Ed-Tech Policy

Soviets Ahead of US in Science, Technology Education, Study Says

By Susan Walton — December 21, 1981 5 min read
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Through a “carefully articulated” national strategy initiated more than a decade ago, the Soviet Union has achieved gains in scientific and technological education that place it far ahead of the United States in numbers of courses offered and people trained, according to the authors of The Science Race, a new analysis of the two nations’ educational systems.

Moreover, the implications of that national commitment by the Soviet Union to improved training of scientific and technological personnel extend far beyond the classroom, say Catherine P. Ailes and Francis W. Rushing, the authors of the book, which was published last week. The U.S.S.R. will use the large numbers of highly trained personnel to improve its economic production and thus its competitive position in world markets, they suggest.

The education strategy also has significant implications for U.S. national security, the authors note, since the Soviet military is one of the main users of scientific and technological personnel.

The writers, who are both researchers with the strategic studies center of the Stanford Research Institute International in Arlington, Va., conclude that the situation requires a fresh analysis by the U.S. of its own science and technology training efforts and a more vigorous commitment to them.

However, they note, the “dramatic quantitative differences,” although cause for serious concern, do not tell the whole story.

‘Remarkable Strides’

“The Soviet Union has made remarkable strides in its educational system, particularly in the scientific and engineering fields,” they write in a summary of their research, “but there is evidence that suggests that the curriculum may be flawed in both implementation and in content.”

Among the problems that may exist, they say, are the teachers’ levels of education and a too-narrow focus in the training of specialized personnel.

But, they warn, these “qualitative” factors mitigate, but do not eliminate, the impact of the Soviet gains compared to those of the U.S. Although very recent data are not available, they write, it can still “reasonably be assumed that, if anything, the Soviet Union has increased its gains in the number of scientific and engineering personnel relative to the United States during the last half-decade.”

The analysis, which took five years to complete, is based on eight years of “scholarly interaction” between members of a U.S.-U.S.S.R. working group in science and technology, as well as other sources.

Among the findings of the analysis:

U.S. elementary-school students (kindergarten through sixth grade) receive, on the average, far fewer hours of instruction in mathematics than do their counterparts in the U.S.S.R., although American students do receive slightly more hours of instruction in science.

The science and mathematics curriculum in Soviet secondary schools is “quite accelerated” compared with those used by most American high schools, and all secondary students are exposed to a curriculum concentrating on science and mathematics. Frequently, only selected students take these courses in the U.S.

Each year, more than one million Soviet students graduate from specialized secondary schools--a form of training for which there is no broad-scale equivalent in the U.S. The students, who enroll in the specialized schools at either 15 or 17, complete a two-year or four-year technical program. Subsequently, many of these graduates go on to become part of the cadre of technicians working directly under researchers in 22 fields of science, engineering, and technology, Ms. Ailes said.

Similar Training

The Soviet system also offers “vocational-technical” training, which is similar to the vocational-education programs offered in the U.S., she said.

Although the U.S. has a greater proportion of secondary-school graduates entering higher-education institutions than does the U.S.S.R., far more American students drop out. In the Soviet Union, over 80 percent of those admitted to institutions of higher education complete their undergraduate education. In the U.S., only 55 percent of those who enroll in colleges or universities complete their bachelor’s degree.

Although significant disparities in levels of educational achievement remain at all levels between the two nations, the distribution of the student population in Soviet institutions of higher education is far more heavily skewed toward scientific and technical fields.

There are indications, the authors believe, that Soviet officials are aware of problems in their educational system. Ms. Ailes pointed to a recent article in Kommunist, the official organ of party policy, which described problems experienced in mathematics by some students, who proceed to the next level without fully grasping the material.

Officials also seem interested in other changes, Ms. Ailes said. Currently, children attend kindergarten, then begin first grade at age 7. But recent accounts in the Soviet press suggest that officials are interested in starting a “grade zero,” which children would begin attending at age 6.

The differences between the two nations’ scientific and technological education programs are not due to mere quirks in the education system, according to the authors. Beginning in the late 1960’s, a “carefully articulated” approach to economic development began to appear in the Soviet Union’s Five-Year Plans and other policy statements.

Economics Dominant

In the development of the 10th Five-Year Plan, which covered 1976-80, “intensification of economic activity was the dominant theme.” Referred to as the plan of “effectiveness and quality,” the plan was based primarily on “the acceleration of scientific-technical progress,” according to Ms. Ailes. Hence, she said, the improvement in scientific and technological education was “woven into their whole economic-growth strategy.”

In contrast, the authors point to numerous studies on American education that have documented the need for more and better education in science and technology. For example, they say, a 1980 report to President Carter cited, among other things, a need for better provision for training technicians in science and technology.

Yet despite such findings, the U.S. currently has no national strategy to improve training in scientific and technological fields, said Ms. Ailes. The authors are hopeful that their book will increase U.S. officials’ awareness of and attention to the need for a national policy.

Changes Are Needed

National concern, they write, “should be manifested in a systematic and comprehensive review of our training of Americans at all levels of education for an increasingly scientific and technical world.” A review of this sort, they add, will probably indicate that changes are needed.

Among possible changes, they say, are revisions of curricula, increased financial support, more and better teachers at all levels of science and technology education, and “the creation of an environment in which all these can be accomplished with reasonable speed and coordination.”

They conclude: “If anything less is accepted as a national objective, then there is cause for alarm.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 21, 1981 edition of Education Week as Soviets Ahead of US in Science, Technology Education, Study Says


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