Sixty Chinese student teachers, all college seniors ready to teach in classrooms next year, responded immediately and in unison. The question I had asked was simple. Less than four years earlier, they had graduated from Chinese high schools where they had taken approximately three times more science coursework than students in the U.S. I asked them whether they would be teaching 1)less, 2)the same, or 3)more science to their students in Chinese high schools a decade from now.
The answer was emphatic and without hesitation: More Science! They had no doubt that the average Chinese citizen would need to know more science for everyday life as each year went by.
In the United States of the 1950s, that was the answer Americans gave. When pollsters went door-to-door and asked about science, Americans responded with enthusiasm. We expected the world to get better because of science. And we expected our children and grandchildren would be learning more-and-more science in the future.
Not today. The September 10, 2008 issue of Education Week summarizes the results of a survey of parents’ beliefs about the importance of math and science education. When asked if schools should be teaching their children more math and science, less, or “things are fine as they are,” 57 percent said things are just fine and two percent more would prefer less science.
Our regard for math and science has been declining steadily. In 1994, 52 percent of parents said “lack of math and science education” was a serious problem. Today, only 32 percent think it is a serious problem.
International comparisons of U.S. students’ performance on math and science tests put us near the bottom of developed countries. The number of American engineers, physicists, and chemists who are foreign-born has risen sharply in the last 20 years. An increasing number of our medical doctors also have a foreign accent. But as living standards continue to rise overseas, more-and-more scientists are “returning home.” Our ability to keep the foreign science talent is in serious question.
Why are we not interesting more U.S. students in science? There are many factors.
Any student trying to enter engineering or physics is severely crippled by the U.S. failure to convert to metric, the language of those sciences.
American schools teach less than a third of the science that is taught in other developed countries; our science-anemic school curricula was developed mostly by Schools of Education who think that how-to-teach is more important than what-to-teach. Elementary teachers who graduate from U.S. colleges have less science coursework than Canadian high school students who never attended college.
And we also seem to have an attitude that we can “tech” our way out of science illiteracy. Want to “know” something? Just goggle Wikipedia. No one thinks about how we will know the right question...or how we will understand the answer we get.
Kansas high school seniors graduating next spring will have to have three rather than two science courses to get a Kansas diploma. But we are losing so many science teachers that we cannot staff Kansas schools with enough licensed science teachers.
The Chinese know tomorrow will be better than today, because today is better than yesterday. And they know science is a part of that improvement.
A majority of surveyed Americans state that they expect their children will have a lower standard of living than we presently have.
And the fact that over 60 percent of us do not see the need for “more science” suggests that we see no reason to turn our science shortage around.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia, KS.