The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition."... ...Jacques Barzun

Commentary of the Day - March 1, 2001:  The United States is Losing the Race.

As we noted in our previous article, one of the topics that Dr. Mary L. Good covered in her presidential address at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2001 annual meeting was the sorry state of the scientific and technical workforce "pipeline" in the United States.

Dr. Good noted in her address that:

  • B.S. degrees in engineering, mathematics, and computer science have declined by approximately 20% since 1986.
  • Ph.D. degrees in engineering peaked in 1996 at 6,305 and declined by 15% to 5,337 in 1999.
  • Ph.D. degrees in the physical sciences peaked in 1994 at 3,977 and declined 10% to 3,582 in 1999, with the bulk of the decline occurring in physics.
  • The production rate for Ph.D. degrees in math and computer science also is dropping although at a lesser rate.

These numbers, however, do not tell the whole story.  A large fraction of the graduate class -- those students working on masters and doctoral degrees in engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences -- is composed of students who are not United States citizens and who hold only temporary visas.  For example, 41% of graduate students in engineering hold only temporary visas.  At one time most of these students would have been expected to stay in the United States.  However, with the globalization of high-technology industry they now often have  attractive career opportunities in their home countries.

Dr. Good also noted that the United States lags behind most of the industrialized word in the percentage of 24-year olds with natural science and engineering degrees.  Indeed, in the past few years Congress has passed special immigration quotas for persons holding advanced degrees in the sciences and engineering.  Last year another 200,000 H-1 visas were authorized for this purpose.  Clearly, the United States is becoming more dependent on immigration to meet its science and engineering workforce needs.

To remedy this problem Good called for a National Security Science and Technology Education Act that would provide scholarships and reduced-interest loans for students in math, science and engineering; establish a program to foster science and math teaching at the K-12 level; and which would provide funds for the professional development of science and math teachers.  She also called for programs to improve the participation of minorities in science and engineering.

The Irascible Professor agrees that such programs are very much needed.  However, given the current emphasis on tax cuts, it is not clear how good the chances are for passage of such a proposal.  President Bush's proposed budget for the National Science Foundation does contain one bright spot.  Although in the aggregate it provides for only a 1% increase in the agency's budget, which is much less than the rate of inflation, it does include some $200 million for programs to improve science and mathematics education at the K-12 level.  Whether this will be enough to reverse the downward trends remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, the problems at the graduate end of the science and technology "pipeline" that have become more apparent over the past several years are the culmination of problems at the K-12 level that began much earlier.  For the better part of two decades the the K-8 teacher corps has been drawn largely from the bottom quartile of college students.  Too many of these teachers have an aversion to mathematics, and only minimal training in how to teach science and mathematics to young children.  Too frequently the teacher's math aversion is transferred to his or her students.  Improving the quality of mathematics and science teaching in the formative early grades will be a daunting task.  We must attract more talented individuals to the teaching profession, and we must pay them professional salaries.

In her talk Dr. Good suggests that our programs to improve science education in the K-12 sector should be aimed at all students, and should not focus only on the best students.  Increasing science literacy for all Americans is a major focus of AAAS education programs.  It is a worthy goal -- one that the IP supports.  However, we should remember that our most talented students represent a national resource that we cannot afford to ignore.  In most school districts scant attention is paid to "gifted and talented" programs in the early grades.  This has to change if we want to attract students to the scientific and technical disciplines.

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