Fourth-Grade Einsteins?

In the past half century America has repeatedly veered between a passion for, and a passionate neglect of, math and science education.

Now we're told that US fourth graders test well in comparison to their peers in 25 other nations. Fine. But hold the applause till the problem is truly fixed. National intentions are good. But we keep half-fixing shortcomings, then lapsing.

After the lethal mechanics of World War II there was an understandable push toward teaching the humanities, not science.

Then Russia beat the US into space with its 1957 Sputnik orbiter. Mild panic ensued. Educators produced new math and science curricula.

Next came the '60s and student rebellion. America beat Russia to the moon. Vietnam stirred a reaction against "the system" and many of its basics. Science schooling suffered. So did teachers college instruction in how to teach the two subjects.

The brilliant engineering of Japanese exports propelled another pendulum swing. But anxiety abated when US computers and chips regained their lead, and American biotech, telecom, finance, and other tech-heavy sectors surged in global competition.

So how should we assess the recent 26-nation tests of fourth graders that show American children moving into the upper percentiles once more?

President Clinton's comment, "Let's not kid ourselves. We are still nowhere near where we need to be ..." strikes the right note.

Praise is indeed due those teachers and course designers who capitalized on the natural curiosity and enthusiasm of fourth graders to create class material that challenges them to learn in depth. But Americans should not be carried away by headlines saying fourth graders "Move Near Top." That isn't what the tests showed.

First note that, in math, students in Singapore, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Austria all outscored those in the US. And six other nations are on par with the US. In science, Korea scores higher and five nations are on par.

Then note, as the president did, that gains at the fourth grade level erode badly by the eighth grade.

The primary reason for slippage appears to be that course material reinforces arithmetic by repetition, rather than capitalizing on fourth graders' enthusiasm for discovery by moving fifth to eighth graders speedily into the thought-challenging realms of geometry, algebra, and calculus. And, in the sciences, many schools tend to emphasize rote, book learning more than the excitement of grasping the scientific method by hands-on experiments.

Pragmatists rightly say that science and math are important because so many areas of international competitiveness depend on technical knowledge. But beyond that lies something more basic. To be informed voters in a democracy, to be critical consumers of information in a world of subtle persuaders, citizens need to become careful, thoughtful analysts. That quality of thought just happens to be one of the lasting byproducts of good science/math education.

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