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Solving U.S. Students' Math, Science Problems

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Business leaders are increasingly concerned about the United States' ability to keep pace economically with countries such as China and India. They, along with leaders from education, government, and the nonprofit sector, called last week for combining their K-12 education efforts to better prepare students for the workplace.

Participants at a conference organized by Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit group, pointed to what they described as the United States' poor showings on international tests in mathematics and science.

Are U.S. schools failing to prepare students to compete in the global marketplace? Should tougher science and math standards be created and implemented to address this issue? Tell us what you think.

27 Comments

I don't understand why the educational community is so surprised at this. For over a decade studies have pointed out that our students are leaving schools and colleges with only a superficial knowledge of just about everything they have taken. The studies all suggest the reason for this is that teachers/professors continue to stress vocabular and detailed facts (things that are memorized and quickly forgotten) instead of understanding, the important lasting element in learning. It's been suggested that most educators stress the facts because they are easy to test; evaluating whether a student understands the material or not is very difficult. There is a modest movement underfoot in the nation to move educators from teacher-centered (mostly lecture) to student-centered (inquiry)lessons. When this occurs, the studies find that students recognize relationships and applications more easily; such wholistic thinking leads to student understanding.. True thinkers recognize that it's understanding that's left in students after they have forgotten all the fact!

Good students need teachers who can teach a subject, not teachers who are specialized in it.
As a second career middle school teacher in New York City I am surprised at how difficult and costly teacher licensing is: the new requirements are including an equivalent of a masters in the science I teach, covering material that is not in the curriculum. This, in spite of passing the content test the state has for teachers. Honestly, with the knowledge I am asked to get, it would be easier to go back to work in the private industrial or manufacturing sector, making much more money... (Industry loves people who are freshly trained) :-)

But this summer science and math teachers who could not afford the additional (about 6- 9 extra credits) post graduate courses were turned out of their jobs. Yet New York City does not have a tuition refund program for teachers, and teacher's salaries barely cover rental rates in the city...

Is it a wonder that the science and math teacher shortage is getting worse?

Public schools have lost a culture of learning. We are no longer providing the basics of education that US employers need. No wonder businesses are looking to China, India and Indonesia. It will continue to get worse. US students rank 27 out of 39 academically among industrialized nations. Yet parents seem unconcerned.

Every time I read an article about parents fighting with teachers over their child's grades (Time magazine Feb 27, 2005), I lose hope. Do parents really think that badgering a teacher for a better grade makes their child smarter? We must regain our role as parents and stop trying to be our children's friend. The education establishment must stop whining about NCLB and start demanding the best from their students. Our kids will rise to the challenge. There is nothing wrong with their brains.

Teachers in Science and Math need to continue to learn in their area subjects. The informnation in science changes daily and the students need to be aware of the current discoveries to be able to see how these affect their lives.
Also students who go to college from schools with poorly trained teachers who do not keep up and expose their students to current research and encourage research by students are at greater risk of failure. They fail because they have to learn twice as much as students from high schools where they have already been exposed to the new ideas.

Most states have advocacy groups that have been bringing business, education, and policy leaders together to address this problem. The challenges include instilling the sense of urgency, necessity, and empowerment within the school communities, and providing resources to better equip teachers with the content knowledge and tools needed to teach mathematics and science for understanding. All students deserve and require a strong program and high expectations in mathematics and science.

It is very likely that your state has such an advocacy group. For more information, visit the National Alliance of State Science and mathematics Coalitions (NASSMC) at http://www.nassmc.org and click on Member Coalitions.

Read Ch. 7 of Thomas Friedman's book "The World is Flat"....science education is in a silent crisis. As a science educator, the standards are fine. The national standards have been modeled by every state in the country, but have a lot of local battles that are fought. We also are in a country that doesn't value science enough. When we have a president who sides with ID people......he sets a model for the rest of the country.

I believe a big issue is that our society has gotten so "standardized test happy" that what we are required to teach in the classroom are things that are easily testable on a state test to determine if a person graduates.

This is great for simple rote memorization of facts to make sure if you know something or not but it really does not apply to the sciences where you must "think outside of the box". Unfortunately there is no easy/efficient way to test a stdudent in how they apply certain facts to a different situation - which is the skill that is responsible for invention and discovery.

We are really good at creating graduates that can calculate and build what we already do but I see the US as loosing it's edge in innovation and breakthrough discoveries.

Mark, the teacher below who commented that there is nothing wrong with the standards was on target. If students left school meeting the standards (the AAAS standards; the NRC standards) we would all see kids leaving school well prepared to contribute to the progress of our country and our world.

