No one questions the importance of high quality K-12 education, but we are still struggling to find ways to boost school performance.
The demand for more science-trained workers appears to be real. In 2005, 15 prominent business associations led by the Business Roundtable called for whatever measures are necessary to achieve no less than a 100% increase in the number of U.S. graduates in these fields within a decade. In 2006, a panel of senior corporate executives, educators, and scientists appointed by the National Academies called for major national investments in K-12 science and mathematics, in the education of science and math teachers, and in basic research funding to address what it saw as waning U.S. leadership in science and technology. This National Academies report was endorsed by leading education associations and served as a basis for several legislative proposals (such as the Bush administration’s American Competitiveness Initiative) now moving through the Congress. Supportive articles and editorials have dominated journalistic coverage of these arguments.
The challenges that engineers will face in the 21st century will require them to broaden their outlooks, have more flexible career options, and work closely and effectively with people of quite different backgrounds. Yet engineering education focuses narrowly on technical skills rather than broadly on the full role that engineers must play in the world. Engineering education needs to develop a more comprehensive understanding of what engineers will do as their careers open up to management responsibility in business or to involvement in other areas. And if engineers are to have time for a greater variety of courses in their college years, the professional engineering credential will have to be a postgraduate degree, as it is in law, business, and medicine.
Games, simulations, user models, and other information tools have revolutionized and personalized entertainment and services. What about education? In February 1990, President George H. W. Bush joined Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas to embrace the goal that by the year 2000, “U.S. students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.” The two leaders were reacting, in part, to a study stating that education in the United States was so bad that it would have been considered an “act of war” had it been imposed by a foreign power. The ensuing decade was marked by the release of a series of major studies by government or business highlighting the problem, with ever sharper rhetoric. Yet when the year 2000 rolled around, U.S. students ranked 22nd among 27 industrialized countries in math skills, according to a widely regarded international comparison. In 2003, a similar study ranked U.S. students 24th of 29 countries.
International comparisons of student achievement tell U.S. educators where they must focus their efforts to create the schools the country needs. “Economic Time Bomb: U.S. Teens Are Among Worst at Math,” blared the December 7, 2004, Wall Street Journal headline over a story about the disheartening results of the latest international assessment of student achievement. The New York Times and Washington Post also carried major stories, albeit with slightly more temperate headlines. All the stories agreed that the results of the Program for International Assessment (PISA), which tested 15-year-olds from 41 countries, are cause for grave concern. On the math section, the United States ranked 24th out of 29 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), falling below Poland, Hungary, and Spain in the three years since the previous assessment. For a country that prides itself on its scientific and technological prowess, this seems disastrous. But is the situation as bad as the PISA test results indicates?
U.S. science education is improving, but a few local programs are demonstrating how it can become even better. Now and in the decades to come, science literacy may well be the defining factor for our success as individuals and as a nation. Indeed, U.S. global competitiveness and itsnational security rest firmly on our ability to educate a workforce capable of generating, coping with, and mastering myriad technological changes. In the summer of 2000 and again this past spring, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan broke with tradition and testified before Congress not about interest rates or inflation but about the importance of strengthening U.S. science and math education as the foundation to continued economic growth and national security.
Two decades ago, the United States awoke to headlines declaring that it was "A Nation at Risk." In dramatic language, the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" that, had it been "imposed by a foreign power," might well have been interpreted as "an act of war." Shortly thereafter, dismal results from a major international assessment of mathematics education confirmed the commission's judgment. Analysts at that time described U.S. mathematics education as the product of an "underachieving curriculum."
Hyped by many as the key to improving the quality of education, testing can do more harm than good if the limitations of tests are not understood. With the nation about to embark on an ambitious program of high-stakes testing of every public school student, we should review our experience with similar testing efforts over the past few decades so that we can we benefit from the lessons learned and apply them to the coming generation of tests. The first time that there was a large-scale commitment to accountability for results in return for government financial assistance was in the 1960s, with the beginning of the Title I program of federal aid to schools with low-income students. The fear then was that minority students, who had long been neglected in the schools, would also be shortchanged in this program. The tests were meant to ensure that the poor and minority students were receiving measurable benefits from the program. Since that time, large-scale survey tests have continued to be used, providing us with a good source of data to use in to determine program effects and trends in educational achievement.
Assessment is a key component of the president's plan to ensure that all students receive an adequate education. On his first day in office, President Bush announced that education was his priority and set forth a plan that was based on four principles. The first, of course, is accountability. The president said that too many children across this nation are not educated to their potential and fall behind their peers in educational achievement. We have let this condition fester, because we have always assumed that there were some children who couldn't learn well. We offered remedial programs, but the bottom line is that we never expected them to reach the same standard as the rest of the children. As the U.S. economy has evolved over the past few decades, education has become a more important requirement for economic success, and our failure to provide an adequate education to many young people will limit their opportunities throughout their lives.
Recent advances in the cognitive and measurement sciences should be the foundation for developing a new system of student assessment. Many people are simply puzzled by the heavy emphasis on standardized testing of students and eager to find out exactly what is gained by such activity. The title of the National Research Council study that I co-chaired states the goal directly: Knowing What Students Know. The concerns about student assessment are quite well known: misalignment of high-stakes accountability tests and local curricular and instructional practices, narrowing of instruction by teaching to tests with restricted performance outcomes, the frequent failure of assessments to provide timely and instructionally useful and/or policy-relevant information, and the failure to make full use of classroom assessments to enhance instruction and learning.
The passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act significantly increased the prominence of standardized testing in the nation's K-12 schools. Every state will have to test every student repeatedly in reading, mathematics, and science, and student scores will be a critical measure of how well the schools are fulfilling their mission. For the Bush administration, testing is the key to accountability, and analysis of the results will be a powerful influence on future curriculum and classroom practice.
International comparisons of schooling hold important lessons for improving student achievement. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is the most ambitious cross-national educational research study ever conducted, comparing over half a million students' scores in mathematics and science across 5 continents and 41 countries. TIMSS is far more than the "academic Olympics" that so many international comparative assessments have been in the past. It included a multiyear research and development project that built on previous experience to develop measures of the processes of education. Classroom observations, teacher interviews, and many qualitative and quantitative information-gathering strategies played a part in this development effort. The result was a set of innovative surveys and analyses that attempted to account for the varying roles of different components of educational systems and to measure how children are given opportunities to learn mathematics and science.
Respect existing power bases and make administrators accountable if you want to see better schools. The recently released Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which made international comparisons of math and science performance among fourth- and eighth-grade students, strengthened the case of those who are calling for ambitious reform of U.S. education. U.S. fourth graders did relatively well in science and about average in math; eighth graders did slightly better than average in science and slightly below average in math. These findings are consistent with other assessments of U.S. student performance.
A decade of business involvement in public education has produced some sobering lessons-and a renewed commitment to change. For more than a decade, since the report A Nation at Risk warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in our public schools, members of the U.S business community have been actively engaged in multiple efforts to improve public education. We have served on blue-ribbon policy commissions; hosted summits with political leaders; and convened national, state, and local task forces. We have advocated higher academic standards and more challenging tests. We are funding New American Schools, a multiyear effort that has developed seven innovative approaches for transforming local education systems. We have participated in hundreds of business-education partnerships, mentored thousands of students, and served as teachers and principals for a day. We have donated computers, volunteered in classrooms, and given parents time off to attend teacher conferences. Many of us have opened our companies to give teachers and principals a firsthand look at the new world of work.