WASHINGTON — Many educators and employers liken the state of science education to a chemistry project gone awry: A bad mix of factors has come together and it spells trouble.
By law, making students better at reading and math is the nation’s priority. When it comes to science, however, a quiet crisis is engulfing schools, say scientists, educators, business leaders and entrepreneurs.
It begins when young students skip challenging science courses and later produce an understaffed or ill-trained corps of science instructors. The result is lagging U.S. performance in jobs, research and innovation.
“The public is not hearing this,” said Gerald Wheeler, a nuclear physicist and executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “It’s troubling that at one level, we understand that we live in a technological society, but it’s not playing out that way. Science is on the back burner.”
Not everyone is pessimistic.
The country remains a dominant force in the advancement of science. Also, some observers say the picture of an “emerging and critical” problem in the labor force, as it was put by the government advisory National Science Board, is overblown.
But teachers in the field say they need help, mainly in professional training and enough class time to be creative.
“Is the goal now a set of scores or is the goal a set of scientists?” said Janis Elliott, who teaches physics in Bellevue, Neb. “That’s the difference and you don’t achieve those goals in the same way.”
Education Department leaders say science is not a second-class subject. They have led efforts aimed at improving teachers’ skills and they are watching for results. By 2007, under the No Child Left Behind law, all schools must test students in science at least once in elementary, middle and high school.
The science news of late has not been uplifting, from national test scores to teachers’ confidence in their science skills and parents’ satisfaction in course offerings. “It’s going to cause a steady weakening of U.S. leadership in technology and related fields,” said Gary Bloom, chief executive of the Veritas software company and one of several technology executives to ask Congress to put greater focus on science in schools. “More and more creativity, new ideas, patents, engineering and businesses will begin to creep overseas.”