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FYI Number 84: June 8, 2005

Hearing Examines Science and Math Education, Competitiveness

The House Education and the Workforce's 21st Century Competitiveness Subcommittee met on May 19 to examine "what is happening within America's educational system in the fields of math and science that is hampering U.S. advancement," according to chairman Howard McKeon (R-CA). Witnesses testified to a number of signs indicating that America's lead in global S&T is slipping. They also agreed on the importance of effective K-12 science and math education for America to maintain its technological competitiveness. All seemed to feel that the time was ripe for a "Sputnik moment" that mobilized the nation to reinvigorate its efforts in science and math, but no one was sure what that would take. However, as Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) remarked, "Just saying we're at a Sputnik moment doesn't make it so." He noted that there was "nothing tangible" like a Sputnik launch to "wake us up" and marshal resources toward the problem.

Commenting that the average starting salary for engineering majors is substantially greater than that of liberal arts and business administration majors, McKeon declared, "clearly, there are already ample incentives to attain degrees in math, science, and engineering." He thought that the country was instead facing a "pipeline" issue, with too few students who are interested in science and math, too few K-12 teachers who are trained in those fields, and colleges and universities that are not doing enough to recruit and retain science and math majors.

Both Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation, and Thomas Magnanti, Dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Engineering, offered a number of suggestions to strengthen science, engineering and technological innovation in the U.S. These recommendations included: doubling the federal investment in science, math and engineering over five years; creating scholarships for students who pursue such fields; making degrees in these fields more relevant; attracting and retaining top talent from around the world; bringing free enterprise to the K-12 education system; and creating tax incentives for businesses to invest in basic research at universities and in education for employees.

America does not "have a culture now that seems to encourage young people to get into math and science," said Rep. Tom Price (R-GA). He asked what could be done to "create that spark?" Augustine said that for earlier generations, higher education was seen as the way to a better life, but that was no longer the case. Nancy Butler Songer, a professor of science education at the University of Michigan, said that, in her experience, most people who pursued science, math or engineering careers had some "personally meaningful" experience that attracted them to the field. June Streckfus, Executive Director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, remarked that focus groups in recent years have shown that parents view such careers as boring for their children, spent in cubicles and bereft of social interactions. She also pointed out that in the Sputnik era, the emphasis was on training the best and brightest students in math and science. While some students are always interested in those fields, she said, the difference now is the focus on math and science for "all kids."

Many comments were offered about how teachers are undervalued, underpaid and no longer respected. Relating an anecdote about a science teacher who paid for classroom supplies out of his own pocket, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) asked, "why for heaven's sake would anybody in their right mind...want to be a teacher?" "We need to make the rewards of a teaching career much greater...financially, socially, and culturally," Augustine stated. Songer called for treating teachers more professionally and Magnanti suggested offering more professional development and summer research experiences to keep teachers engaged.

Reps. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Vern Ehlers (R-MI) outlined past efforts to improve K-12 science and math education and support those who teach it, including the 2000 report of the John Glenn Commission, on which Holt served (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2000/fyi00.120.htm), and a series of bills introduced by Ehlers (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2000/fyi00.041.htm). The Glenn Commission's recommendations are still "very sound indeed," said Augustine.

In describing her research on challenges facing science and math teachers in the Detroit Public Schools, Songer said that one of the most common teacher complaints was the amount of teachers' and students' time - up to 15 weeks - spent preparing for and taking standardized tests. While Songer emphasized the importance of accountability, rigorous standards and effective tests of students' critical thinking skills, she argued that testing should not be allowed to crowd out available instruction time. Asked by Rep. Kind to assign a grade for how the country was doing in preparing the next generation to compete in the global marketplace, most of the witnesses, while noting that some aspects are excellent, graded the overall system at or near a "D."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3094

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