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U.S. education: failing in science?

U.S. education: Failing in science?

U.S. science and math education at the primary and secondary levels is foundering, according to two new surveys released last week by the National Science Foundation. Preliminary results from one survey comparing students' science and math achievement in 17 countries ranked U.S. students fair to poor. A second U.S.-only study identified worrisome trends in both the nation's teaching practices and its science-teacher education.

The multi-nation study, conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, an association of research centers, compared students' performance on special standardized tests at the roughly fifth-, ninth- and twelfth-grade levels. The study looked at approximately 150 students at each of these levels in each country. While U.S. fifth-graders ranked eighth among 15 responding nations, U.S. ninth-graders tied with those in Thailand and Singapore for fourteenth place in a field of 17 responding nations.

But these are grade levels at which all students are taking the same courses. What about the high-achieving science "specialists"-- high school seniors taking an optional second year of advanced biology, chemistry or physics? Among the 13 countries responding--Australia, English-speaking Canada, England, Finland, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Norway, Poland, Singapore, Sweden and the United States--U.S. students placed last in biology, eleventh in chemistry and ninth in physics.

What should concern U.S. education policymakers, says Richard N. Wolf of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City, who was one of the survey's two U.S. coordinators, is "this apparent progressive decline" in science achievement: from the middle-ranking younger grades -- which include even below-average students -- to older science specialists.

Bill C. Aldridge, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Science Teachers Association, describes the low rankings given the best U.S. science students as "pretty distressing." Nevertheless, he says, their international standing "is very easy to understand if you look at the other [nations'] curricula." Topping the survey's list for twelfth-grade science specialists were Hong Kong, England and Singapore--nations where these students take only science and math courses. Such curricula are in sharp contrast to a more varied training given U.S. students. (Wolf, who studied this "two-cultures phenomenon" in British Commonwealth countries, says he found that by offering only literature or science in upper grades, "you often had scientists who were illiterate or humanists who were innumerate.")

But most science-education analysts don't think course offerings explain the whole disparity in scores. Many point to other potential cofactors described in the U.S. study involving 6,156 teachers, authored by Iris Weiss, formerly with Research Triangle Institute in Research Triangle Park, N.C. (and now the head of Horizon Research Inc., a consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C.). Looking at how teacher training and science/math teaching have changed over the past 10 years, Weiss found several disturbing trends.

Chief among them, she believes, is that teachers are spending more time lecturing their classes and less time on hands-on projects. "This is exactly contrary to what scientists and science educators recommend," she told Science News. In 1977, she points out, on any given day roughly 60 precent of classes would involve laboratory work and about 70 percent would include lectures. Now only about 40 percent are doing hands-on work on any given day, while some 80 percent include lectures. She found that elementary grades are more likely to

include hands-on training and less likely to involve lectures than either junior high or high school classes.

Even more important, Weiss believes, is the actual amount of time spent on hands-on work. In kindergarten through sixth grade, a science class spends just about as much time (28 percent) on hands-on activity as on lectures (25 percent). But by junior high, an average of 11 percent more classroom time is devoted to lecture than to hands-on activities. By high school, lecturing accounts for 43 percent of the lcass time -- more than twice the time devoted to laboratory studies.

Weiss was also "astonished" at the low classroom use of computers. While virtually every school in the study had computers, she says, only 8 to 15 percent of science classes and 19 to 23 percent of math classes studied had used them in the week prior to the survey. Moreover, of the classes that had used them, most had logged in a total of only 15 minutes or less during that week.

Finally, her data showed that unexpectedly large proportions of high school science and math teachers have an actual degree in science or math (76 and 52 percent respectively) -- not just science or math education. However, a third of the chemistry classes and half of the physics classes were taught by individuals who had studied a different field -- usually biology. Weiss considers this quite troubling. "Teachers are being trained as if they're only going to teach one subject," she says. Perhaps, she suggests, they should sacrifice some depth of training for some background in a second scientific field.

While conceding that most analysts recommend focusing initial corrective action on the youngest students in the U.S. educational system, F. James Rutherford, chief education officer for the Washington, D.C.-based American Association for the Advancement of Science, believes this is not the way to address such a systemic problem. "I won't be happy," he says, "until we're attacking the problem on all fronts."
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Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 12, 1988
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