When the first sputnik went up, in 1957, Americans who wondered "why can't we keep up with the Russians?" were shocked to discover the sad state of high school science. It's time to be shocked again.
According to a joint report of the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, the United States is sliding "toward virtual scientific and technological illiteracy." Only about 20 percent of students now take mathematics and science beyond 10th grade. And the general quality of the math and science instruction that is available has decayed noticeably from the spurt of improvement that followed the sputnik scare.
Noting that "the declining emphasis on science and mathematics in our school system is in marked contrast to other industrialized countries," the report says , "We fear a loss of our competitive edge."
As if that weren't ominous enough, the report notes that the 80 percent of students who drop out of science and math effectively exclude themselves from the growing number of occupations in which "science is the key to success." This doesn't just mean professional science, engineering, or other technical jobs. Increasingly, and at all levels in the work force, at least some familiarity with math and science is becoming extremely helpful, if not essential.
The report -- "Science and Engineering Education for the 1980s and Beyond" -- is concerned with many facets of its subject. These include a serious shortage of specialists in computer science and some other areas. But it is the high school problem that stands out as the underlying social challenge. The higher educational system will adjust and eventually make up the shortage of specialists. In fact, those students who want to go into science and engineering generally can still get adequate high school preparation.
But that talent pool of scientifically motivated students will shrink if the high school situation doesn't improve. Also, the scientific and engineering community could find itself increasingly isolated as an exotic elite in a society of scientific illiterates.
There are many reasons for the high school science decline, including the crushing problems that school systems face in general. The reports notes, however, that higher pay offered by industry has lured off many talented science teachers. Also, the programs that so improved science and math teaching in the 1960s appealed to the abler students while often putting off those of average ability or less. What is needed now are curricula that can meet a wider range of interests.
This is a complex, difficult problem which cannot be solved by any simplistic "improvement" program. But the growing recognition that it exists, which the report typifies, at least means that it is beginning to get the serious attention it deserves.