School Science on a Slide

Dumb and Dumber was not only a 1994 comedy classic, it might also be the phrase the industrialized world uses to describe the science performance of American high school students for years to come. Last week the Department of Education reported that science aptitude among 12th-graders has declined during the past decade.

America continues to graduate students who know less and less about the world because Americans, dominated by lust for material consumption and personal comfort, raise kids who lack vision for learning directed at making the world a better place.

In our American meritocracy, education is a means to a comfortable lifestyle, not a means of gaining knowledge to improve our world. Children are told to study so that they may personally escape poverty, not because they are expected to contribute to overall human flourishing. Grades — not preparation for a vocation directed at the good — are the bottom line for too many American parents.

The 12th-grade results came from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a 2005 national comprehensive test administered by the Department of Education to more than 300,000 students in 50 states. The examination measured very basic knowledge of earth, physical, and life sciences and translated those scores into three achievement levels: advanced, proficient, and basic. For high school seniors, there has been a sharp decline, with only 54 percent performing at or above basic level, compared with 57 percent in 1996. Eighteen percent performed at the proficient level, down from 1996 level of 21 percent.

As expected, educators are scrambling to find the culprit to blame for the lower scores. In a New York Times story about the NAEP report, Assistant Secretary of Education Tom Luce said the declining science scores reflect a national shortage of fully qualified science teachers, especially in lower-income areas, where physics and chemistry classes are often taught by teachers untrained in those subjects. “We have too few teachers with majors or minors in math and science,” Mr. Luce said.

This confirms a now 4-year-old prophecy issued by the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious group of US scientists and engineers that offers advice to Congress and the government. The Council reported in 2002 that US students continued to perform among the worst of all industrialized countries because schools have a critical shortage of qualified teachers in science, math and technology.

Some educators, of course, also blame low teacher salaries. However, a 2005 American Federation of Teachers report revealed that the average public school teacher’s salary is $46,597, including average starting pay of $31,704. How is this low? Granted, these levels are not among the highest of all professions, but considering the summer vacation and the non-monetary reward of influencing the world’s future, it is not a bad deal.

The problems are much deeper than salary I’m afraid. First, teaching is no longer a respected profession, and our best and brightest citizens develop a social aversion to pursuing it. Many Americans continue to embrace the stupid adage that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” If teachers can’t “cut it” then why do people continue to send their kids to school? Why is there no honor given to those who are charged with equipping, forming, and shaping the hearts and minds of our world’s future?

Second, students are not encouraged to value learning about the world. Often students will say silly things such as, “Why do I need to learn physics? I can get a good job without it.” Visionless parental pragmatists actually dissuade their children from taking courses that they don’t “need” if there’s not a direct future financial benefit. How can you not “need” more knowledge about the world furnished by any legitimate area of intellectual inquiry?

This attitude not only obscures the moral value of education, but ironically, a seemingly pragmatic obsession with financial reward also obscures its economic value. In an ever-changing world, what appears to be a viable career today may disappear ten years from now. Students educated in a broad range of fundamental disciplines — including physics — will be able to adapt more easily to the changing demands of a dynamic economy. Concepts such as acceleration, Newton’s three laws, coefficients of friction, centripetal force, and inductance benefit the life of the mind as well as having practical applications for many careers.

Unless we refocus, as a culture, on the value of education beyond material pragmatism, we run the risk of sabotaging an entire generation’s ability to meet the unpredictable future needs of our complex and broken world.

Anthony B. Bradley is a research associate at the Acton Institute.

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute —, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.)

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