Calculating a Future That Doesn’t Add Up

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Failing to reverse the trends in our math and science education will havesevere effects on our children’s welfare—and the nation’s, too.

If 600,000 Chinese, 300,000 Indians, and 70,000 Americansgraduate annually with IT and engineering degrees, and the USpopulation is 3/13 the size of China’s and 3/11 as large asIndia’s, which countries have a more competitive future?

NOW DO THE MATH. Ay, there’s the problem: We can’t do the math, certainly not with the fluency the rest of the world can. Consider that the US finished 24th out of 29 leading industrialized countries on the 2003 Programme for International Assessment study, which tested 15-year-olds’ math abilities. The answer to the question posed above is as troubling as our kids’ inability to solve it—even accounting for population size, the US trails emerging global forces China and India in technology and engineering. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences (“Rising Above the Gathering Storm”) points out that with IT and engineering skills so dependent on math and science skills, our future as the last remaining superpower isin question.

Nearly 50 years ago, we faced a similar moment. The Soviet Union’s first Sputnik launch stunned and alarmed this country; sensing we had fallen behind, we were moved to improve our science education. Though the space wars being waged today are strictly cyber, we have every reason to again be stunned, alarmed, and prompted to do better, as we face the twin issues of our students’ poor skills and the serious challenges we face globally, most pointedly from China and India. The return of foreign scientists to their native countries exacerbates the problems further. And for the cost of one technically trained chemist in the United States, a company can hire about five chemists in China or 11 in India.

Given the state of things, although long overdue, President Bush’s call for stronger federal support for math and science education in his recent State of the Union Address was right on target. In particular, the president’s call to recruit thousands of new math and science teachers deserves strong bipartisan support. We need to launch a recruitment drive immediately— it takes years to attract and train competent math and science teachers. The facts are appalling and cry out for urgency: An estimated 37 percent of US high school math teachers and 31 percent of science teachers are without a degree or certification in their field. Moreover, only an estimated 68 percent of US students who enter ninth grade graduate with a diploma in 12th grade. Students drop out for a variety of reasons, but the inability to master algebra is commonly cited by many educators as a factor behind the high student dropout rate.

Sadly, the schools do not have the resources, time, and properly trained personnel to compensate for the lack of able math, science, and technology-savvy teachers. Polling shows that schools find it difficult to get young people to think of science or technology careers as exciting or lucrative. Clearly, a comprehensive approach to reversing a spiraling trend is warranted. From working with students from disadvantaged circumstances, we have seen positive results using five interconnected approaches that should be integrated into President Bush’s initiative to achieve a more complete solution to the crisis in math and science education.

Holistic strategy. First, there needs to be established in every community a math/science/technology committee that works on developing a holistic solution. Ours is an integrated formula we call TTCMM—technology, teachers, courseware, mentoring, and motivation. Each of the five branches shares in the solution. First, the Internet and eLearning technologies can be accessed anytime, anywhere, and can help students be more productive in the 185 days on average they are out of school. Secondly, until we produce enough qualified teachers, Web-based courses can supplement our current teachers but are not sufficient by themselves. Lastly, we need trained personal mentors to provide support for students, especially to motivate them to take the courses, and then to persevere, as well as get help when they need it.

Industry Perspective

DOWN THE TUBES: Test scores
show US students are not measuring
up internationally in math and science.

Career exposure. Students who are disengaged and lack motivation to pursue math and science have only vague and often misleading notions of what technical careers look like. We need companies and agencies prepared to sponsor young people, and mentor them so that they visit workplaces and get a more accurate sense of what such jobs are like and what qualifications they take. We need to start such programs as early as eighth grade, when all the research suggests students are making some fundamental choices about their future orientation toward school and their lives. Intensive algebra. Algebra needs to be taught over two years, not one. We applaud school districts that have already decided to expand algebra into a two-year course, to ready students for tough state high schoolgraduation exams.

Career awareness. Parents and students need to attend a series of science and technology fairs, where executives from regional companies can let them know about the way their businesses work and their dependency on technical talent. The connection between local wealth and the ability of schools to supply the knowledge talent to fuel that wealth needs to be made in the minds of the entire community.

Motivation and rewards. By the time they enter high school, every student should develop a Web-based career and academic pathway based on a variety of data points, including a vocational test, a resume, and their academic and eLearning courses. Progress in developing a portfolio should be recognized with small and large rewards such as summer jobs, internships, and college scholarships, with some of the costs borne by local corporations and foundations.

The truth about living and thriving in the 21st century is that we cannot rely on the glories and structures of the past. The race is on to secure our economic future and the future of our children. We must think globally yet act on the local level to shore up our place in the technology-driven world marketplace without haste—community by community, school district by school district.

Appu Kuttan & Laurence Peters arechairman and vice president, respectively,of the National Education FoundationCyberLearning,and the authors of the book From DigitalDivide to Digital Opportunity (ScarecrowPR, 2003).

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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