The Dire Need for Quality Math and Science Instruction

Education Week recently included a summary (subscription required) of a report from the National Research Council on the need to place the same amount of emphasis on science as math.  Unfortunately, as the report indicates science education suffers from benign neglect and is not treated equally. TIMSS data confirms this sentiment: In the United States, on average, fourth graders are provided 4.2 hours per week of instruction in mathematics while the science instruction they receive is only allotted 2.7 hours each week.

When one examines the classroom instruction time devoted to science as a percent of total instructional time across countries in fourth grade one finds that the United States is below such countries as Armenia, Austria, Chinese Taipei, Colombia, El Salvador, Germany, Iran, Japan, Singapore, Slovenia, and Yemen.  If we are going to compete with other countries in terms of the quality of our science instruction, we need, at a minimum, to devote as much instructional time. 

The direct consequence of this lack of instructional commitment leads to our alarmingly low percentage of bachelor and graduate degrees in the math and science fields. According to OECD data, the percentage of bachelor degrees awarded in mathematics and science has continued to drop from 17.1% in 1995 to 16.1% in 2007. Of the 34 countries where data was collected, 28 countries had a higher percentage of degrees awarded in mathematics and science than the United States. The percentage of graduate degrees awarded for mathematics and science is equally disheartening. A mere 12.7% of graduate degrees are awarded for mathematics and science in the United States. This percentage is significantly below Japan’s 47.6%, Austria’s 47.2%, Korea’s 38.7%, and the mean of 23.5% for all reporting OECD countries.

A recent article in Fortune magazine offers more dismal statistics concerning children’s mathematics and science education in the United States. As the article illustrates, this lack of ability does not just cause a problem within our education system but also bleeds into future employment opportunities.  The article cites the Commerce Department report saying that the number of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) jobs has grown 8% to 7.6 million over the past 10 years. Also noted is the fact that the growth rate of STEM jobs is three times the growth rate for non-STEM jobs. With the current standing of our mathematics and science education, DuBois asserts that our nation may face an “embarrassing problem” since “it looks like the U.S. education system is falling behind in the very fields that show the most job growth potential.”

Our education system has the challenge of trying to find additional time for science and math while at the same time covering the reading demands that are part of the NCLB assessment parameters.  The recent adoption of CCSS may provide a pathway for this transition in two ways.  First, the document clearly indicates the importance and need for our students to read a much greater percentage of nonfiction text.  Part of the reading instructional time could be allocated to reading science: thus accomplishing two important objectives at once.  Secondly, the two testing consortia (SBAC and PARCC) are embarking on plans to test higher order skills and science, as well as math, could and should play a larger role in this effort.

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