Poor showings on tests are not to be pushed aside - depending on what those tests are. But we can't pay attention only to them.

We are not patient in this country. We haven't given ourselves, as science educators enough time to learn and put into practice instruction that we think...we only think is effective. Only when we allow ourselves to see that the instruction we think is taking place...actually is...will we be able to determine it's effectiveness by any standard. The climate we are working in now does not give us that time.

Mark, the teacher below who commented that there is nothing wrong with the standards was on target. If students left school meeting the standards (the AAAS standards; the NRC standards) we would all see kids leaving school well prepared to contribute to the progress of our country and our world.

Poor showings on tests are not to be pushed aside - depending on what those tests are. But we can't pay attention only to them.

We are not patient in this country. We haven't given ourselves, as science educators enough time to learn and put into practice instruction that we think...we only think is effective. Only when we allow ourselves to see that the instruction we think is taking place...actually is...will we be able to determine it's effectiveness by any standard. The climate we are working in now does not give us that time.

We know how people learn science, and we know how to teach science. We have known pretty much since the end of the first round of science-ed-sputnik- induced-we're-falling-behind-the-rest-of-the-world-hysteria research projects. However, like the smoker who understands the health risks of smoking but doesn't stop, we don't change. We don't change because we try to ignore the fact that the problem is multifaceted, and will not be fixed in school alone. Every comment prior to this is correct. The problrm is political, cultural, economic and structural.
We think about "schooling" not education.
We we try to solve the problems that created a permanent urban economic underclass in the classroom.
We steadfastly refuse to allocate the economic and social resources that are needed to effect real change.
The majority population hides from the reality of its ethnocentricity.

We can get better. It will be difficult, and costly, and take a long time. So let's get started.
Let's talk and meet with everyone who needs to be part of the change, and let's force the issue out of the schools and into the community, state and region, where a difference can be made.

The problem is not that teachers are not teaching correctly. Every science teacher that I have ever worked with is against rote memorization. We try to get the kids to "think" when all they want is for us to "tell them the answer". Today's students are used to instant gratification and have no desire to work at their learning. Too often, their parents follow the same pattern. I have witnessed administrators changing students' grades as well as attendance records because parents have simply complained. School districts are too afraid of possible lawsuits that they give in to parent demands. While parents might say that they want their child to be challenged, they do not back that up with support for homework, extra help or even stressing the importance of education. It is a tragedy for this country that our President is placing all of the blame on teachers and administrators when he should be encouraging parents to be responsible for their children. Perhaps if more values were taught at home and children had respect for education then we might begin to make some improvement.

After my child's school implemented a NSF "evidence-based" math curriculum two years ago, he complained at least weekly at home that he wanted more math challenge at school. The new math curriculum had an anti-ability grouping philosophy and thought that, in essence, one size fits all. After two years of suffering, he is now in middle school where, at last, his teacher is free to use her judgment and to provide the challenge that he has begged for. The desire for more challenge than the school is willing to provide is, in my experience, common. Why not flexible grouping and differentiation?

There is a dichotomy today in science education, and it's just silly that an organization like EdWeek cannot (or will not) see it.

One needs to look no further than the e-mails from EdWeek to see one side of the problem. That would be the public educational system's continuing love affair with all things evolution. Rarely does an issue of EdWeek come out without some mention of the latest despicable assault on evolution education. It's the whole reason for the existence of the NCSE. And just try to find a Science or Social Studies book that does not quote as immutable fact (yes, "fact") that humans evolved from apes, and we all came from a cosmic explosion in some supposed (but never-to-be-proven) "Big Bang" billions and billions of years ago. Oh, how badly the educational community wants our tender youth to firmly understand these "essential" facts of our existence.

But how essential are these facts, really? According to http://www.jff.org/jff/approaches/econopp/showcase/AmDreamForum.html,
"In September 2005, top corporate, education, and workforce policymakers came together to address the failure to prepare the nation for the demands of the knowledge-based global economy of the 21st century."

That's what at the heart of this "Talkback", after all. EdWeek is bemoaning the fact that our kids aren't prepared for the real world - and the kind of science they'll need to know in order to keep America great. So tell me - is it our evolution research that will keep America great? Really? Why don't you talk to an actual person in an actual technical career - a computer developer, a mechanical or electrical engineer, an orthopedic surgeon, a Navy test pilot - you know, someone like that. Ask them how much their career has been affected by their knowledge of life's origins, or the age of the earth, or how the dinosaurs became extinct. I think you'll not only discover that those things are irrelevant - they're WORSE than irrelevant! Time is spent indoctrinating our kids in all things Darwin instead of having time to talk about things that actually matter - the things that EdWeek says are important - the demands of the knowledge-based global economy of the 21st century.

