Brain Drain in Science Ed.: While U.S. Colleges and Universities Excel in Science and Math, Secondary Schools Are at Best Average. (Education)

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America's legendary ingenuity and scientific know-how is renowned worldwide, but some observers think there simply aren't enough U.S. secondary students learning good reasoning and application skills. "American companies need workers who not only have factual knowledge about science and math, but the ability to apply scientific knowledge to a new situation," says Edward Donley, former chairman of the Air Products and Chemicals Inc. Indeed, U.S. companies have been importing so many foreign technicians that their labs look like "mini-United Nations," says Donley.

Recent surveys have confirmed lackluster American scores:

* The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, taken in 1995 and repeated in 1999, showed American eighth-graders ranking 14th out of 38 countries. The 1999 scores were virtually unchanged from 1995.

* The Program for International Student Assessment, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that American 15-year-olds have average science-literacy scores, ranking 14th out of 31 countries.

* The massive National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science, released in November, showed that 47 percent of high-school seniors don't have "basic" science skills. This is worse than in 1996, when 43 percent of seniors couldn't answer basic questions about earth, life or physical science.

According to NAEP, science scores worsen as children progress through public school. U.S. fourth-graders rank fairly high when measured against peers in other countries. However, science grades slip into the average range by the eighth grade and fall below par by 12th grade.

The study shows that "the longer the kids stay in school, the less well they do," says Milton Friedman, the 89-year-old Nobel laureate, economist and school-voucher proponent. Science scores are "disastrous" but not unexpected, given the "Soviet-style" monopoly of public K-12 education in the United States, according to Friedman.

"It's a fascinating thing that when it comes to higher education -- universities, colleges -- the United States is No. 1 in the world" Friedman says. "But when it comes to lower education, we're at the bottom. The difference between those two is one word: Choice."

Already at some schools, foreign-born students outnumber Americans, and the gap is likely to widen. "It's a great thing as long as the world wants to send us its best and brightest students," says Bruce Fuchs, director of the Office of Science Education at the National Institutes of Health. But it's also important that "somehow we learn how not to depend on the world sending us its best and brightest and create some of these kids here. …