Americans who monitor Soviet education are reporting extraordinary accomplishments there from a decade-long drive to provide all high school students with extensive, super-enriched training in mathematics and science. It's so successful, they're saying, that the American high school system has been rendered primitive by comparison.
Though there can be a lot of slack in the linkage between national power and scientific literacy, interest is compelled by the Soviet commitment to make virtually all its young people go through mathematical and scentific training of a duration and intensity that relatively few Americans experience. For example, while calculus has almost disappeared from the American high school curriculum -- only about 100,000 students a year take it -- all Soviet high school students get two years of calculus, and about 97 percent of Soviet youngsters now finish high school.
According to one of the leading American observers of Soviet education, Izaak Wirszup, professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, the new Soviet science education represents a break with the old lock-step, imagination-dulling methods that have been widely blamed for Soviet science's relatively poor standing in world-class research. "These changes," Wirsup says in an unpublished report to the National Science Foundation, "are tantamount to an educational mobilization of the entire population." Of particular importance, he notes, is that the reformed scientific training is characterized "by an unexpected turn toward the individual and the development of his ability to do independent, creative work."
If that's so, and if it eventually takes hold in the actual conduct of scientific research, then the Soviet scientific community may be on its way to shaking off a well-earned reputation as a sluggish giant. The Soviets are aware of the relatively low productivity of their scientific enterprise and, as Wirszup points out, have given a high priority to expansion and reform of a school system that has been identified as a major bottleneck in the modernization of the Soviet economy.
The Soviets, he states, gave a great deal of authority for curriculum reform to their leading mathematicians and educational researchers. The result, he continues, "is a program for mathematics instruction that is modern in content, innovative in approach, well integrated and highly sophisticated. It gives strong emphasis to theoretical foundations and logical rigor as well as to applications. . . . Moreover, the extraordinary Soviet research in psychology and methods of learning and teaching mathematics has been applied to the new curriculum, which now surpasses in quality, scope and range of implementation that of any other country."
Wirszup, who is an internationally recognized authority on Soviet computer technology and mathematics education in the Eastern block, added in his report that the Soviet effort amounts to "a concerted drive to produce mass education of unmatched quality."
For those many Americans who take a peculiar pride in acknowledging scientific ignorance, the differences that Wirszup tabulated in standard Soviet and American high school programs are likely to be quite startling. He reports, for example, that a Soviet high school student is required to complete five years of astronomy, five and one-half years of biology, and so on down a list that would empty America's high schools via the dropout route. Wirszup concludes: "The disparity between the level of training in science and mathematics of an average Soviet skilled worker or military recruit and that of a non-college-bound American high school graduate, an average worker in one of our major industries, or an average member of our all-volunteer army is so great that comparisons are meaningless."
Finally, he observes that while the remaking of the Soviet education system has hit some snags and stirred up pedagogical controversies, the Soviets feel they're on the right track and continue to invest vast resources in what they themselves describe as an "educational revolution." As for the students, they are lured on, Wirszup states, by the realization that "educational achievement . . . is practically the only safe avenue to a more comfortable standard of living under Soviet conditions." s
Wirszup's feelings, along with continuing reports of slumping standards and student achievements in American high school science and math programs, contributed to a White House request in February for the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation to collaborate on a report, due next month, on science and engineering education in the United States.
Of the many shortages now confronting the United States, it may be that the intellect shortage is the most dangerous.