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.

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.

That enthusiasm faded in the '70s, and as the commitment dwindled, so did the resources. The education establishment, too, accepts part of the blame.

''The deficiencies in the teaching of mathematics, science, and technology did not appear suddenly,'' says A. Graham Down, executive director of the Council for Basic Education. ''They are the inevitable product of years of inattention and confusion about educational goals.''

Within the last five to ten years, as the trend toward poorer science and math education continued, a counter trend took hold in the economy. Computers began to proliferate, and with computers came the demand for personnel with math and science backgrounds to design, build, service, and manipulate the machines. Today, the two separate trends threaten to brake further economic development.

''If the shortage of technical enineering types continues as forecast, American industry can't grow. If we're going to grow as a company we're going to need outstanding, first-class technical talent just like most of the rest of US industry,'' says Dr. Thomas A. Vanderslice, president and chief operating officer of GTE Corporation.

The American Electronics Association (AEA) reports that there will be a shortfall on the order of 113,500 electrical and computer science engineers over the next five years, or nearly 23,000 per year.

Despite the monumental task facing those who would upgrade math and science instruction, local governments are teaming up with business, colleges with secondary schools, and businesses with public schools to chip away at the problem on a local and regional level (see story, Page 5, commentary, Page 8).

According to a 50-state survey by Education Week:

* 22 states have enacted or are considering legislation to provide financial incentives, including forgivable loans and scholarships to prospective teachers of science and math (see story, Page 9).

* 27 states have passed or are considering legislation to fund programs to retrain teachers in other subjects to teach math or science.

* 31 states have acted or are considering action to raise high school graduation requirements.

* In 45 states, statewide commissions, task forces, and study groups are examining all aspects of the situation in science and math education and how it affects their economy and the quality of their public schools.

The programs being tried are successfully attacking the problem from both the top and the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. At the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, gifted juniors and seniors from around the state come together for intensive study of science and math as well as a liberal dosing of the humanities (see story, Page 3).

In rural Macon county, Alabama the Ford Foundation and the Tuskegee Institute have teamed up to raise the standard of math and science education by reteaching teachers and by nurturing the abilities of those students who show a natural aptitude for math (see story, Page 4).

There is something of a consensus among educators that the most effective way to deal with the shortage, in the short run, is to retrain existing teachers in science and math. This would address not only the dearth of teachers, but also help those who are underqualified, and those who are qualified but need to keep pace with rapid developments in math and science.

The solutions aren't without their own problems. Educators are becoming increasingly concerned about looking before they leap into new programs. For instance, Florida proposed legislation to increase high school graduation requirements to three years of science and mathematics instruction.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, Va. , counters that the legislation may well result in a decrease in the science and math achievement of college-bound students and a reduction in the caliber of mathematics and science teachers. The group claims that instructional improvement can only come when such political decisions as upping curriculum requirements are backed by resources with which to hire additional teachers.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.