America’s Scientific Leadership Imperiled by Weakened Curricula

Comparison of Eighth-Grade Science Achievement

Oil isn’t the only foreign commodity upon which America heavily depends. A decline in the number of U.S. college graduates with science degrees is increasing the nation’s reliance on brainpower from abroad. Despite billions of dollars spent on reforms, America continues to lose ground to other countries in science education.

The United States now lags 24 countries in the percentage of college graduates awarded science and engineering degrees. Yet demand for science grads is rapidly growing. Consequently, as of 2000, immigrants comprised 29 percent of employees in the United States with master’s degrees in science and engineering, and 38 percent of employees with a doctorate degree in science or engineering. In the field of medicine, 25 percent of physicians in the United States are immigrants — an increase of 160 percent since 1965.

As Intel CEO Craig Barrett told Congress, “The sad truth is that the longer our students stay in our schools, the farther they fall behind in math and science.”

The achievement gap is evident from the early grades. Fourth-graders in the United States ranked merely average among 41 countries in the Third International Math and Science Study. U.S. eighth-graders and high school seniors scored even worse.

As Intel CEO Craig Barrett told Congress, “The sad truth is that the longer our students stay in our schools, the farther they fall behind in math and science.”

Unfortunately, some public school districts are actually lowering standards in response to mediocre performance. The Portage Public Schools, for example, is one of several Michigan districts preparing to eliminate the traditional four-year curriculum of Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, and to require instead two years of “Science Appreciation.”

The Bush administration’s primary education reform is the No Child Left Behind Act. Among a multitude of provisions, the law imposes sanctions on government-run schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress.” The Michigan Department of Education has identified some 1,500 “failing” public schools statewide — more than any state in the nation. It remains to be seen whether the act will achieve meaningful results.

The modern reform movement largely dates to the release in 1983 of “A Nation at Risk,” in which the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in K-12 schooling.

Six years later, President George H.W. Bush met with the nation’s governors and pledged that by the year 2000, “United States students will be the first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.”

Congress proclaimed similarly lofty ambitions with passage in 1994 of the Educate America Act, which called for the United States to be “first in math and science” worldwide by 2000.

During the Clinton Administration, then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley proposed steps to achieve excellence in math and science.

However, there is little evidence that this array of government initiatives has enhanced science achievement. Science proficiency did not improve between 1990 and 2000, based on the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, 82 percent of 12th graders ranked below the “proficient” level for science in 2000.

Obviously, few reforms have actually made it past the schoolhouse door. Consider:

Less time is devoted to science instruction. Only 41 percent of the school day is now devoted to basic academics. The typical American high school student spends 1,460 hours on math, science and history compared to 3,170 hours in Japan, 3,280 in France, and 3,528 in Germany.

Curriculum content has been weakened, and graduation requirements have not been made more rigorous. Less than 60 percent of high school students enroll in chemistry, and only 25 percent study physics. According to the Center for Mathematics and Science Education, “Americans seem to feel that science and mathematics are too difficult for most students.”

Expectations for achievement have eroded. The actual focus of reform has been to set minimum standards, rather than more rigorous standards, in the mistaken belief that accommodating low performers will improve overall achievement.

America has a great deal to gain from well-educated immigrants. But the nation cannot ignore the continued decline of science education in U.S. schools. Maintaining American leadership in science and technology demands a ready supply of highly educated individuals.

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Michael Heberling, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and president of the Baker College Center for Graduate Studies in Flint, Michigan. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.


America’s leadership in science and technology depends on a reliable supply of rigorously trained graduates. But many schools are failing to prepare students adequately.

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