We must educate our children to do better in math and science

Posted on June 12, 2006

Dismal new results on U.S. student performance in science ought to spur Congress to pass President Bush’s competitiveness agenda this year — and to extend his “No Child Left Behind” program to high schools. The competitiveness agenda — which includes scholarships aimed at producing 10,000 more science teachers per year as well as increases in U.S. research funding — has bipartisan support but is moving slowly through Congress. Markups of key legislation have yet to take place in the House or Senate, and leaders have yet to schedule floor time for the bills, which could represent a major success for Congress this year. The need for action, shown over and over by poor U.S. student performance on national and international tests in math and science, was demonstrated again last week with results of the latest “national report card” on science. The National Assessment of Education Progress showed a slight improvement in science test scores by fourth-graders from 1995 to 2005, no improvement by eighth-graders and a decline for 12th-graders. It showed a narrowing of traditional performance gaps between white students and minorities in the fourth grade, but no improvement in the eighth and a widening in the 12th. Girls consistently performed slightly below boys in all three grades. Bills in both the House and Senate contain provisions to expand minority participation in science, but there’s reason to think extra steps should be taken to get women into computer science. According to Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology, the percentage of women enrolled as university computer-science majors has reached an all-time low despite burgeoning opportunities in the field. Regardless of the fact that computerization accounts for much of America’s improved productivity — and is a growing field of international competition despite the early-decade “tech bust” — Sanders said applications for college computer-science programs have dropped 40 percent among both men and women since 1990. Girls represent only 15 percent of young people taking Advanced Placement tests in computer science, she said. And girls make up less than 10 percent of computer entrants in the Intel Science Fair competition and 15 percent of bachelor’s degree awardees at major research universities, she said. That’s not strictly Congress’ business, of course. Sanders’ group is backed by the National Science Foundation and 100 computer companies, universities and nonprofit organizations that are trying to change school curricula and get girls to enroll in computer camps. Even so, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., have triggered new interest by asking for a National Academy of Sciences study, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” warning that the United States was in danger of losing its technological preeminence. Studies have exploded one widely repeated statistic included in that study — that China graduates 600,000 new engineers each year; India, 350,000; and the United States, only 70,000. One study showed that the actual numbers are 137,000 in the United States; 112,000 in India; and 350,000 in China, giving the United States the lead in engineers per million of population. Still, no one has challenged the basic finding that China and India are swiftly upgrading their science and research programs — and that represents a long-term threat to the United States. After appeals by Alexander and several House members, Bush included a competitiveness initiative in his State of the Union address, calling for a doubling of the budgets of the National Science Foundation and other physical-science research programs over 10 years and expanding science education. After the latest NAEP scores were released, Alexander said they “illustrate the urgency for Congress to pass comprehensive competitiveness legislation this year.” His legislation, Protecting America’s Competitive Edge Act, has 70 co-sponsors, but it has yet to be marked up in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The Senate’s immigration bill contains provisions to attract foreign scientists and graduate students to the United States with green cards, and that’s good. But what America needs is to educate its own kids — boys and girls — to love and do science. Right now, we’re still failing.