In the quarterly lamentation about the need for science outreach in the U.S., what often gets lost is that not everyone will be good at science. Lack of science knowledge is regarded as some sort of defect, but it is never an issue with the child, instead it is society or schools. We need more funding for cartoon characters and flashy animation to explain science because that is what today's kids 'need', we are told. If you are in that camp, the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress will make you happy.
It shows that about a third of elementary- and high-school students have a good grasp of science. Well, so what? They may not get medicine or baseball either but this does not mean they won't lead productive, happy lives or that our science capability will evaporate in a generation.
Teachers have an explanation, though it is an odd one. No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law mandating minimal testing standards, only includes math and reading. Yes, they want science included in the program they said would not work.
But it has worked. For the first time in American history, there is no gender disparity in math scores since schools starting requiring minimal performance and started penalizing under-performing schools instead of giving them more money. It may not make everyone happy but that was never the goal, reaching as many students as possible was.
That's not to say things are perfect or can't improve, but I am unconvinced kids today are dumber than they were in my generation or that we have somehow failed them if the percentage of those good in science does not go up every year - and there is no way to compare this year's assessment to prior years because they made too many changes. The fact is, America is 5% of the world's population and produces 32% of the world's science output, without flashy animations or video games about science. Is it sustainable? Maybe. It is true that China has better fundamental science scores among kids but that is because they use a No Child Left Behind approach and don't write letters criticizing their presidents during class time. India, the other Asian juggernaut, was last or nearly last in every category and plenty of critics are savaging themselves over that.
We don't need funding for flashy videos and cartoon mascot to get kids interested. For five bucks I have insured my kids will like science, because instead of giving them a cup and a plant and telling them to watch it grow, or making them sit through a video, we attached electricity to solid rocket propellant and sent things 400 feet into the air.
You don't need to spend money on videos about conservation of momentum for a 5-year-old after he watches this thing go up.
Can schools afford $5 in the morass of bureaucracy and lobbying they have created? Sure, but they won't. In California 40% of the budget is Constitutionally dedicated to education and it is still not enough. Yet that money is not reflected in performance.
California would be in the top 10 economies for the world if it were a separate country, and spends a fortune on education, yet is in the bottom third of the nation in performance. More money is not the answer.
President Obama is a fan of science, math and engineering and has put taxpayer money into it though, to be fair, he put taxpayer money into everything so I am not sure he knows where money really comes from. Regardless, if fewer bombs means $260 million to train 10,000 new math and science teachers, I would be all for it, except throwing more money at the issue hasn't helped turn kids who like social studies and English literature into kids who like science historically. Spending $26,000 more on each science teacher will not make kids want to learn science.
Private school without virtually unlimited government money do better than public schools but educators say these are children of privilege rather than products of an education system free of union control, tenure and political correctness. Where you come down on that issue usually tells me which political party you vote for and whether or not you work in education.
Then there are environmentalists who think people should live in cities and drive less - but kids in cities score lower than kids in rural areas, who score the highest. Yes, it isn't sophisticated city kids or well-heeled suburban kids but country kids who do best in science. And the class sizes are not smaller in the country. The Wall Street Journal is apparently on the 'more outreach funding, please' train and data mines the results to say that rural areas have lower scores, but that is not the truth. Rural kids have fewer advanced students but basic and proficient levels are outstanding.
Let's not fool ourselves, kids from wealthier backgrounds do better than kids from poor backgrounds, on average. Right about now, I will get someone using the 'white, male privilege' fallacy but it is simply that we can't social engineer wealth and expect all kids will suddenly exceed in science because it happens that smarter people tend to make more money and raise smarter kids, on average. It is not transposable, though, so more money does not make people smarter nor do free laptops and any number of ridiculous problems touted as essential.
It also happens that every kid is just not going to like science. Some will like art, some will like music, some history, and some will, unfortunately, become post-modernists. Are one third of children good at art or music? Absolutely not. They may dabble here and there but they are not proficient.
So it goes with science. Should No Child Left Behind include science? I suppose so, given its success in math. The intent of No Child Left Behind was to get schools, too many of whom had lost their way with outcome-based education under a variety of new code names, back to what was once called The Three R's - Reading, Ritin' and Rithmetic. There is a lot more knowledge about science among the general population today than when I was young - far more, even if scientists don't think the public is smart unless they accept every one of today's science positions or have ethical objections to some science (biology to people on the right and agriculture for those on the left) but that will not be solved by more money either, it just takes persistence and time.
And despite larger class sizes 60 years ago, that generation of scientists produced work that revolutionized America by sticking to the basics in school, teaching to the test and making sure as many students as possible had a basic foundation of knowledge. What they achieved from that foundation was up to them; scientist, construction worker or cellist. That's the kind of freedom we don't want government or schools social engineering out. Yet American kids did not score well on international tests even then. How did America do on the first international assessment, given in 1964? 11th. But out of 12 countries.
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