Science Teaching vs. Aircraft Carriers

Former New York City schools chancellor Harold Levy on the insanity of our budget priorities.

Tetra Images / Corbis

How foolish is it to think that in the age of Facebook, Google’s driverless car, and the Mars Rover that high school graduates can be considered “college ready” without having mastered even the most rudimentary science classes?

A few days ago, the ACT, which tests 1.6 million students annually, reported that a paltry 31 percent of the test takers were “college ready” in science. Even more problematic, the College Board declared last year that only 43 percent of those who took the SAT were college ready—notwithstanding that the SAT doesn’t even test science.

For all the talk about science literacy being critical to our national economic future, the truth is that most entering college freshmen are science illiterates. Indeed, only half of all high school students take these tests, so the numbers are far worse.

The federal government’s policy of encouraging the study of science and engineering on the cheap just hasn’t worked out. The number of students graduating with science majors is actually declining. And the National Academy of Sciences reports that a substantial majority (64 percent) of engineering graduate students is foreign born. Our national investment in science education programs turns out to be a form of foreign aid.

Most importantly, we need to attract better science teachers. Mounting research shows that a good teacher is the single most important in-school variable in boosting student achievement; in science and math students do best when their teachers have deep subject-matter knowledge and use inquiry-based programs. Yet we are unable to keep students from transferring out of science majors, much less becoming science teachers. Scientific American reports that as recently as 2008, only about 25 percent of science and math teachers at all grade levels held an undergraduate or graduate degree conferred by a math or science department or school.

President Obama has set a goal of getting 100,000 new science and math teachers by 2020. By then, however, it will be too late, and the Chinese will be outsourcing their nuclear waste to us. We need to do a much better job teaching science, particularly in the elementary and intermediate schools. Now.

The best way to teach science better is to find better science teachers. And the best way to generate better science teachers is to offer full-tuition scholarships to college students who enroll in undergrad science education programs. The rest of the world learned this lesson long ago. College tuition is free or nominal in almost all the countries that are our primary technology competitors, including Austria, China, Germany, France, Israel, Ireland, Korea, and the Scandinavian countries. To remain competitive, we need to match them—at least in engineering and the sciences.

This proposal is entirely affordable if we are prepared to make a few clear-eyed choices. The National Association of Science Teachers reports that we currently have approximately 180,000 science teachers in middle schools and high schools. We could replace all of them (which I hasten to add is not necessary) and give their successors full 4-year scholarships as science majors to the State University of New York (where in-state tuition and fees run about $7,000 per year) for less than half the cost of a single $11 billion Nimitz Class aircraft carrier. With the money left over, we could buy new inquiry-based science curricula for every elementary and middle school, train all existing elementary school teachers on the new Next Generation Science Standards, and provide high-quality professional development for every math teacher in the country.

Our national budget priorities need shifting. I doubt that this country would be materially less safe having 10 aircraft carriers rather than the current proposed complement of 11. According to a 2010 Pentagon report, a “significant national decline” in the number of U.S. college graduates with science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees is “harming our national security.” Half-measures are just not going to produce the engineers and scientists to make this country safe.

It’s not only national security that’s threatened by our lack of scientific capacity but also our industrial capacity. Both software and chip makers have complained loudly about the lack of qualified job applicants. Industry has sought to encourage college science and engineering programs, but responding to the dearth of science grads is quintessentially a job for government. Even the wealth of Bill Gates—who by my count has donated 5 “Gates Halls” to major U.S. universities—has been unable to solve the problem. It is telling that Microsoft has taken the lead in urging Congress to expand the H1B visas for tech-savvy foreign workers; we are not producing adequate numbers of American scientists and engineers, so U.S. industry has hedged its bets.

It does not have to be this way. New, inexpensive online science education technologies for use in kindergarten through 12th grade by qualified teachers are sprouting up every day. I have seen inexpensive programs that will allow students to participate in virtual wet labs and programs that offer elementary school teachers just-in-time videos to strengthen their lessons. What’s missing is money. We need to hire teachers with deep subject-matter knowledge, give school boards the resources they need to buy these new online programs, and provide them with the capacity to discern quality among the growing high-tech offerings.

Americans have gotten so used to bad news about student performance on international science comparisons that they think there’s no solution. For the price of a single Nimitz Class aircraft carrier, we could solve the whole problem. Congress needs to shift our budget priorities so that we have a country worth protecting.