Quit fretting: U.S. doing OK in science education – USATODAY.com

Column: Quit fretting. U.S. is fine in science education

By Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell


Pop quiz. What year was this written? “Our once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. … The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”

These days, it sounds as if things have been bad for decades and are getting worse with each passing day. But statistics trotted out periodically — usually by education officials who are lobbying for more funding — are not painting an accurate picture.

Consider the following: A recent National Assessment of Educational Progress science test, given to eighth-graders, showed a statistically significant increase in scores. In 2009, 63% of all students had a basic grasp of science; in 2011, the total increased to 65%. Scores for minority students improved the most. We can surely do better; however, this continued upward trend is encouraging news.

‘Dreadful’ results?

But that’s not how the National Science Teachers Association framed it. “This is dreadful,” Gerry Wheeler, the group’s interim executive director, told The Washington Post. Dreadful? America has never done particularly well on standardized tests. In 1964, the first time an international standardized test was given, American kids were next to last. In the most recent assessment, in 2009, the U.S. scored 17th in science out of 34 countries.

Yet during this period of national “mediocrity,” we created Silicon Valley, built multinational biotechnology firms, and continued to lead the world in scientific journal publications and total number of Nobel Prize winners. We also invented and sold more than a few iPads. Obviously, standardized tests aren’t everything.

Additionally, the latest study released by Universitas 21, a global network of research universities, concluded that the United States ranks No. 1 in the world in higher education — a metric that partially relies on scientific research output. (Sweden came in a distant second.)

And what about big scary China? Adult science literacy there is a paltry 3% compared with the U.S. at 28%. In short, our overall science performance isn’t too shabby for a country that has supposedly neglected science education for years.

Why the negativism?

So, why do Americans believe that science education is in a downward spiral when the empirical evidence shows the opposite? Because officials keep telling us that education is abysmal. Also, they seem to hold a grudge against No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which holds teachers accountable and could be responsible for the increase in test scores.

Yes, that’s right. Test scores have increased since NCLB passed in 2002. Reading scores also are up slightly, and girls achieved parity with boys in mathematics. This is a monumental victory.

Be wary of education lobbyists who downplay our long track record of scientific success while simultaneously asking for more money. At $91,700 per pupil from kindergarten through twelfth grade, the U.S. is outspent only by Switzerland in the education arena. Cash is not a problem.

If we are to fix the science education “problem” — to the extent that there even is a problem — the current data support adding science to NCLB. Instead, the Obama administration is issuing waivers.

Our point is not to defend NCLB or any particular policy. But, right now, this much is clear: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


Alex Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. Hank Campbell is the founder of Science 2.0. They are authors of the forthcoming book Science Left Behind.

Quit fretting: U.S. doing OK in science education – USATODAY.com.

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