The Real "S and T" Crisis

08/09/2011 05:40 pm ET | Updated Oct 09, 2011

A common refrain about our scientific and technological workforce is that we are doing a lousy job teaching future scientists and engineers -- and we aren't producing enough of them either. It brings to mind Woody Allen's quip about the restaurants he frequents, where the food is terrible -- and the portions are too small.

The condition of education generally tends to attract depressing and strident rhetoric, but without Woody's sense of irony or humility. Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City public schools, for example, groaned in a recent Atlantic Monthly article that "the gains we have made in improving our schools are negligible...[and] while America's students are stuck in a ditch, the rest of the world is moving ahead..."

This is familiar pablum -- domestic stagnation and impending loss of international status -- and like much conventional wisdom it is usually overstated in tone and under-burdened by evidence. At the risk of being labeled an apologist for a shameful status quo, here are some facts that are often overlooked.

American students are actually making progress, albeit not at all grade levels, not in all subjects, and not as fast as many people would like. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, average math performance among 13 year olds increased by six percent between 1978 and 2008, and the difference between performance in public schools and more affluent independent schools diminished slightly. The pace is not wildly exciting, but it is positive and credible; significantly faster gains would be viewed with suspicion.

Enrollments are steady and rising. The overall high school graduation rate went up two percentage points between 2001 and 2007, and college participation has increased steadily among all racial and ethnic groups. The US ranks second among 30 OECD countries in the percentage of the population aged 25-34 with a bachelor's degree or higher.

Perhaps most important, achievement gaps have narrowed, if unsteadily, despite the ravages of increased child poverty and economic inequality. Between 1990 and 2007 the difference in math performance between white and black fourth graders decreased by about six points, and though there is still an unacceptable gap, the pace of improvement among blacks was actually faster than among whites.

How are we doing internationally? By 1950 roughly 75% of 15-19 year olds in the US were already enrolled in secondary schooling, as compared with percentages that hovered in the low teens in Finland, Germany, Britain, and elsewhere. By 2005 that gap closed, thanks to rapid and intensive efforts in those countries to reverse their elitist traditions. We are outperformed on achievement tests by the so-called "Asian Tigers" -- Taiwan, Shanghai, Korea, Japan, Singapore -- but these countries do not usually include students with various learning disabilities in their test samples, and the policy chatter there includes large doses of envy for American creativity and openness. Our schools currently enroll about 5 million English language learners -- twice the number from 15 years ago and half that projected for 2015. It will be interesting to watch how our overseas friends manage their increasingly diverse student populations.

Education is a principal determinant of economic growth and quality of life, so it is wise to worry about both the quality and quantity of schooling -- in the STEM fields and generally. But in spite of our mediocre standing on international tests, we place fourth in the world on competitiveness, at least according to the World Economic Forum (which also ranks us low on math and science education); and our manufacturing productivity growth rate between 1979 and 2009 was the highest of 19 economies measured by the Department of Labor. It may be partly cloudy, but the sky isn't exactly falling. And no one in his right mind would attribute the current debt and deficit debacle to the quality of our education system (although one wonders if we couldn't be doing a better job preparing future politicians...).

If rumors of the imminent collapse of the American education system are exaggerated, so are suggestions that we can't improve education until poverty is eradicated. There is abundant evidence of the impact of poverty on academic performance, in the US and everywhere. But we also know that disadvantaged and minority children can learn when afforded the right opportunities, and to absolve schools and teachers from their responsibility is a travesty. Our appalling child poverty rate is now over 20 percent. And yet, Massachusetts, with about 12 percent of children in poverty (four times higher than in high-scoring Finland) is now one of our top performing states. Fashionable quick fixes for lousy teaching -- such as performance-based pay and excessive test-based accountability -- aren't the solution; but neither is the defense of teachers who persist with ineffective classroom practices.

If we have an "S & T" crisis, then, it is less about science and technology than about the substance and tone of our political discourse. It is wrong to allow our historical successes to be an excuse for complacency, and equally dangerous to allow shoddy information to sap morale and undermine reform. Let's attend to this crisis with a renewed commitment to reasoned expertise, to the application of objective and credible evidence to inform practice. Moderation and cautious optimism may sound boring, but lowering the temperature on our policy debates would provide welcome relief from the hot Washington summer.