Changing economy demands new steps in education
The warning is plain: ''This country can easily lose its leadership in scientific achievement unless it seeks and trains those who can maintain it.'' This is not a recent warning from President Reagan. Nor is it testimony before a congressional committee. Rather, it is a 1947 excerpt from a New York Times article on the state of science teaching in the United States.Skip to next paragraph
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Veteran teachers and administrators have seen it all before. The cycles of education's crises - from teacher surplus to teacher shortage, from parental concern to parental neglect - seem to come and go with the regularity of the seasons.
Now another crisis in science and math education is challenging the credibility of the nation's public schools. But many public figures, including pro-minent educators, are warning that if anyone is crying wolf this time, it's because the wolf is at the door.
How does this crisis differ?
There is a loose consensus among economists, academicians, and business leaders that America's industrial economy, which for decades has been dependent on unskilled and semiskilled labor, is moving into a new phase. This ''information age'' economy, as some are calling it, will be rooted in technology, in telecommunications, computers, and information processing. All these fields will require workers with technical expertise. And that means training in science and math.
Instead, what the US is facing now is a downward spiral in the quality of science and math teaching nationwide. Problems include:
* Teacher shortages. Record numbers of science and math teachers are moving into the private sector. The problem has spread to more than 40 states, and some, such as California and Texas, report critical staff shortages.
* Use of poorly qualified teachers. Nearly 60,000 of the approximately 200, 000 science and math teachers now at work in public schools are not qualified to teach in those fields, according to officials of the National Science Teacher association.
* Drops in achievement scores.The average achievement in science among US schoolchildren has been falling since 1960. Average SAT scores in math were down 17 percent in 1982 compared with 1972.
* Declining interest in math and science. According to one study, approximately 50 percent of students entering junior high school say they like science, but only 25 percent feel that way when they leave junior high.
As critical as such problems are, there is an odd contradiction in the current situation. Some educators see the teacher shortage and declining interest and achievement as merely symptomatic of the real nemesis: public perception that the study of science is not really of vital importance, that the subject is somehow separate from the real world. Particularly perplexing to these educators is the concurrent surge of interest in popular science, as is evidenced by the success of half a dozen or more general interest science magazines.
''Right now math and science appear to most Americans to be arcane mysteries about which they know very little, and far too many are willing to leave it to the experts to deal with,'' points out Dr. Benjamin F. Payton, president of Tuskegee Institute. ''So when we have an incident like Three Mile Island or Love Canal, many people, well-meaning people, react to the incident but do not react in a manner that demonstrates any basic understanding of the scientific background to the incident. Unfortunately (this) leads to a kind anti-scientific , anti-technological attitude.'' (See interview, Page 2.)
To understand the present crisis it is necessary to go back to the last low point of concern about science and math education: 1957, and Sputnik. The average American was acutely aware of the importance of science and math instruction in the years following the Sputnik. Parents dropped the names of astronauts when admonishing their children to do math and science homework. School boards and state governments rallied behind science education.