Focus on science and math

Concern over the sad state of US science and mathematics education continues to surface. The Reagan administration has said it is giving top priority to improving the situation. Now a commission appointed by the National Science Foundation has outlined a plan of action.

This calls for strong federal leadership in setting standards, in developing new curricula, and in funding. It includes upgrading 1.16 million substandard teachers, plus higher pay to attract new teachers to the science/math classrooms.

Certainly it is time to tackle this urgent educational problem. But in doing so it is wise to heed the caveats the commission includes in its report.

To begin with, the report emphasizes that it is recommending an education for all US children, not a program to develop a technological elite. The goal is to prepare everyone to cope with the world of the 21st century.

Second, the commission notes that literacy in science, mathematics, and technology is only part of an education. The liberal arts and humanities are necessary also. The commission was constrained to consider science education. But it expressed the hope that ''glaring deficiences in these other areas will be met with the same sense of urgency.''

Then there is the fundamental question of how far the federal government should go in setting national educational goals and standards. The commission wisely notes that ''excessive Federal intrusion might deter or prevent the implementation of imaginative plans which local school districts are capable of developing.''

The report and its action plan deserve thoughtful consideration by the administration and the Congress and by educators and citizens throughout the country. However, before launching any massive programs, President Reagan should appoint two bodies which the report recommends - a National Education Council and a Council on Educational Financing. These would make specific studies of just what the federal role should be in revitalizing US science teaching.

Meanwhile, local school districts throughout the US should face the fact that , as the commission points out, the primary responsibility for education remains with them. No amount of federal ''leadership'' can succeed unless the people themselves are responsive and willing to support the changes and shoulder the tax burden needed to give the nation's children the education they deserve.

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