Professional Learning

Science: Sputnik Redux

Science is next on the NCLB test list, and it’s time for another wake-up call.

September 2, 2007

PREDICTION: A crisis in scientificliteracy will lead to a revitalization ofscience teaching.

The warning signs are numerous: Many American students post disappointing scores on international tests in science and math. Unable to find enough qualified science teachers, school districts resort to hiring out-of-field instructors. Adults' general science knowledge hasn't improved since the 1990s -- most have never heard of nanotechnology, and fewer than half understand or accept the theory of evolution, according to research published by the National Science Foundation.

"This is the crisis that's facing the country," says Bob Corcoran, president of the GE Foundation, which has dedicated $100 million to science and math education in five test-case school districts. "The world is not becoming less technical and less scientific -- it's becoming much more so. That's where the good jobs are."

Policy makers, education groups, and corporate America are paying attention, thanks in part to an eye-opening 2007 National Academies report. "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" warns that the United States is losing prominence in science and technology just as those fields are becoming increasingly vital to the global economy.

But advocates for science education say a sense of urgency hasn't yet reached the local level; surveys show parents are largely satisfied with the science lessons their own children receive. "I've been saying for along time that we need another Sputnik," says Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "We need a way to get the attention of parents and local schools."

There's no shortage of big, national challenges that have the potential to provide that dramatic Sputnik moment; outsourcing, global warming, energy independence, and national security all spring to mind. But look for a wake-up call this year under more mundane circumstances, now that under the No Child Left Behind Act, for the first time, schools are required to test students in science.

"We've gotten to the point where, in many cases, science isn't even being taught, especially in the elementary school and middle school levels, because of the pressure to increase performance on subjects that are tested," says Shirley Malcolm, director of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That neglect is likely to become disturbingly apparent on the new tests; it's likely to be enough to inspire a groundswell of change at the local level, and ultimately a seismic shift in national priorities.

Denise Kersten Wills writes from Washington, DC.

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