There has 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 Assn. for the Advancement of Science 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 National Council on Science and Technology, which is sponsored by the science association, 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.
U.S. Rated Lowest
"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 United States 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 National Council on Science and Technology said, "It will take a shared national vision of what Americans want their schools to achieve" to remedy this situation.
That is 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 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 National Research Council also gives priority to thinking skills and to grasping mathematical concepts that transcend computation, which is done mostly by machines.
The new goal-defining report is the first phase of a long-term program called Project 2061. That's the year Halley's comet returns. The science association organized its National Council on Science and Technology in 1985, when the comet last appeared, and named the program in its honor.
The program's second phase will develop experimental curriculums in selected school districts over the next few years. Project director F. James Rutherford said that 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 United States.
The American Assn. for the Advancement of Science is an umbrella group to which most American scientific and science education societies belong. Its geographically and professionally diverse membership is expected to help implement this program nationwide.