By Nathan Gardner
In May 2015, the Pew Research Center ranked the United States 35th and 27th in math and science education, respectively. This ranking is in stark contrast to data compiled by the Institute of Education Sciences, which shows that the U.S. spends 35 percent more on education per child during primary and secondary school, and nearly double during postsecondary, when compared to world averages.
Having a direct impact on the long term well-being of our country, from national security technology to best farming practices, the U.S. cannot continue to lag behind other major world players and expect to maintain its dominant position in the global market. Unfortunately, many of the changes will be difficult to pass in our divided political system. Once approved, however, there are some easy and inexpensive changes that could be implemented quickly, putting us back on track to maintain our global dominance. And, no: free college is not one of them.
If other countries are doing better with less, it only seems logical to ask why. To start, our method for teaching math varies greatly from most other countries. American children are missing out on a more “organic experience” of learning math because they are taught to memorize formulas and procedures, writes Tara Holm in an article for the Boston Globe. Other countries, however, focus more on word and logic problems which help to develop a more natural method of using math in real-world-scenarios. “When students memorize the Pythagorean theorem or the quadratic formula and apply it with slightly different numbers, they actually get worse at the bigger picture. Our brains are slow to recognize information when it is out of context. This is why real-world math problems are so much harder— and more fascinating— than the contrived textbook exercises,” says Holm.
In other words, if we teach only to memorize, and not how to think problems through, we are not only making math a more boring subject, but we are taking away any real world application that the subject may have.
It seems simple enough–change the curriculum to involve more word and logic problems and less memorization and our math proficiency should go up by leaps and bounds. So why hasn’t this happened yet? Look no further than the recent controversy surrounding common core. Here we have a great step forward in making mathematics more functional and useful for our young people, yet it has turned out to be one of the most beleaguered changes in education in recent years. The irony being that it is the more inept math education of parents that is the cause of controversy. Common core is, superficially, confusing to those of us who have not learned this way. If the time is taken to learn its attributes, however, almost anyone can see how teaching this to individuals while they are still young will greatly improve our country’s math acumen.
Science faces a very different issue. The biggest hurdle to improving science education in the U.S. is, simply put, that many Americans are anti-science. Or at least anti-inconvenient-science. Science is often inconvenient to those whose beliefs it contradicts.
“Science denialism among Democrats tends to be motivated by unsupported suspicions of hidden dangers to health and the environment… Republican science denialism tends to be motivated by anti regulatory fervor and fundamentalist concerns over control of the reproductive cycle,” Shawn Lawrence Otto said in an article for Scientific American. Some examples include the conviction that global warming is a hoax, that we should “teach the controversy” to schoolchildren over whether life on the planet was shaped by evolution over millions of years or an intelligent designer over thousands of years, the belief that cell phones cause brain cancer, or that vaccines cause autism, Otto says.
It should seem obvious that you cannot have a scientifically literate population if the people making up that population hold anti-science views, no matter the reason. Until we, as a country, change our way of thinking about science – as a source of knowledge and progress, not as inconvenient assertions against our beliefs – we will not make any progress towards increasing our scientific literacy stature on the world stage. And this is not just so we look better on some standardized test.
Scientific and mathematical literacy, or lack thereof, are much more important than how we look to the rest of the world (which, itself, is not a benign shortcoming). Continuing to fail in these areas would have dramatic effects on the future of our country.
As we fail to keep up with the latest scientific advancements, our economy and industry will see a downturn as other countries improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Our nation will become less secure as our encryption and cybersecurity are outpaced by potential adversaries. We lose our ability to maintain the dominance that has defined America for the previous 150 years and I, for one, do not want to see that happen.