Go to Monster.com and type in "anthropologist". Know what you'll get? "We're sorry but there are no jobs that match your search criteria at this time." Where are the jobs? Try "engineer", "nurse", "accountant", "technician", "chemist", "computer", "restaurant", "marketing", "stock trader", "transportation", "wireless technology", "medical device" and the like.

Think of it a different way; who invented your cell phone? Your refrigerator? Your iPod? The automatic external defibrillator? The navigational controls in the last airplane you safely flew in? The HVAC system of the building you work in? The emergency power system in your local hospital? The operating system of your notebook PC? Was it a biological anthropologist? A PhD stellar evolution 'scholar'? I didn't think so.

"Origins research" and "evolution from apes" matters to a small handful of ivory tower intellectuals. It has no meaning, importance or relevance in the real world. Oh how I wish the public schools would someday understand this and stop wasting our children's time studying it to death. There are more important things to study.

The need for "tougher standards" is not the solution to our current problem. We have created several standards in mathematics and science that call for students to truly understand the material, to create new knowledge, and to reason. But, we have not really committed to demanding these standards from all of our students.

As educators, we generally do not concern ourselves with true equity in education. We may talk about the need for equity and how we might solve any given "problem" brought on by a particular group who does not learn the way the "average" student learns, yet we still do nothing to address the real issue.

If we do not begin to educate all of our students so that they see themselves as the ones who do math and science, we will continue to hire our mathematicians and scientists from countries where their population is being educated to meet our economical demands.

Giving lip service to equity without addressing the problem is creating a societal ill that if unattended to, may create additional issues for which we are unable to solve. We need to demand that equity for all, really means all, without exceptions.

One other problem that I see is more toward the college level. Some college profs, etc. are excellent teachers but others are not. The question is how did they get the job as a "teacher". They got it by having a degree and not by knowing how to "teach" students. Some are more interested in research than educating the students.

The "NCLB" Act does not take into consideration the nature of develpment for children in certain age groups. Children learn through time and experinece, constant changes and experiences in all aspects of their lives. The NCLB Act is in my opinion, flaud, because it does not consider what children should or should not be doing at a particular time in their development. Requiring
a child to memorize (not learn) principles and facts before they're ready could have negative consequences and possible long-term affects. Passing a state standardized test, in my opinion, is not a reliable indicator of the value of the learning activity. My fifth grader said to me more than once- "Mom we don't need to read that chapter because it is not on the test."
Educators are developing curriculum that solely support the standardized tests because it is the only inidcator of performance and success.
Shouldn't education officials develop policy that consider child developmental stages and support learning for the long-term?

There never has been and never will be any substitute for subject matter knowledge and skill in the qualifications for science teachers. I saw chaos and "silly science" when secondary teachers with advanced(including doctorate)degrees retired and were replaced with non-majors. I witnessed unprepared science/math teachers, breathlessly, running into a "real" science teacher's class, waving a meter stick, begging, 'Quick, what are the big marks and the little marks called?'!!!
I listened as coaches with biology "minors" taught 16 yr-olds that turtles(yes, TURTLES) shed their shells, yearly!

Don't even dare to think about "catching up" to other nations' science ed. till school administrators and HR offices worry about issues of more consequence than coverage of coaching assignments. I sat in on an interview of a candidate for a 10th grade life science position. The candidate had over 12 highly successful years in the same district, had a doctorate in science curriculum development from a "big ten" university and ten years experience developing and publishing high school lab science programs plus a number of summer fellowships at a National Lab, participating in experimental research in life science. The interviewing administrator had not even read his resume' and proceeded to ask if he (a) had ever been to grad school, and (b) what sport he would coach, and(c) what was his philosophy of teaching a subject unrelated to science?(!) It was a terrible experience, but, I am afraid, not atypical.

If parents only knew.

Several strategies can help in the long term. 1) Require teachers to get a subject BA/BS and then a professional teaching degree, including elementary teachers. 2) Teaching across the curriculum, especially in middle schools, so that science activities, for example, reinforce math skills, reading, writing and social studies content areas. These applied situations mirror tasks the business world will require. 3) Recognize this generation is digital media friendly and provide the infrastructure to facilitate their learning; most districts lag woefully in this area. A teacher-student disconnect can easily result. 4)Create excitement for science through community partners and public information campaigns. Young kids come to class excited to learn; it's our job to maintain that enthusiasm for learning about the world.

