Preposterous Universe

Monday, July 05, 2004
Science education

Everyone knows, or should know, that science education in American elementary and secondary schools is a travesty. This long-lamented fact reappeared in the news this weekend, after a group interview with science educators at the National Education Association's annual meeting. People on the street might wonder whether this is a bit alarmist -- is it really worse in the U.S. than elsewhere, or is science education really worse than education in other fields? I don't know about other fields, but anyone on a college science faculty will tell the same story about comparing the U.S. to Europe and elsewhere: our undergraduate experiences are comparable, graduate education here is the best in the world, but secondary education is an embarrassing failure. All those stories you hear about students graduating from high school not knowing how to use a calculator or that the Earth moves around the Sun? Absolutely true.

Often the lamentations surrounding this state of affairs focus on the idea that we need to be training a new generation of scientists to maintain American supremacy or some such thing. I don't care all that much about maintaining our supremacy, and I'm not even worried about a new generation of scientists; there are many more people who want to become scientists than we have jobs for them, and the individuals who are really interested in science will get a good education for themselves even if their schools are failing them. But I strongly feel that it's important for every person to have a basic grounding in science, especially in the basic techniques and methodologies by which science actually works. Everyone should know the basic facts of physics, biology, and chemistry, but they should know how to formulate and test an hypothesis, and the basic notions of understanding data and uncertainties. It's not that hard, really.

What to do? I'm a big believer that some situations really are solved by throwing money at the problem, or at least they won't be solved without throwing money. But you have to throw the money in the right direction. New lab equipment and computers are nice, but aren't in the top three priorities we should be focusing on. To me, these include: 1) Sensible curricula, including realistic studies of methodology, a firm grounding in the basics of each field, and a smattering of exciting modern topics to encourage interest; 2) Vastly improved standards for the training of science teachers, including greater flexibility to allow people with more expertise in science than in education to get involved, and 3) Making elementary/secondary teaching an attractive career option.

It's only the last of these that requires serious money, but can anyone argue that it isn't worth it? Look at this study of salaries of liberal arts alumni of the University of Pennsylvania about fifteen years after graduation. It's a nice sample, since presumably everyone starts with relatively comparable education and employability. And what you find is that elementary/secondary educators are easily the lowest-paid profession (followed closely by college/university teachers!). You can do better working for a non-profit. (You can also generally do better by being male, but you knew that already.) The average teacher's salary is about $47,000, compared to the average salary for the whole sample of $164,000. You do the math. Why would a talented young person choose this field?

If we had any sense, we would embark on a crash program to double teachers' salaries across the board over the next ten years. One necessary step would be to shift the income stream for local schools from property taxes to statewide (or, even better, national) income taxes, so that the burden is distributed more equally. It's not likely to happen, but until it does we're just slapping new coats of paint on a desperately leaking boat.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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