Something to worry about

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2005

America became a powerhouse because of technical human talent that has driven our industrial success. Basic science, technology, engineering, and mathematical knowledge have been vitally important for decades. Those are the skills necessary for innovation that leads to new industries that put people to work. Our industrial leadership is falling apart because our expertise in those fields is in rapid decline. The highly skilled end of our labor pool is shrinking rapidly to mediocrity. Why?

Our college and university production of science and engineering talent is very low in comparison to other countries. The reason is that the United States K-12 school’s math and science skill levels are weak at best. The scores of U.S. 12th grade students are abysmal. Only 2 percent of them are rated &uot;advanced,&uot; and a mere 16 percent are rated proficient. What does that tell you about the other 82 percent? If you look at it from the standpoint of the world our students are in the 10th percentile, which means that 90 percent of the countries do better than the U.S. and only 10 percent performed worse.

A great deal of the problem is caused by student attitude, and parental lack of motivation. But the National Commission of Math and Science Teaching noted that 56 percent of high school students taking physical science were being taught by &uot;out of field&uot; teachers, meaning that the teacher did not major or minor in the subject in college. In mathematics this figure was 27 percent. How excited can a student get when being taught a by teacher who has no experience in the field? Here’s the kicker; only 30 percent of students who enter a science track in 9th grade are still interested in science as a major when they graduate.

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The other part of the problem is weak curricula. Get this; The American Association for the Advancement of Science rated less than 10 percent of middle school math books to be acceptable, and no science books. Has anyone looked at ours? The National Commission on Excellence recommends public high schools require three years of mathematics and two years of science. Only 45 percent of high schools meet that standard with respect to math and only 24 percent with respect to science. Has anyone looked at ours?

There is resistance to change from the well-organized interest of the K-12 public education system: big unions, school administrators, colleges of education, state bureaucracies, and school boards. These groups see any changes as threats to their own jealously guarded power. You think I’m kidding?

They all should take responsibility for the poor results they are achieving. We need them to get serious about accountability and teacher qualifications. They should ease their opposition to vouchers and charter schools that will bring about the kind of competition that generates improvement. Mostly we need to stop promoting unprepared students to the next grade level. That might wake up the students. Oh yes, there is also the little matter of discipline – out of control students who have no respect for anything.

Here is the shocker that should wake up the citizens. The Department of Education points out that only 53 percent of education dollars is currently spent on instruction. Remember, the annual cost of a student, near seven thousand dollars, come from your taxes. If only $2,800 goes for teacher instruction would you question it? Do you suppose Suffolk’s numbers are any better? How do you propose we find out?

Let’s look again at those college and university degrees. Recent numbers show that among U.S. 24 year olds with a B.S or B.A degree only 5 percent were engineers, compared to 39 percent in China, 19 percent in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. In 2001, at the PhD level, our country produced 4,400 but the number of Asians had risen to 24,900. By the year 2010 it is estimated that 90 percent of all PhD physical scientists will be Asians living in Asia. So who will be the powerhouse nations in the near future?

Why do people keep running over a string a dozen times with their vacuum cleaner, then reach down, pick it up, take a quick look at it, then put it down to give the vacuum one more chance? Isn’t that’s about we go about fixing our schools?

Robert Pocklington lives in Suffolk and is a regular News-Herald columnist. He can be reached at