, noting that test results underscore that point. “We are above average at grade 4, average at grade 8, and below average at grade 12. By the time the student is out of high school, they are not interested in math and science unless they are really dedicated.”

On several national tests, U.S. students have lately shown some progress. For instance, high schoolers in the class of 2005 posted a record-high SAT score in math. On the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, 9- and 13-year-olds made their largest math gains ever,although the performance of 17-year-olds math remained largely stagnant.

Cathy L. Seeley, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, based in Reston, Va., said that when students don’t like math and don’t pursue it, fewer teachers are attracted to the field. “But the flip side is also true,” she said. “As we do a better job of getting more people with a math background into the teaching pool, they can stimulate student success better than we might otherwise do.”

The Department of Education awards Math-Science Partnership grants to states to enhance the content knowledge and teaching skills of classroom teachers. In 2004, the department handed out $146 million in such aid.

The National Science Foundation also underwrites projects that improve student achievement in math and science.

Suresh Nair, a professor of engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia, received a $1.2 million award from the NSF last year for a project being implemented in the middle grades.

Under the Engineering for K-12 program, graduate engineering students partner with middle school teachers to work with 6th through 9th graders in three neighboring districts, teaching them how to “think like engineers.”

Mr. Nair said the program helps teach children to look at every problem they encounter in the classroom from an engineer’s perspective, using props such as Lego robots. Students build the robots and then program them to complete tasks.

Because there are so many interests, like video games, competing for children’s attention, Mr. Nair said, “we need to excite students at an age when nothing [academic]seems to excite them.”

The Business Roundtable report notes that funding for basic research in the physical sciences as a percentage of the U.S. gross domestic product has declined by half since 1970. That situation needs to be remedied if the country wants to make any real progress in warding off international competition, the NCTM’s Ms. Seeley maintains.

“We need to invest in basic science and research across the board, and in an education system that’s grounded in high expectations for students in math and science,” she said. “If we choose to follow the path, we have an opportunity to be competitive internationally.”

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