The fastest growing minority group in the United States is the scientifically and technologically illiterate. Chances are that if you know a young person finishing high school this spring, he or she is part of it.
Of the 25 instructional hours available in a school week, elementary school children get an average one hour of science and less than four of arithmetic. In junior high, students continue math, but most don't start algebra until the 9th grade, and then only two-thirds of 9th graders do so. The science program is mixed up, with few opportunities to explore a science or engineering topic in any systematic way.
Only 34 percent of our 3 million annual high school graduates have completed three years of math. Only 8 percent complete a course in calculus --only 31 percent of the high schools even teach calculus. Most seniors have had a biology course, a little over a third have had chemistry. Physics is a part of this sequence for perhaps as few as 10 percent.
Three successive nationwide assessments have shown a decline in achievement in science. Two assessments of mathematics have shown a negligible decline in mathematics learning in elementary schools, but the decline increased for 13-year-olds and was greatest for 17-year-olds. The mean score in mathematics on the Scholastic Aptitude Test dropped from 502 in 1963 to 466 in 1980. The proportion of students who scored at the highest level declined by 15 percent between 1967 and 1975, while the lowest scoring group grew by 38 percent. There has been a 70 percent increase in remedial math courses in public four-year colleges over the last five years.
There is one bright spot: in the 1970s the number of students taking advanced placement examinations more than doubled. If we can assume that these are the students best qualified to pursue scientific and technical careers, our schools are generating a talent pool of some 50,000 students each year. Even if this number were sufficient to provide us with our future researchers and professional engineers--and no one knows if it is--it would still leave our country without other scientifically knowledgeable young people.
There is a critical shortage of qualified science and mathematics teachers. During the 1970s, we experienced a 77 percent decline in the number of secondary school mathematics teachers being trained and a 65 percent decline in science teachers. Of those trained, more and more are leaving teaching for business or industry. Nationwide this school year, 50 percent of the teachers employed by high schools to teach mathematics and science were unqualified and are now teaching with emergency certificates.
Compare science and mathematics education in the United States with that in the Soviet Union, East Germany, China and Japan:
Their school years average 240 days, and absences, considered a family responsibility, are minimal. Typically, our school year is scheduled for 180 days but shrinks to 160 because of absences.
Their schools have a five-and-a-half -or six-day school week and a six- to eight-hour school day. Our children attend school four to five hours a day, five days a week.
Their school vacations are short and dispersed to minimize interferences with the learning sequence. Our children have a three-month intellectual vacation in the summer.
Each of the four countries has a national educational policy emphasizing the importance of science and mathematics to economic and cultural progress. We have no such policy.
As with our own, children abroad begin instruction in science and arithmetic in elementary school. Specially trained teachers take over science and mathematics in grade four. For the most part, our elementary school children have one teacher for all subjects throughout the first six years, and sometimes the first eight years.
Specialized study begins for children in other countries in the sixth grade with separate courses in mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics and geography. Each course extends over a period of four to six years. These courses are required of all students. The time spent on these subjects, based on class hours, is approximately three times that of even the most science-oriented students in the United States.
But at no time do the course requirements in science and mathematics in those countries exceed what is allocated to the social sciences, humanities and languages. Indeed foreign language study-- usually English--is encouraged to make it possible for students to tap the world's largest resource of scientific and technical information--ours. There are more students and adults learning English in China than there are English-speaking people in the United States.
Russia requires precollege science teachers to carry out a research project in their major field before they may teach in a secondary school. Each of the four countries has provisions for continuing programs of in-service education. Local colleges and universities are expected to assume much of this responsibility. Members of the Academy of Sciences in each of the countries share a responsibility for keeping curriculum materials up to date and socially valid.
None of these comparisons means we should do the same. But they do tell us that other countries recognize the importance of science and mathematics to meeting future economic challenges and that they succeed in encouraging a large percentage of students to pursue careers in science, mathematics and engineering, and in generating a supportive citizenry for scientific endeavors. I am not sure we are doing the same.
Among the developed and developing countries throughout the world there is widespread recognition of the importance of science and technology in fostering human welfare and in meeting the economic and political demands of living in the 20th century and beyond. For the United States to meet these demands will require a knowledgeable and concerned public as well as specialists in the generation of scientific knowledge and technological innovations. A commitment to precollege education in the sciences, in technology and in mathematics must be made by the American public.