Magazine article Insight on the News

More Rigor, Less Wonder

Magazine article Insight on the News

More Rigor, Less Wonder

Article excerpt

American students continue To lag in science, and critics Contend that dumbing down The curriculum is a treat to The economy. Meanwhile Scientists call for tougher Courses, fewer `fun facts.'

We didn't have science class today!" exclaims a fifth-grader arriving home one recent after noon. "We're always glad when we get to miss science!" Too many parents hear a similar "science-is-so-boring" message from their children, a phenomenon raising new concerns at a time when careers in science and technology offer superior salaries and meaningful work. As children grow up and enter college, fewer choose to major in the sciences. The shortfall has led both Congress and corporations to demand higher immigration quotas for technically trained people.

Results of a "science report card" for American fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders in 1997 showed that more than one-third had below-grade-level knowledge of science. Basic understanding of scientific concepts decreased as students progressed through the grades. Most worrisome: a mere 3 percent displayed an "advanced" level of scientific understanding.

The latest report of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, released in February, ranked the United States last in a 21-nation survey of developed countries. In only one area, math and science literacy, did the United States avoid last place, beating South Africa and Cyprus.

American teachers are as woefully untrained as students. At the high-school level, one-third of math teachers, one-fifth of science teachers and one-half of physics teachers hold neither a major degree nor a minor concentration in their subject areas. At the elementary level, the percentages of teachers lacking subject expertise are much higher. While educators often hold that such training is unnecessary for lower grades, critics claim that poor presentation of material to younger students may, in fact, be getting them off on the wrong foot.

The dismal state of science education in this country has deep roots. American culture in general embraces activities that are "fun," "E-Z" "fast':' and "amazing" -- while the worthwhile results of scientific inquiry are achieved by methodical and persistent inquiry. At home, the long quiet stretches of time once devoted to ob-servation and contemplation have been fragmented by soccer practice, dance lessons, fast food and channelsurfing. The frantic pace of contemporary American culture does not induce the kind of attention span that cultivates budding scientists.

In 1989, the Bush administration saw the need for more rigorous graduation standards and pushed for the National Science Education Standards, or NSES, adopted in 1995. Opponents of the the Clinton administration, however, argue that the Democrats have transformed this effort into an attempt to establish a nascent national curriculum heavily laced with multiculturalist ideology.

Committees and working groups that wrote the new science standards were made up primarily of educators, not scientists, critics claim. The "Suggestions for Further Reading" section of the NSES is full of tracts with titles such as "How Schools Shortchange Girls," published by the American Association of University Women. Proclaiming that "science is for all students," the NSES demands that "re-sources must be allocated to ensure that the standards do not exacerbate the differences in opportunities to learn that currently exist between advantaged and disadvantaged students. …

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