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Mar. 20, 2009

America's Educational Attitude Problem

by Science Friday Education

By Caitlin Militello

It's no secret that the U.S. has fallen behind other countries when it comes to education. President Obama, speaking about his new plan for educational reform on March 10th, stated that "despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us." Why has this trend of educational decay continued for so long? The answer just might be an issue of attitude, and science education is a perfect representative of that.

The heart of the science education problem lies in a manner of approach that does our science ranking and our students no favors. As proof of our poor ranking, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) provides an assessment of the gap between the U.S. and other nations in science, evaluating average scores from 4th graders in 36 countries and 8th graders in 48 countries. In 2007, the United States ranked 8th (48 points below the leader) for grade 4 science and 11th (47 points below the leader) for grade 8, with a 7 point improvement in average score at the 8th grade level and a 3 point decline for the 4th grade since 1995.

Can all this really be attributed to attitude? Asian nations topped the overall TIMSS score lists, with Singapore as the leader in both grade levels, and high average scores for Chinese Taipei, Japan and Hong Kong. At the 8th grade level, the U.S. also falls behind Eastern European nations such as Latvia and the Czech Republic, while England outstrips us at the 4th and 8th grade levels alike. Is it possible that American society is placing too much focus on individuality and too little on general education, and that these figures are the result?

In an education system that rigidly compartmentalizes both subjects and students, science has come to be thought of more and more as a specialty, even at the grade school and junior high levels. It’s a disturbing, mentally segregational trend, one that herds schoolchildren who underperform in science into a different pen from those who excel at it. And while everyone objects to falling test scores, few students, educators or parents seem to object on the conceptual level. If you don’t get A’s in science class, it’s okay. Science is just not for you.

Our education system tends to be long-term goal oriented, focusing on eventual careers, and the result is that test scores, and school subjects like science, suffer. The specialization process starts small and begins extremely early: children are repeatedly asked what they’d like to be when they grow up, and, as they move up in grade-level, constantly refine the answer according to their aptitude and enjoyment of subjects. By the time students reach their junior year of high school they are expected to already have a grasp on what their desired career path is, so that they can choose which universities and colleges they wish to visit or apply to by their senior year.

Children are also sorted from an early age within American society, starting with a labeling process, based on personality traits, that begins within the family and which the education system often reinforces. Labels applied at home and at school echo and feed off each other: a troublemaker at home is set into the role of troublemaker once he repeats the same behavior at school, the eager-to-please child becomes his class’s perennial goody-two-shoes; the child who gets an A in science and math becomes known as the left-brained child in the family, while the child who does poorly at the two but succeeds at English and art becomes the right-brainer, the creative, artistic one, at home. And the children who excel at neither fair the worst of all: academics are just not for them.

Standardization—a literal generalizing of education—doesn’t seem to hold much promise for science education or students, either. A 5th grade teacher in Massachusetts has told me that, from her experience in her own state, America’s failure to keep up with other nations in science seems to be the result of standardization. “There's no science on the MCAS yet,” she says, referring to the Massachusetts Competitive Assessment System of standardized tests. “So many schools just have science as a special and the classroom teacher doesn't do any science.”

It’s not much of a stretch to say that we could be missing out on a lot of great minds because of this educational attitude problem. Our current outlook treats science like art: everybody can learn something about it, but only a select few can truly grasp it. Science, however, is not a drawing class, where either you can do it or you can’t. If we continue to label and divide up students based on career path suitability, we are effectively sectioning off students from science, and science from the other subjects.

Unfortunately, a bad attitude will be a lot harder for President Obama to leave behind than bad policies, and the path towards accomplishment of that goal is much more difficult to discern. Still, one thing is clear: No Child Left Behind needs to become No Subject Left Behind if America is ever to catch up to other nations, in science and in every subject in our schools.

About Science Friday Education

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