UNDERSOLVED PROBLEM: David Broder is concerned about science education too. In Sundays column, he too describes a growing problem in American math/science education:
BRODER (12/18/05): The percentage of America's gross national product invested by the federal government in research in the physical sciences has declined by half since 1970. Asia and Europe are graduating thousands more engineering and science majors than the United States every year—and the gap is growing. Almost half of U.S. patents go to foreign-owned companies and foreign-born inventors. Our high school students test poorly in math and science compared with those of our major trading partners.But Broder detects some hopeful signs within the U.S. Congress. Pols of both parties are addressing this problem, he says. And omigod! As he cites a plan by Senator Lamar Alexander (a former Sec of Education), Broder euphemistically cites the plight of Americas underserved schools:
BRODER: The first step, Alexander says, is to boost federal investment in basic research 10 percent a year over the next seven years. Next, tackle the talent supply problem: Recruit 10,000 future science and math teachers each year and award them four-year college scholarships, with big bonuses to those who teach in underserved schools; give additional training to 250,000 current math and science teachers; provide large grants to 200 promising young researchers; create an advanced research projects agency in the Energy Department; provide 25,000 competitive scholarships a year to undergraduates in physical sciences, engineering and math; fund 5,000 new graduate fellowships a year in those fields; make it easier for foreign students in those fields to obtain visas for study here and ease their way if they want to remain here to work; expand immigration opportunities for people with those needed skills; provide tax incentives for U.S.-based innovations; and expand access to broadband communications.By underserved schools, Broder presumably means schools which serve low-income and minority kids. (Its creepy and racist to discuss this directly.) Last week, we said that these kids are rarely mentioned when we talk about problems of this type (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/05). But Alexander has an idea, Broder says. He would pay big bonuses to math/science teachers who teach in our low-income schools.
Theres nothing wrong with this shopworn idea—except for what it leaves out. Suppose we send qualified, bright science teachers into various low-income schools. Question: How will even these best and brightest address the problem in that recent report by the Center for American Progress?
CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.If that recent study is right, many kids in those undeserved schools are already at a disadvantage on the day they enter kindergarten. By the fourth grade, they may be years below traditional grade level in reading. So heres our question: If we send best/brightest teachers into these schools, what textbooks will they use to teach science (and social studies)? A sixth-grader reading on third-grade level cant read and understand standard grade-level textbooks. What textbooks will Alexanders teachers use as they teach these deserving students? For all their big bonuses and qualifications, they cant pull textbooks out of thin air. In our experience, its almost impossible to find appropriate reading materials for the kids described in that CAP report. That passage from Broder sounds real good—unless youve actually been there.
Our point is simple, and well just keep repeating it: For forty years, pundits (and former Secretaries of Education) have specialized in sweet-sounding solutions to the problems of underserved schools. These solutions sound good—unless youve been there. To our ear, this was one more example.