A final point about an earlier comment on an overemphasis on evolution in the curriculum. The current hyperfocus on human origins is driven by politics, specifically, the moneyed right-wing variety and not by science. Textbooks have not changed significantly in the last decade in their general treatment of the issue. Public education is, inevitably, driven by the public agenda, and a certain subset of Christian fundamentalists is waging a PR campaign on the topic. Thank goodness all the science teachers I know are taking it in stride and still creating excitement in the classroom.

Addendum to my comment, above:

It is curious that some "business leaders" express concern that American children score lower than the children in two other countries with interesting attitudes toward children. In one of these countries it has been reported that it is a struggle in rural areas to keep families from euthanizing female babies. In the other, women, we have learned, are involuntarily
sterilized or put in prison for daring to have more children than the number established by their government.

As a citizen of a nation in which all children and all sizes of families are held to be special, it appears to me that the other nations with higher test scores ought to worry about the factors which give rise to infanticide and forced sterilization. Till then, I probably, won't lose an innordinate amount of sleep over test score comparisons with such places.

When USA school people, parents, and teacher ed. departments, finally, agree that there is no substitute for deep-to-overflowing knowledge of subject matter, and ACT on this agreement, there will be an impressive rise in science and math scores here.

Q. Who decided that math and science made up "education"? Who said math and science were the only important subjects? Who said we have to be better than other countries in math and science? Who said that the naturally-talented math-and-science people were the "brightest and best"? Who said that math-and-science are necessary for the "jobs of the future," for college work? Who says the only "good jobs" are in math, science, and technology?" Who says we need to train people only for jobs in science and technology?

A. The Business Roundtable, encouraged by the Bush administration. After wasting tons of money on tax perks for rich contributors and cronies, the government needs to save money on education. The show-off big business guys will pay for (maybe) math and science education -- a la "A Nation at Risk" infamous report.

Give me a break!

Unbelievably, we're still worshipping Business! We haven't learned from the multi-national corporations that have helped cause World Hunger? We haven't learned from Enron, for heavens' sakes?

We haven't done our "homework." "Most jobs still do NOT require higher math, like algebra," for example. )U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employers say Math and Technology are LAST on the list of what they require from their employees." Of course! They want a good work ethic, attitude, resourcefulness, good people skills.


I am a 50+ yr old seasoned engineering veteran who has been seriously considering career switching into high school physics/math teaching. I am finishing a doctorate now in engineering solely because I love to learn and, although I would suffer a 75% cut in pay, I would still love to inject that love for learning of math and science into our youth. But after reading this email string and after visiting local high schools to get a feel for the current state of affairs, I am stunned at the self-inflicted wounds that teachers have inflicted upon themselves. Yes, for sure, our culture works against you too, but, for example:
1 - I cant believe you all have been schnookered so long by these teachers' unions! Low pay, lack of respect, and miserable working conditions. How much do you pay every month? I thought they were supposed to be working FOR you.
2 - Your own elitism. Despite my deep education, years of training, leading, and mentoring, I have been told that I will be treated as a "rookie" until I receive my education degree/certification. Ok, I understand there are pedagogical concepts that I certainly can learn, but...a "rookie"?...come on!
3 - Segregation. There seems to be, still, this belief that "liberal arts" and the "sciences" are different camps. We (out in the revenue-producing sector of our economy) actually view an ideal candidate as one who integrates all subjects well into their body of knowledge and then exudes a good attitude to boot.

There is large number of us out here (in engineering, math, sciences, etc.) who would love to make a career switch to change the course of US STEM education. We are willing to take modest pay cuts, relish the teaching challenge, will deal with parents, but what scares us the most...are you teachers!

