- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2001

America's legendary ingenuity and scientific know-how was demonstrated recently with the debut of "IT"a human transporter that is intended to speed travel over short distances. The device's New York-born inventor, Dean Kamen, is part of a long line of American inventors that stretches back to Benjamin Franklin.
There is growing concern, however, about whether there will be many American inventors lining up behind Mr. Kamen, given U.S. students' solidly mediocre science scores.
"American companies need workers who not only have factual knowledge about science and math, but the ability to apply scientific knowledge to a new situation," said Edward Donley, former chairman of the Air Products and Chemicals Inc.
But there simply aren't enough people coming from U.S. secondary schools who have these reasoning and application skills, he said, adding that American companies have been importing so many foreign technicians that their labs look like "mini-United Nations."
Recent surveys have confirmed lackluster American scores:
The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, taken in 1995 and repeated in 1999, showed U.S. eighth graders ranking 14th out of 38 countries. The 1999 scores were virtually unchanged from 1995.
The massive National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science, released in November, showed that 47 percent of high school seniors don't have "basic" science skills. This is worse than in 1996, when 43 percent of seniors couldn't answer basic questions about earth, life or physical science.
Another international student assessment the Program for International Student Assessment, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that American 15-year-olds have average science-literacy scores, ranking 14th out of 31 countries.
"In the global economy average is not good enough for American kids," Education Secretary Rod Paige said when the OECD results were released Dec. 4.
The NAEP results "are troubling," said Mr. Donley, who is a member of an NAEP governing board.
According to NAEP, science scores worsen as children progress through public school: U.S. fourth graders rank fairly high when measured against peers in other countries. However, science grades slip into the average range by the eighth grade and fall below par by 12th grade.
The NAEP scores show "that the longer the kids stay in school, the less well they do," said Milton Friedman, the 89-year-old Nobel laureate, economist and school-voucher proponent.
The science scores are "disastrous" but not unexpected, given the "Soviet-style" monopoly of public K-12 education in the United States, Mr. Friedman said recently at a video conference with reporters.
"It's a fascinating thing that when it comes to higher education universities, colleges the United States is No. 1 in the world," Mr. Friedman said. "But when it comes to lower education, we're at the bottom. The difference between those two is one word: Choice; c-h-o-i-c-e."
Unquestionably, American science and technology colleges and universities are world-renowned, science and education experts said.
But already at some of these schools, foreign-born students outnumber Americans, and at the rate U.S. students are going, this gap is likely to widen.
The influx of highly trained, highly educated individuals from around the world has benefited the United States greatly, said Bruce Fuchs, director of the Office of Science Education at the National Institutes of Health, who recalled Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan explaining this fact of life to Congress a year ago.
"It's a great thing as long as the world wants to send us its best and brightest students," said Mr. Fuchs.
But what would happen if something interrupted that flow, he asked. "It's essential that somehow we learn how not to depend on the world sending us its best and brightest and create some of these kids here."
Mr. Fuchs' vision is for schools to ease its focus on having students memorize "obtuse" vocabularies and data at the expense of more meaningful learning experiences.
"The real thing of importance in science is that kids have training in the critical thinking that science teaches," said Mr. Fuchs.
Factory jobs are going elsewhere in the world and U.S. jobs are going to require more skills from their workers, he said. "Kids today have to be thinkers, lifetime learners; prove that you've learned how to learn."
Harold Pratt, president of the 53,000-member National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), agreed that poor science scores in high school augur poor performances in the marketplace and a "technical human-resource shortage."
But what's lacking is a national willingness to make science a priority, he said.
For instance, in American high schools, it's not unusual for students to "opt out" of science in the upper grades, especially during the senior year, said Mr. Pratt. One reason for this is that students apply for college soon after they start their senior year, receive "early acceptance" notices by December "and then they rest for the rest of the year," he said.
Also, American students have many lucrative career paths to choose from, such as law, sales, health care and high finance.
Science-related jobs do not pay as well as these other careers, whereas, "if you live in another country, becoming a top student in science and math is your ticket" to a top-paying job, said Mr. Pratt.
Moreover, American leaders don't seem to value science, at least in terms of funding, said Mr. Pratt.
The just-passed education bill in Congress, for instance, emphasizes literacy and, to a lesser degree, math, he said.
The final bill, however, ends a $485 million grant program named for President Dwight D. Eisenhower that was dedicated to professional development in math and science education.
That money is now folded into a huge fund for class development, class reduction, alternative education, mentoring "there's about 15 uses," said Jodi Peterson, an analyst with the NSTA.
The new education bill, which President Bush is expected to sign into law in January, contains $12.5 million for a math and science partnerships program, but that, too, is a fraction of the $450 million that was originally requested.
"The bottom line is that science and math especially science is going to take a distant third or fourth seat in priorities," said Gerry Wheeler, NSTA's executive director.
Other observers say that the science scores are just a symptom of the bigger problems in schools and without serious school reform, American education will simply continue to slide.
Unless genuine innovation occurs in education, "I think we'll just continue coping as we have with 30 years of mediocre [test] results," said Chester E. Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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