American education is in a fearsome decline. At least for the last decade, and perhaps since the early 1960s, schools have been expecting less and students have been learning less. Nowhere is the decline more evident or more threatening to this country's future welfare than in science and mathematics. Once the world leader in appreciating the importance of a well-educated populace, the United States today stands alone among the industrialized nations in its indifference to the quality of education its children are getting.
What are the facts? Until this year scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test slid steadily downward for 18 consecutive years. Only the earliest years of the decline can be attributed to the larger number of students hoping to attend college. For at least the past 10 years, a big drop in the proportion of students scoring above 650 (on the SAT scale of 200 to 800) provides evidence that the test scores are reflecting a real decline in achievement. That is confirmed by a correspondingly large rise in the numbers of those scoring below 300--a truly dismal score.
These approximately 20 years have seen unparalleled advances in science and technology --the space age, the computer age, revolutionary discoveries in molecular biology and biotechnology, leaps in communication technologies, electronics, subatomic physics, huge advances in energy, environmental science, and on and on --that have transformed modern society. Without an understanding of mathematics and science, some parts of every occupation--including that of informed citizen-- are now unreachable. Yet in this period, the United States educated a tiny elite of the world's best scientists and engineers and left everyone else scientifically illiterate. Scientific and technical learning did not just fail to keep up, it declined.
Just the opposite was happening abroad. In 1966 the Soviet Union undertook a massive educational reform. It abandoned the European model of preparing only the most able few for higher education and adopted the once uniquely American example of attempting to provide a solid academic grounding for all. The country's best scientists, its Nobel laureates and members of the Academy of Sciences were put to work developing a new curriculum with a strong technical emphasis.
Today the Soviets' compulsory curriculum for those finishing the equivalent of high school includes five years of physics, four of chemistry, five of biology, one of astronomy, five of geography, three of mechanical drawing and ten years of workshop training. In the United States, 9 percent of high school graduates have had one year of physics, 16 percent have had one year of chemistry, 45 percent have had one year of biology and 17 percent have had one year of general science.
The difference is as great in mathematics-- the central science. The Soviet 10-year curriculum in math incudes two years of calculus and two of solid geometry. By contrast, only 7 percent of American students take a single year of calculus and virtually none advance beyond a single year of plane geometry. Only one-third of U.S. school districts require more than one course in science or mathematics for graduation.
Such comparisons do not tell what students are actually learning, but, according to Izaak Wirsup, professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, who has spent years studying Soviet education, "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." Differences between the respective college-bound populations are smaller but significant.
The Soviets are not alone. Japan and West Germany have made equally determined efforts to provide rigorous training in science and mathematics for all schoolchildren. According to the National Science Foundation, "The result is a work force which, at all levels, has a relatively high degree of science and mathematics skill, and this has been a factor in the very rapid expansion of technical industries." The engineering degree is as much the ticket to advancement in Japan as a legal degree is here. Managerial positions in Japanese government and industry are heavily populated by those with technical training, while in the United States there are already acute shortages in several fields of engineering, with worse forecast to come.
The deterioration in science and mathematics is only the most extreme case of a general phenomenon. Standards for high school graduation have been lowered in all subjects, as have college and university admission requirements. Fewer than one-fifth of current high school graduates have any training in a foreign language, and only 4 percent have studied one for more than two years. Professors at major universities have been forced to simplify introductory courses in many fields. The military, while spending huge sums for more and more sophisticated weaponry, has been forced to rewrite its training manuals from the 11th-grade level or higher to the 8th-grade level or lower. Many are aimed at the 6th-grade level. Evidence of falling achievement is everywhere.