GUEST COLUMN, John Richard Schrock, Education Frontlines
Forty years ago, a team of mostly scientists produced a researched study of what the United States needed to do to turn around our decline in science literacy. While the U.S. was still leading in many areas of science, more and more of the university graduate science students were international students educated K–12 in other countries.
“Educating Americans for the 21st Century: A plan of action for improving mathematics, science and technology education for all American elementary and secondary students so that their achievement is the best in the world by 1995” by the National Science Board Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology was released on Sept. 12, 1983.
Politicians adopted its rallying cry that the training of U.S. students in science would become best in the world by 1995. But absolutely all of its recommendations were ignored. The rest of the developing world, and especially Europe and the Far East surged ahead, expanding the amount of science content taught to their K–12 students and increasing the depth of training of their K–12 teachers. But in the U.S., education reform depended on 50 state governments that were more concerned with reducing taxes than improving science literacy.
Indeed, the prior Sputnik-era panic where we thought we were behind the U.S.S.R. in space exploration had generated a brief period of re-training science teachers nationwide. But our obvious primacy of the U.S. in space curtailed further science teacher upgrading.
The large majority of U.S, science teachers (the few at elementary level and those in high schools) were being trained in Schools of Education, rather than in university science departments as in Asia and Europe. Most U.S. Ed Schools pushed the line that there was now simply too much to learn and that teachers could just teach the “scientific method.” Thus, teachers and students could supposedly sit down together and learn new concepts without any science training. This myth of the scientific method continued our decline in science literacy. And the rise of computers since the late 1990s has continued to provide a distraction from the basic need for more science and better trained science teachers.
The major U.S. science organizations including NABT, NSTA and especially AAAS failed to promote more science in K–12 or more science teacher training. This aided the Ed Schools in suppressing any additional science education. This was especially true of the AAAS “Less Science, Not More” campaign that gave total justification to actually reducing science coursework.
The No Child Left Behind assessment requirements began in 2001, placing most emphasis (and penalties) on state assessment of math and ELA. This resulted in elimination of music and arts in many schools, and a lower the regard for history and science.
What are the major themes of this report that were ignored?
“Many of the teachers in elementary schools are not qualified to teach mathematics and science for even 30 minutes a day. A significant fraction of our secondary school teachers are called upon to work in subjects for which they were never trained.” Addressing both elementary and secondary STEM courses, they found 1.17 million teachers were not qualified to teach those subjects.
Total days in the U.S. school year are substantially less than in England, USSR, West Germany and Japan. Percentage of high school students taking three years of science and mathematics was also less than one third of what is taken in those countries. The report recommended the school day and school year be extended. High school graduation requirements should be raised to four years of HS science and include both chemistry and physics. Four years of math should include a second year of algebra.
The directive to increase K–12 science and teacher training was completely ignored and continues to be ignored today. In the end, they pushed one basic principle: “You can’t teach what you don’t know.”
More than 40 years of inadequate science education has culminated in general public ignorance causing the U.S. to lose its first place in science publications, patents, production of highly-cited research, etc. It has taken over four decades to drop to our level of science illiteracy. If the recommendations in this report were implemented immediately, it might be possible the U.S. could regain its lead 40 years into the future. But that is still not happening.