The Crisis in Science Education

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America’s leadership in science and technology markets has helped secure the standard of living Americans have enjoyed for decades. Currently the U.S. employs close to one-third of the worlds researchers in science and engineering, and accounts for 40% of all R&D spending, though possesses only 5% of the world population.

Yet at the dawn of the 21st century the United States faces an unprecedented level of global competition in emerging science and technology markets, and whose sobering consequences are addressed in a February 2006 report to Congress of the National Academy of Sciences titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.

One driver of emerging markets is innovation-based development in science and technology, and in this context, American innovation must be the means to maintain a leadership role. Yet America’s technical workforce is aging, and the number of students choosing careers in science and technology fields—and who are also U.S. citizens—is decreasing.

As a benchmark, Goldman Sachs projects that the combined economies of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) can surpass those of the G6 in just 40 years. Long term strategic planning to ensure U.S. competitiveness into the future is required now. In this context, the engineers entering the job market in just ten years are currently in 6th grade. Science education programming that can captivate and inspire, deliver on curricular requirements and national benchmarks, and target even elementary school grades, is now of national strategic importance.

The February 2006 report of the National Academies has served as a catalyst for legislation that comprises the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act, signed into law August 9, 2007. COMPETES includes a number of initiatives in education, including: grants to States for alignment of K-12 education content with the skills and knowledge necessary for successful entry into post-secondary STEM education, and downstream entry into the workforce; added training for thousands of teachers in STEM disciplines; creation of new schools serving entire States and specializing in STEM education; partnerships between high-need high schools and local National Labs to create STEM educational centers of excellence; and the training of more teachers equipped to teach AP courses in STEM disciplines.



From a real-world vantage point, national standards in STEM were designed to define the knowledge to be imparted to students to ensure both a public literate in STEM disciplines and a next generation of scientists and engineers—both of which are of national importance in an age of high technology. National standards relevant to the Earth and space sciences are now strongly reflected at the state level, and often in curricula at the school district level. It is also the case, however, that local curricula often place too high an emphasis on information at the expense of conceptual understanding.

The purpose of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 is increasing student achievement—for all students—through accountability by states, school districts, and individual schools. Key elements of NCLB implementation include standardized testing at the state level, benchmarks for teacher competence, and school districts’ added emphasis on student achievement in under-served communities. The premise for the name ‘No Child Left Behind’ is that a standards-based approach to education would apply the same expectations to all students as a means of addressing the disparity in student performance across socio-economic and racial lines. The content focus was initially on reading and mathematics, with testing in science beginning at the end of the 2007-08 academic year.

The implementation of this legislation has been controversial relative to: disparity in student achievement expectations across states, level of federal funding, the emphasis on reading and math at the expense of other subjects—including science, the resultant emphasis on ‘teaching to the test’, and the application of incentives and penalties. But the sentiment—increasing student achievement, reaching out to under-served and under-represented populations, and ensuring teacher competence—are all of national strategic importance. 

National legislation and national standards therefore drive strategic educational need at the local level in terms of content, professional development for teachers, and student achievement for all students.



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3 Responses to “The Crisis in Science Education”

  1. Sand Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    Hi Dr. Jeff,
    Where can I find data to support the following statement you made in this blog?
    “Yet America’s technical workforce is aging, and the number of students choosing careers in science and technology fields—and who are also U.S. citizens—is decreasing.”

  2. DrJeff Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Hi Sand-
    See, e.g., Rising Above the Gathering Storm, National Academy of Sciences, 2007, p. 213, first bullet; also pp. 335-336; and references cited at bottom of pages. These are just two of many sobering statistics in this report.
    -Dr. Jeff

  3. Margaret M-S Says:
    September 10th, 2009 at 10:45 am

    When you refer to STEM standards are you referring to standards created for each subject area at the state level? What are your thoughts on a “national” STEM standards or recommendations?

    Rising above the Gathering Storm is indeed a pivotal report. However, there have been several reports prior that elude to points that are more prominent in the Rising above the Gathering storm report. A Nation at Risk is one of the best examples even if it’s mainly about mathematics.

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