Good for you, Sr. Industry Engineer, to be considering a move to teaching. After enjoying HS Science teaching, I "went back" to grad school, lived in a trailer, and earned a research doc. Then, to a dozen years at the lab and as a professor. Then(most fun), back to full time secondary sci. teaching/chairing for 25 years. No regrets! As to your three points:
(1)Been in union and non-union situations. The "Low pay, lack of respect, and miserable working conditions", where they existed(not, usually simultaneously)were neither caused nor ignored by the union(whether AFT OR NEA). as in other trades/professions, a host of site-specific abuses brought unions in. And, as in other trades/professions, the membership has to monitor the union to be sure it neither gets fat-n-relaxes nor dilutes the ts/ps effectiveness. (2)As to the "elitism" and "rookie" effects, much of that is mandated by state "trial period" or "tenure" law and should be addressed at the legislative level if it works, wholesale, to restrict effectiveness. If it is just in a particular building, you're, either, on your own, or if represented by a bargaining unit, go the grievance route. Best of all, sponsor a sci/eng or science/eng-related club(ham radio, aeronautics, IT assistants for tech-illiterate teachers) club that is so interesting and valuable to the school that parental support will "encourage" administrators to add sponsors and improve facilities for student opportunity.
(3)Well, I guess you're right on the liberal arts separation from sciences. There does seem to be a certain "awe" or "science is hard" aura that, from the perspective of the p.e., English, and social studies teachers separates us as "elderly Harry Potters"! But that is NOT, altogether, a bad thing. Rather it is an invitation for us to be brash enough to form connections with other parts of the curriculum, first through integrated student units(that show how subjects are integrated in the "revenue-producing sector..") and, soon, through cooperation with teachers from other disciplines in developing thise units....or something like that. Maybe even some funding available from trade or professional associations.

Most of all, the "you teachers" who scare the engineering/analysis/research professionals who would love to switch careers are, in my experience, only a few vocal "anti tech" types in the last SD of the right end of the curve! The vast majority would be very open to any influx of "real world types" who appeared to have the potential to bring reality to the students. My old(1960)Ed. Psych prof at the U of I used to tell us that bringing just two things to the classroom would benefit students more than nearly any other pedagogical concept: Immediate knowledge of progress and Reality. Sounds like quality control and optimization to me, engineer! Go for it.

Mr (Dr) Retired Sci Dept Chr, nicely stated and a encouraging and reasoned response. Thank you.

Don't think a side effect when you first start is going to be a permanent effect. I have one med I didn't sleep for more than 35 hours after two days of partial doses of it. WBR LeoP

It is in all coutry, how to make our govt to understand this problem


TRUE EDUCATORS / GUIDES are best for life

Page No.18 (tenth line) If you think like Christ, you will be Christ or if you think
Like Buddha you will be Buddha.
Page No.47 (tenth line) The pride of man is due to his thinking and man are
different from animals due to his thinking power only.
Above written in Hindi Book-----Vedanta In Practical Life
Written by SWAMI VIVEKANANDA

This means everybody can be also become anything like others if you think like them i.e. Swami Vivekananda, Christ, Buddha, Shiva or more like anything etc. Mainly adopt all good things / habits of even animals like doctors, scientists etc. are working on animals or study on dead persons for the benefit of the world. Your thinking should be like that then by way of simple work or inspire / insist others on your goal to continue the good work always. A good work to save children may be done regularly by donations / adding one rupee in schools fee everywhere. The day when you think for whole world / children, the knowledge of all shastra / ethics will automatically come to your mind & Children (male / female) may be saved by true education / simple & automatic law known by everybody.

We have some answers to know directly
And some questions to know the truth by answers
Give the definition of criminals as well as GOD
Why criminals and GOD was always there as per shastra / ethics in World
As in INDIA so many words are there parallel to GOD
to confuse the children & are slaughtered in remote areas.

Page no.24 (18th line) To-day the Education given to females is not good. We should give
Progressive and truth education and it is not only from the books.
Page no.68 (12th line) If we think & ask them (Females), they have nine lives in INDIA like
Cats and boys are dying like houseflies.
Above written in Hindi Book -----Bhartiya Nari
Written by SWAMI VIVEKANANDA
Page no.64 (last five lines) No proofs are required for those females who are thirsty for
Blood of Males.
Above written in Hindi Book-----Vedanta In Practical Life
Written by SWAMI VIVEKANANDA

Only think to save people from wrong education given to females
& their educators who is thirsty for blood of males & think to save a child from
The technology of crime & death as per Shastra / Ethics
THINK TO SAVE A CHILD, IT IS NOT IMPOSSIABLE MAY BE DIFFICULT
FEMALES ARE THERE IN ALL RELIGIONS, EVEN HOW TO IDENTIFY THE MAN BY RELIGION
This is the reason INDIAN SAINTS don't marry. Wife is so kind to her Criminal Guru (Wrong Educator) who is thirsty for blood of males & are slaughtered in remote areas.
KISHAN JALAN, INDIA 0651-2200166 / 033-2259 7321 & 7429 / Mobile-0-98318-22701

From:
KISHAN JALAN
C/o, Hiralal Bhagwati Prasad
Upper Bazar, Ranchi-834 001
(Jharkhand)

12/2, Shobharam Baisakh Street
Kolkata-700 007, West Bengal
INDIA

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