OUR NATION'S SCIENTIFIC FUTURE LOOKS BLEAK
Students at work in a Chinese chemistry lab
photo courtesy of Two Million Minutes
By Gerald R. Rising
First published in The Buffalo Sunday News on September 6, 2009
High schools and colleges are reopening for the new school year. Such openings are full of optimism — but in some areas, at least, the educational system simply may be unready to unlock students' full potential.
In math and science, the United States has an educational crisis that is eroding what once was post-war leadership in those fields. Factor in the current push for high-quality health care — increasingly rooted in science and technology — and the problem gets even worse.
A must-see new film, Two Million Minutes, according to Microsoft entrepreneur Bill Gates, "casts a bright spotlight on a crisis in this country." Anyone who watches this film should agree.
Where did that title come from? Students spend four years in high school. Multiply that by 365 days, 24 hours and 60 minutes and you come up with 2,102,400 minutes — close enough to the title's tally. The film contrasts the experience, through those important high school minutes, of six bright students: two each in the United States, China and India.
The contrast is telling. The message of the film is that we are not challenging our brightest students in the same way as schools are challenging similar students in competing countries and that, as an outcome, the future for U. S. world scientific competition looks bleak.
When North America was first colonized, the country was far behind Europe in science but, beginning with strivers like Benjamin Franklin, the United States began to catch up. By the end of the dark times in Europe of World War I, our universities had achieved near equality.
By the close of World War II, the United States enjoyed tremendous advantages. Although our armed forces had fought valiantly in many parts of the world, the country itself was not war-torn. That was not the case for the rest of the world. Britain had been ravaged by bombing; much of Europe had been fought over; Russia, China and Japan were devastated; India would be going through the bitterly fought internal battles of its newly won independence.
Meanwhile, if anyone could be said to win a war, we were those winners. Our scientific industry and our university science and engineering departments had been tooled up to contribute to the war effort. The finest world scholars and researchers had fled from war zones and persecution to join our university faculties and staffs, where they enhanced the quality of our science. Then remarkable new federal policies led to the education of returning veterans and a general rise in the nation's average educational participation. No longer was the completion of high school the ultimate goal of many students; now it had become completion of college.
The world playing field had become strongly tilted in our favor. We were, without question, world leaders. But the rest of the world prepared to address that uphill contest. Russia, Israel, India and Pakistan soon joined the atomic community. Then, in 1957, Russia sent the first rocket, Sputnik 1, into space. That achievement, beating us, sent a message and for a time our national resources were directed toward upgrading math and science. Unfortunately, those energies were soon dissipated and few of us realize what have been the results.
Where do we stand today? International comparisons clearly indicate how low our country has sunk. Consider a few: In life expectancy, we're 24th and in health, 37th. In school achievement, we're 24th in high school math, and even worse in high school science.
A sports franchise with this kind of record would soon face bankruptcy. And that is exactly the danger the United States faces in scientific competition.
The failure of our K-12 and undergraduate college educational system to serve our brightest kids becomes most evident at the university graduate level. Visit any university science or engineering graduate program today and you will find very few American students. Asian students predominate, because few of our college graduates can compete at this level.
You might think that at least those foreign students support our programs by their numbers. Unfortunately, there are already signs that this advantage is being lost. Upon completing their doctoral studies, many of those students are now returning to their home countries where they upgrade their own institutions. Today an increasing number of their universities are already staffed and fully prepared to compete with ours. Soon those bright students will be equally or possibly even better served at home. When that happens, as Thomas Friedman predicts in The World Is Flat, our standards for graduate work can only decline.
And that is why Two Million Minutes is such an important film.
The six students portrayed in the film send a clear and very straightforward message. Top quality Indian and Chinese students are more seriously challenged and work far harder on their academic studies than do equally able American students.
This is not a film about the achievement of average or below average students, those students that No Child Left Behind legislation is designed to support and to whom major school resources are committed. Rather, it is about students at the other end of the ability curve, those bright youngsters who should be the entrepreneurs and researchers of the future. They are not being well served. Our educational system is failing them.
Item: The proportion of students who leave high school with 12th-grade proficiency in math stands at 3 percent for African-Americans, 4 percent for Hispanics, 10 percent for Native Americans, 20 percent for whites and 34 percent for Asian-Americans.
Consider what most American schools provide their best students in math. Identified in sixth grade, these students combine seventh-and eighth-grade math in one year, not a difficult task as this content is essentially a repeat of elementary school arithmetic. Then each subsequent school course is taught a year early, making room for the Advanced Placement equivalent of a semester of calculus in 12th grade.
Not only is there no challenge in simply teaching a course a year early, but the entire program is wasted for most of these students. To lighten their freshman college course load, they repeat the calculus as a "gut" course.
Item: American students spend on average one hour per day on homework.
It is not that our brightest youngsters are lazy. As Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson points out, "It is a matter of distribution of time. Many of them spend 10 to 20 hours weekly practicing sports or working part-time jobs."
Most importantly, this failure to serve our best and brightest is not recognized. As the film points out, 70 percent of parents are satisfied with their schools and, still worse, 79 percent of high school principals believe that their schools are doing a good job.
Item: Some years ago a New York governor proposed the establishment of four state schools for gifted high school students, like the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. Almost unanimously, school administrators fought his proposal. A local suburban principal argued that such schools would "just train scientists and engineers to give us more Challenger accidents."
As the film points out, the one area in which we Americans outscore those from other countries is in self-confidence.
While a few states have followed the lead of North Carolina, most bright students are left to their own devices. The old refrain, "They're so smart, let them take care of themselves," remains a sad reflection on how we overestimate the motivation of adolescents.
Western New York Steps Forward
But Buffalo maintains two programs that do serve such talented kids. For once this region is a recognized leader.
City Honors School, founded in 1975, offers challenging accelerated and collegiate level courses in science and math including the highly regarded International Baccalaureate Program for the city's best students in grades five through 12. Under the leadership of its current principal, William Kresse, each year the academic challenges are being elevated and increasing numbers of students are meeting those challenges.
The diverse socioeconomic population City Honors serves clearly indicates that talented students of all backgrounds will rise to the challenge when the bar is raised beyond that of a typical American private or public school. A number of representatives of other school districts have visited City Honors and are considering introducing the International Baccalaureate Program.
Meanwhile, under the leadership of Thomas Schroeder and Betty Krist, the University at Buffalo Gifted Math Program currently enrolls about 250 seventh-through 12th-graders in a demanding six-academic-year course of studies that includes not only a strong school mathematics program but also 20 semester hours of university-level course work. It was selected as one of the 10 top math and science programs nationally by a commission organized by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association of School Administrators. Gifted Math Program student David Patrick of Batavia attained the only perfect score on the National High School Mathematics Contest, besting more than 40,000 of this country's finest students the year he attained that score.
Together these two programs graduate a few dozen students each year, all of whom are well prepared to continue with advanced standing in our nation's finest colleges. Unfortunately, these better-served students remain a drop in the national bucket at a time when, each year, many thousands of bright students are compromised by this failure of our educational system.
Gerald Rising is State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus at the University at Buffalo. With Professor Krist he founded the university's Gifted Math Program 30 years ago.