American math and sciences slipping

Public discourse on America’s growing deficiencies in math and science education is intensifying.

“America must do more to prepare high school students for college-level mathematics and science,” said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to a U.S. Senate committee, according to a February 10 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The implications for American global technological dominance have been a growing concern in many Washington circles.

John Mackey, Carnegie Mellon’s assistant head of mathematical sciences, confirmed that students from countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Russia, Belgium, and China seem to have better basic skills in early math classes.

“Americans catch up, generally, as curriculum continues,” he added.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that much of the debate on how to approach this issue has centered on the use of Advanced Placement courses. Spellings emphasized the unfortunate disparities between a high school in a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., with more than 20 AP classes, and an inner-city school in Washington with four such classes.

“With the way we ration these courses, you would think we don’t want students to take them,” said Spellings, referring to Advanced Placement math and science courses. She spoke before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions at a February 9 hearing to discuss President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative.

Under the initiative, 70,000 new teachers would be trained to teach AP and International Baccalaureate courses in math and science.

“I don’t have much faith in AP exams.... We need people who know how to think, not people who have a set of skills,” Mackey said.

Spellings, on the other hand, spoke in support of the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative, while several senators expressed their concerns.

According to The Chronicle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D–Mass.) warned that increased spending on Advanced Placement courses might create a greater divide between privileged and needy children, “instead of lifting the whole generation.”

Senator Judd Gregg, (R–N.H.), opposed Kennedy, citing the creation of opportunities for high achievers as a top priority.

Senator Patty Murray (D–Wash.) expressed concerns over the much broader issue of federal financial aid programs.

“You can focus on math all you want,” she said, “but they’re going to say, I’m never going to be able to afford to go [to college].”

Following on the heels of the committee was a February 13 Time Magazine feature, “Are We Losing Our Edge?” In this report, Time details America’s decline in the sciences after a half-century of dominance. The report attributed this decline to a gradual, three-decade cutback in federal research and development investment.

According to Time, corporations issuing similar cutbacks, seeking quick profits as a result of stockholder pressure, have underpinned the effects of federal cutbacks.

Meanwhile, according to the Time report, and as iterated by last week’s hearing, standards seem to have dropped in American elementary and high school math and science education.

“As far as standardized tests, Americans are among the mid-level to bottom,” Mackey said. “The issue is more subtle than that.”

He noted that, in the 14 years he has taught at Carnegie Mellon, American students haven’t gotten worse — they’ve even gotten marginally better. International students, he said, have just excelled more.

Last summer, the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering produced a 505-page report, called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” Co-authored by CEOs, Nobel prize winners, university presidents, and distinguished scientists, the report outlined a grim situation in nearly every area of research.

Partisan tug-of-war aside, the Time article specifies the ways in which other countries are attracting top scientists, typically after being trained by American universities such as Carnegie Mellon.

The Tartan reported in the December 5 issue that the international student population has been on the rise for the past two years. The Carnegie Institute of Technology receives many of these students, holding 295 of the university’s 2071 international students.

This rise is in opposition to a national current.

“We are out-trending national trends at CMU. But we’re no longer growing at the breakneck pace as we were before,” said Lisa Krieg, director of the Office of International Education at Carnegie Mellon.

Despite the intellectual diffusion occurring at Carnegie Mellon, Time reported that graduates are increasingly attracted by better funding in other countries for job-seeking scientists.

“I am definitely going abroad for work after I graduate,” said Joe Lawrence, a senior physics major.
“Everyone in the sciences knows that there is more money overseas for our work.”

Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and especially China have gradually increased focus on sciences, following the lead of the American post-World War II research culture.

With three decades of deficits in this country, research funds are being scaled back across the board. Meanwhile, countries like China have lured 81 percent of its Chinese Academy of Sciences members back from study abroad on the back of a 120 percent increase in science investments from 1999 to 2004.

Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, and a 1997 Nobelist in physics told Time that more than simple funding, these countries are “determined to reproduce the spirit of wide-open inquiry that has made U.S. science so appealing and successful.”

“Give me two more hours with a kid a day, and of course they’ll do better in math. But at what expense?” Mackey said.

He questioned the validity of the current non-American teaching models, noting that foreign models often focus on math and sciences, while compromising arts, music, and the humanities.

“Will you have to shortchange them in some areas?”