Make Educating Future Scientists a Top Priority

02/28/2011 02:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, the Nation's Report Card released additional information on the performance of U.S. students in science. The results should be a call to action for all who care about the economic preeminence of our nation, and its ability to provide future jobs to deserving Americans.

Most of the 17 participating urban school districts scored lower than the national average for public school students. In New York City, our nation's largest, only 18 percent of fourth-graders and 13 percent of eighth-graders demonstrated science proficiency. And New York was not among the worst. Detroit, Baltimore, and Cleveland had the poorest performances.

That news comes on top of previously released results from the Nation's Report Card, which revealed an alarming lack of proficiency in science by public school students nationwide: only 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders, and 21 percent of 12th-graders are performing at or above the Proficient level in science.

Not only are those percentages alarming individually, but they reflect a downward progression. As students get older, they become significantly less proficient -- falling all the way to 21 percent. And this is in a century in which science and technology are likely to determine the fate of American economic preeminence.

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama rightly said, "We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world." But can we out-educate the rest of the world if only 21 percent of our 12th-graders are proficient in science?

It's time to take decisive action to ensure that our nation grows the workforce needed to maintain our leadership in scientific and technological innovation. Our system of public education is simply not doing the job.

A number of steps are essential:

• Treat science teaching as a profession. In their book, Science Teaching as a Profession: Why It Isn't, How It Could Be, Sheila Tobias and Anne Baffert offer important recommendations, based on the views of 400 science teachers across the country, about what science teachers want more than money: more autonomy over how and what they teach; greater control over the extent to which they can teach their own specialties (as opposed to other fields of science), and stature -- being treated as true professionals. These recommendations provide a valuable foundation for elevating science teaching in a nation highly dependent on science for future jobs.

• Provide high school students with increased research opportunities. Research engages students in a way that classroom learning can't. It enables students to begin to think like a scientist and to envision what life as a scientist would be like. This is also an area ripe for increased business partnerships. At New York City's Stuyvesant High School, long a leader in public education, applications for the Intel Science Talent Search have nose-dived from 164 in 1998 to 37 this year. A former principal quoted in the New York Post speculated that the decline "came down to a matter of resources, both in terms of human beings and money." The private sector should ensure that students operating at that level -- a top school and a top science competition -- are not lacking in essential resources.

• Engage top science students in promoting science to other students. In Success with Science: The Winner's Guide to High School Research, five current or recent Harvard undergraduates do just that. The five co-authors, who discovered the joys of science and scientific research in high school, have all been nationally recognized at major competitions like the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the Intel Science Talent Search, and the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, & Technology. Through this just-published book, they provide readers with background information about the benefits of doing research, as well as practical advice on getting started on a research project, the elements of a successful research project, and specific opportunities and competitions, like those in which they competed. There are no better advocates for science in high school than these.

More is, of course, needed, but these are essential steps. It's time now for the United States, as a nation, to decide that we can no longer afford to perform so poorly at science education.