THERE'S been a chorus of warnings that the United States suffers from poor math and science teaching. Now America's largest scientific organization has come forward with a plan for reform. Declaring that ``America has no more urgent priority,'' the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) envisions ``sweeping changes'' in the way Americans learn science and mathematics.
A report, ``Science for All Americans'' - to be released today in Washington - is the first phase of that effort. Prepared by the AAAS-sponsored National Council on Science and Technology, it lays out the kind of education Americans will need, at minimum, to live and work effectively in the 21st century. Three other recent reports have already highlighted the education deficit.
``A World of Differences'' by the Educational Testing Service assessed 24,000 13-year-olds in six nations. It showed South Koreans leading in math skills followed in order by Ireland, England, Canada, and Spain with the US trailing. A University of Michigan survey of first- and fifth-graders in Chicago and Beijing found Americans doing significantly worse in math than Chinese students.
The National Research Council - representing the National Academies of Science and Engineering - assessed American math education and found it seriously wanting. Its ``Everybody Counts'' report warned starkly: ``Wake up, America! Your children are at risk.''
The AAAS National Council explains that ``it will take a shared national vision of what Americans want their schools to achieve'' to remedy this situation.
That's what this new report is all about. In it, the 26 members of the National Council recommend a common education core on which to base curriculums from kindergarten through high school. They start by defining their educational goal of scientific literacy. It includes:
``Being familiar with the natural world and recognizing both its diversity and its unity.
``Understanding key concepts and principles of science.
``Being aware of some of the important ways in which science, mathematics, and technology depend upon one another.
``Knowing that science, mathematics, and technology are human enterprises and knowing what that implies about their strengths and limitations.
``Having a capacity for scientific ways of thinking.
``Using scientific knowledge and ways of thinking for individual and social purposes.''
THE AAAS council wants schools to teach old subjects in new ways that emphasize the connections rather than the boundaries between different areas of knowledge. ``Transformations of energy, for example, occur in physical, biological, and technological systems, and evolutionary change appears in stars, organisms, and societies,'' the report notes.
It says science education should emphasize ideas and thinking skills at the expense of specialized vocabulary and memorized procedures. This echoes the National Research Council's views on math education. The NRC also gives priority to thinking skills and to grasping mathematical concepts that transcend mere computation, which is now done mostly by machines.
The new AAAS goal-defining report is the first phase of a long-term program called Project 2061. That's the year Halley's comet returns. The AAAS organized its National Council on Science and Technology in 1985, when Halley last appeared and named the program in the comet's honor.
The program's second phase will develop experimental curriculums in selected school districts over the next few years. Project director F. James Rutherford says San Antonio, San Diego, and San Francisco districts have already agreed to participate.
The final phase will be an effort extended over a decade or more to spread the new science and math education throughout the US. The AAAS is an umbrella group to which most American scientific and science education societies belong. Its geographically and professionally diverse membership can help implement this program nationwide.