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Teach Dick, Jane to Reason

It's not just math and science this nation of Nobelists and techies is shirking. Logical thinking suffers.

NO, not again! Ever since the Russians shocked the United States by zooming first into space in 1957, Americans have been promising to improve math and science education.

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Promising and promising. First, new math. Then, new physics (a k a PSSC). And, four decades later, a rather unrigorous set of new standards for teaching science.

Last year, as part of the latest reexamination of where the US stands in comparison with other nations, American parents learned that at the 4th grade level students were doing quite well, thank you. But, by the time they took comparative exams at the 8th grade level, they had begun to lag. Now, the rest of that study involving more than 40 nations shows that at the 12th grade level even advanced students trailed significantly behind their peers in other lands. And the tests didn't include sci/math powerhouses in Asia. Even in Europe it wasn't just whiz Scandinavians and Swiss out ahead, but Cypriots and Lithuanians.

As Michigan State University's William Schmidt, coordinator of the US testing, ruefully concluded: "Our best students in mathematics and science are simply not world-class."

Why sci/math matters

Alfred E. Newman's nonchalant "What, me worry?" may be the response of many Americans. Isn't the US leading the world in software, computers, telecom, space exploration, etc.? Aren't the Nobels still rolling in? Anyway, won't we keep on braindraining top scientists from India, Pacific Asia, and Europe?

The answers may be yes, yes, and yes. But not forever. And leadership in technology and research today isn't the only goal of sci/math education.

America is in danger of letting its best and brightest students (and many others) don mortarboards without rigorously learning to reason. That's a major point of learning to be at ease with the scientific method. Not all graduates are slated to become engineers, rocket scientists, and software writers. But any major nation needs business leaders, shop foremen and women, farmers, legislators, savvy consumers, and voters who think logically and critically about their professions and the issues facing family, community, and the nation.

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And, beyond that need for rigorous thinkers, there is the need for innovative reasoners. To cite just one example: A whole new profession of imaginative, technically adept scientists will be required to find ways for the human race to develop decent living standards for all, while not polluting and overheating the planet.

What to do

As noted earlier, American educators and citizens have been promising improvement for decades - to little avail. They keep buying quick fixes and quietly abandoning them. Reform must take place over time to gain permanence - and on several fronts:

First, teaching. It's hard to get students excited about the logical beauty and, yes, the fun, of the sciences if teacher colleges turn out pedants who don't themselves feel that excitement - who are, in fact, only a step or two ahead of students. We need extra incentives to lure dynamic professors into the sci/math departments that teach teachers.

Second, parents. President Clinton was articulately right about teachers' responsibility, but wrong to exonerate parents from responsibility for poor student performance. True, parents may be innumerate. They may be awed by, but ignorant about, scientists and the sciences. Fine. Not everyone has to know how to design a computer in order to use one. But parents can, and should, lead their children to be curious about and respect scientists and technicians. Admiration for Edison inspired generations of young would-be inventors and scientists. Admiration for Bill Gates seems to center on how to be a billionaire. Maybe parents don't know a new Francis Crick to praise at the dinner table, but they can take the trouble to discover a dynamic earth sciences teacher at school to invite to a picnic with the kids.

Third, business. Some firms already support local science museums. Some encourage their bright researchers to talk to students. Some let techies arrange lab tours for high school classes. Others arrange for top science and math students to become summer interns. Many more need to do all of these. It's in their own interest, particularly if they can eventually recruit those interns after graduation.

Fourth, media. Like teacher colleges, broadcast and print don't often convey the excitement of science because their staffs didn't get steeped in sci/math. But, with the cold war gone and audiences criticizing the new scandal-sheet-once-removed age, perhaps more attention to science detectives and genuine breakthroughs, as well as dynamic classroom teachers, is in order. America could use some new heroes and heroines.