Science is Back in the House

We thankfully now have a President who promises in his inaugural address to "restore science to its rightful place," thus adding words to his actions. The address and the selection by Barack Obama of a team of brilliant scientists to advise him has initiated the reversal of eight years of contempt for science. This new leadership can revitalize American scientific education and restore respect for scientific inquiry and methods. They have the opportunity to insure our future competitiveness through excellence in science education. We need to support such a drive to excel. If we accept mediocrity, that's what we will get. That seems un-American.

We have struggled in the wilderness for eight years as science has suffered from disrespect at the highest levels of government. Ignorance of science in our leaders is not acceptable. We must now demand that at every level from school boards to cities, states, and the nation we have people who understand scientific concepts and have reputable scientific advisors. Improving science education has been made more difficult when a country has a leader or an ideology that undermines the most basic concept of a major branch of science and denigrates and ignores rigorously-developed scientific reports.

Here's a real challenge for the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. A worldwide study of education in science and math contains at best a mixed report card for the U.S. The good news: In math, our fourth-graders are almost as adept as those in Kazakhstan. Go, Borat! We did manage to beat Yemen soundly. The usual suspects, including Japan, Taiwan, the Russian Federation, England and the Netherlands, still lead us. Never mind the huge lead by Singapore and Hong Kong. That's a different league.

The largest assessment ever made of the achievement level of students worldwide in math and science, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) for 2007, was conducted through Boston College. It reveals that the United States, despite our belief that it is the presumed world leader in science and technology education, didn't even fare as well on the science achievement tests as in math. While we did top Kazakhstan in science this time as well as out-performing most of Europe, we still trail Taiwan, Japan, the Russian Federation and England.

As more elementary schools drop science from their curricula, our future competitiveness in the fields that will drive economic success in this century may be fading. Strong programs in Massachusetts and Minnesota show that it is possible to improve our standing. Children in both states actually beat Kazakhstan.

The report concludes that many teachers responsible for presenting science subjects to fourth-graders feel that they do not have sufficient training or education for the job. Only half the teachers of fourth-graders felt prepared to teach science. The National Science Teachers Association urges better teacher training and notes that a quality science education "should not be compromised by censorship, pseudoscience, inconsistencies, faulty scholarship, or unconstitutional mandates." Too many communities have seen the education of the next generation plagued with such destructive interference.

When a third of US teenagers don't graduate from high school, we have a real problem in maintaining a competitive nation in a technology age. With an area that is so crucial to the future of this country, we need change and improvement in education, beginning with encouragement and support at home.

The new leadership in this nation has recognized the importance of science and education. But that leadership needs the support of the entire country in order to succeed in making America the country of the scientifically-literate and the mathematically-competent.