Critical Courses

As published in The Washington Post, September 4, 2000

Much is being said about education in this election season. Last week Gov. George W. Bush launched a two-week round of television ads explaining his education reform plans. The week before, Vice President Al Gore spoke during his convention speech about his dedication to and plans for the nation’s public schools. Yet with all the talk about class size and vouchers, school construction and teacher training, more needs to be said about the nuts and bolts of education: what is taught in the classroom.

Almost 15 years after a presidential commission warned in a report entitled “A Nation at Risk” that “a rising tide of mediocrity” threatened America’s public schools, student achievement in grades K-12 is still mediocre at best. In recent international comparisons, U.S. 12th-graders placed 19th in the world in math and 16th in science. On tests of advanced physics, our high school seniors finished 16th out of 16 nations. (Asian countries did not participate in these tests, which makes the situation even more embarrassing.) Overall, nearly half of all high school graduates have not mastered seventh-grade arithmetic.

Much has been made of the recent announcement that this year’s SAT math scores were the highest in 30 years. However, we have done nothing more than retake ground lost since 1970. After increased spending and decreased class sizes, students are doing no better in math than they did three decades ago, and they still are performing at a lower level than students in the 1960s.

Two of America’s most successful businessmen–Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Intel’s Andrew Grove–recently testified before Congress about how their industries are threatened by our weaknesses in math and science.

This is why the national debate about highly skilled immigrant workers has become so heated. H1B legislation allows U.S. companies to import skilled workers to fill math- and science-intensive jobs. We need these workers because every month thousands of jobs are going unfilled because our schools are not producing enough well-prepared students.

What kind of nation have we become when we cannot educate our own children and supply our own work force? Why are some poor children in India learning more math and science than wealthy ones in Grosse Pointe? Is the real digital divide between racial groups in America or between American students and students from other industrialized nations?

The most urgent question, obviously, is how to begin to improve math and science education. My view is that we begin with a few simple steps. We should:

* Devote more time in school to math and science and begin teaching more of it in the early years. If math and science are not well taught in the early grades, by the time kids get to high school they will have learned to dislike both.

* Teach math and science more effectively. After years of preaching the fuzzy “New Math” approach, even the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recently revised its standards and called for a return to the “Old Math” and its emphasis on accuracy, computation and basic skills, such as memorizing multiplication tables.

* Open up the teaching profession to people who know science and math, not just those with degrees from schools of education. In Silicon Valley, where much of our nation’s math and science brainpower is concentrated, elementary and secondary schools are short on well-trained math and science teachers. In America, most public schools place a premium not on teachers with expertise but on a teaching certificate that “certifies” that a holder has taken a certain number of generic education classes. This should change.

* Use new technologies. Computers, the Internet and new software technologies are transforming the ways to deliver a good math and science education. We should look to companies that offer access to advanced placement (AP) calculus and physics courses via the Internet.

These reforms would usher in a new chapter in American education. In this most political of all seasons, the voters should keep the important issues in mind–and few are more critical to this nation’s health than giving every child an excellent education, with math and science holding a prominent place in our schools.

The writer, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, is co-director of Empower America.