Addressing the Crisis in Math and Science
The U.S. owes a great debt to the makers of Sputnik 1. The Soviet Unions 1957 launch of the worlds first earth-orbiting man-made satellite challenged our national self-image of leadership in mathematics and science. Within a year, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, and by the time Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the moon in July 1969, American mathematics, science, and technology were the envy of the world.
Our nations leadership in mathematics and science is once again at risk, and a new congressional act of similar scope is needed. According to the recent National Mathematics Advisory Panel report, American students have not been succeeding in the mathematical part of their education at anything like a level expected of an international leader.
Changing this will take teachers with a dedication to math and science and the knowledge to match. But the data suggest that we are in a feedback loop, with todays ill-prepared students becoming tomorrows teachers. This weeks announcement that nearly three-quarters of aspiring elementary school teachers failed the math section of the states licensing exam is the latest example.
Last June, the National Council of Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, reported that the average 2007 mathematics SAT score of high-school seniors planning to major in education in college was 32 points below the national average for all college-bound students. And colleges themselves are too often not helping. The council surveyed 77 education schools, and it rated 37 of them as fail on all measures in preparing elementary teachers to teach math. The situation in science is no better a 2007 report of the National Academies described the scientific knowledge of K-8 teachers as limited and often quite thin. Since teacher knowledge significantly affects student learning, this should give us pause.
The nation is not producing enough well-qualified teachers of math and science. And too many of the ones it does produce are leaving the classroom after a few years. We cannot continue to lead in math and science without substantial and immediate changes nationwide.
To break the feedback loop, we need a new Mathematics and Science Education Act. Its principle points should include:
The implementation of such an act will require a good deal of effort and is likely to trigger some controversy. But its long-term impact and benefits would far outweigh any growing pains.
Sputnik included a radio beacon audible every 96 minutes. It became a clarion call to change. If only we could hear it now.
Solomon Friedberg is a professor and chairman of the Mathematics Department at Boston College. He is a member of the Mass. Board of Educations Math-Science Advisory Council and an editor of the book series Issues in Mathematics Education.