A report commissioned by the White House says the nation has lost the momentum of its post-Sputnik commitment to science and most Americans are headed "toward virtual scientific and technoligical illiteracy."
The study released yesterday condludes the United States lags behind the Soviet Union, Japan and Germany in the rigor of elementary and secondary school programs in mathematics and science.
"We fear a loss of our competitive edge," said the 230-page report prepared by the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation on orders from President Carter.
It cited "a serious shortage" of high school math and science teachers and, at the college level, "severe shortages of qualified faculty members" in computer and most engineering fields. Also, many universities are teaching with obsolete equipment, it said.
The study, "Science and Engineering Education for the 1980s and Beyond," offered some reassurance along with expression of alarm.
It cited current shortages of computer experts and most types of engineers, as well as scientists in a few specialties. But it predicted that by 1990 the supply of bachelor's-degree engineers should be adequate, though there may still be a shortage of PhD engineers and engineering teachers.
"Comparisons between the United States and our international competitors suggest that our eminence in basic research is secure," the report said. But it added that "the number of young people who graduate from high school and college with only the most rudimentary notions of science, mathematics and technology portends trouble in the decades ahead."
Students and adults who are turned off to science at an early age may discover too late that "science is becoming a key to success in business, in government, in the military [and] in occupations and professions where it never before intruded," it said.
The study says the Soviet Union's national curricula for teaching science and mathematics in elementary and secondary schools "surpass that of any other country" in content and scope. a
"Algebra and geometry are taught in the 6th and 7th grades, advanced algebra and trigonometry are taught in grades 8 to 10, and calculus, which a total of about 500,000 Americans take during their last year in high school or first in collegel, is a part of the high school curriculum for over 5 million Soviet students," said the report.
The report also expressed alarm that U.S. schools were relaxing math and science requirements while "Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union all provide rigorous training in science and mathematics for all their citizens."
In Germany, students start taking biology in the 3rd grade, and algebra starts in the 7th. In Japan, students start geometry in the 7th grade. In the United States, only one-third of the 17,000 school districts require more than one year of high school math or science, and only one student in six takes them in junior and senior year.
Japan, with a population half that of the United States, graduates as many engineers, the report said. Five times as many Soviet students as American students train to be engineers.