Aptitude Revisited: Rethinking Math and Science Education for America's Next Century
Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, 254 pp.
American children are learning more mathematics and science than they did 20 years ago. That’s the good news. The bad news is that what they’re learning remains far from adequate and far less than their counterparts in virtually all of our competitor nations. In Aptitude Revisited: Rethinking Math and Science Education for America’s Next Century, David Drew, professor of education and executive management at the Claremont Graduate School and director of Clarement’s Education Program, plunges into the quagmire of U.S. education, valiantly sorting through the multidimensional problems that have our children locked in a pattern of underachievement and our college students abandoning the study of mathematics, science, and engineering. This slim volume efficiently catalogs the myriad, often contradictory, reform efforts of the past 20 years that have yet to realize their promise and ponders the inevitable impact of our enduring failure to prepare our young people for a technology-driven economy. The somewhat understated solution he proposes actually demands no less than a fundamental shift in our approach to education.
The recently released results of eighth-graders’ performance in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) reinforce the conclusions in Aptitude Revisited, which are drawn from earlier International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) studies. Based on average test scores, the United States ranked 28th in mathematics among the 41 countries participating in the TIMSS project. On a scale of 0 to 1,000, the average U.S. score was 143 points behind top-ranked Singapore and 22 points below the median score of 522, achieved by Thailand and Israel. In science, the United States ranked 17th, 73 points behind Singapore and 9 points above the median of 525.
One of the most disturbing facts about U.S. education is that fewer than 15 percent of our children complete the sequence of high school mathematics and science courses-algebra, geometry, trigonometry, precalculus, biology, chemistry, and physics-that are required in many other countries. The vast majority are channeled out of the so-called academic sequence before they’re exposed to the interesting ideas in modern mathematics and science, before they can make informed judgements about their career interests, before they develop the basic skills essential to today’s workforce. These students are, in Drew’s words, “ruled out of the game before it starts.”
Drew explains that the need for quality high school math and science education goes beyond the preparation of future professionals. Entry-level jobs open to high school graduates require a facility with academic-level mathematics and science. Workers in a semiconductor manufacturing plant, for example, must understand elements of statistical sampling. Some degree of familiarity with computers is essential for almost every work place. A trip to the bank often means logging on at a terminal. Literacy today, then, means much more than reading and writing. It means being able to function effectively in a technology-rich environment.
Drew’s review of the literature shows that the interminable debate about the quality of education over the past several decades has variously focused on curriculum content; pedagogy; instructional delivery; teacher preparation; deteriorating family structure; lack of parental involvement; and the socioeconomic pathologies of poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, and drug abuse. In the perpetual cycle of reform, the education community has identified a number of ingredients for improvement. We need national curriculum and achievement standards to establish some coherence among the 16,000 virtually independent school systems. We must offer students more depth and less breadth in subject matter. We have to train more and better-qualified mathematics and science teachers. We must eliminate the math and science phobia that afflicts many of our teachers and gets transferred to the students. We must provide students with a contextual framework for the study of math and science and recognize that they acquire knowledge and understanding more effectively when encouraged to construct it.
Drew gives these issues their due, but what ultimately bubbles to the surface in his analysis is a more fundamental cause for the failure of U.S. education: the low expectations we have of our students and, as a consequence, the limited demands we place on them. He recalls the famous work of Harvard University psychologist Robert Rosenthal, more than three decades ago, which illuminated the enormous power of expectations. In a series of experiments, teachers were informed by “experts” that several randomly selected students had extraordinary intelligence but were implored not to treat those students differently. Sure enough, when tested later in the year, the selected students substantially outperformed their peers on intelligence tests. Subtle behavior patterns and attitudes of teachers have transformational significance.
A deeply rooted belief in innate, immutable intellectual ability determined genetically is canonized in American culture, both inside and outside of the education community. This has often led well-meaning educators, seeking only the best for their students, to establish processes for measuring students’ intelligence early on and for tracking them into “ability groups” based on those measurements. Drew points out the well-established fallacies in the original research hypothesizing the existence of a pure, generic human intelligence factor. A substantial body of current research indicates that during children’s developmental stages, so-called intelligence tests merely measure achievement at a given point in time. And we know that different children develop particular skills at different ages. Nevertheless, once tracked into a lower ability group, students are virtually locked into performing as expected with little chance of moving into higher levels. That is, even when there is no predisposition with respect to expectations on the part of educators, widespread use of tracking systems beginning in elementary school produce low expectations of those students who are not placed in high ability groups. Moreover, our culture implicitly embraces the concept of an educational meritocracy. It considers those in the highest ability groups to be the most deserving and rewards them with the best teachers, state-of-the-art learning technology, better textbooks, and more comfortable facilities.
Drew forcefully attacks the evils of tracking throughout the book, stopping short of proposing its elimination. But what alternative is there? Of course, purging our education systems of tracking is a daunting challenge. Tracking appears in many forms and guises, such as school-to-work programs, magnet schools, and specialized mathematics and science high schools. Many of the latter institutions offer exceptional academic programs; however, their existence reinforces the idea that mathematics and science are not for everyone, and their high degree of selectivity strengthens the perspective that only a fraction of the population has the ability to master these subjects. I do not advocate dismantling high-quality math and science programs. Instead, we must duplicate them and make them more inclusive.
Drew asserts several times that to bring about necessary reform, “The single most important change required involves a national consciousness raising.” But if we’re going to be successful, we’ll have to reach beyond consciousness raising. Many teachers who mouth the words “all children can learn” show little evidence of a genuine belief in the concept in their classroom behavior.
An important thread spanning Aptitude Revisited is the limited access to mathematics and science education among traditionally underrepresented groups. “Women, poor people and disadvantaged minority students consistently are discouraged from studying science and mathematics, the very subjects that would give them access to power, influence and wealth.” A number of researchers have documented the inferior education, lack of resources, outdated textbooks, crumbling facilities and inexperienced teachers in predominantly minority communities. Drew adds to the analysis, convincingly
arguing that the greatest inequity is the gap in expectations, the initial attitudes and assumptions about the intellectual potential of these students. He offers compelling data from the literature on inequitable practices associated with expectations or assumptions
about intelligence. Assessments of educational delivery across ethnic groups, along with surveys of principals and teachers, clearly indicate the confounding of academic achievement with social, gender, and ethnic considerations. Drew concludes that “…unjustified assertions [about differences in intelligence] are at the core of the
negative expectations about mathematics and science education that permeate our society.” In my own observations of many inner city schools, the disdain and outright hostility toward the children are sometimes palpable. In order for these or any young people to flourish, they must be surrounded by adults who care about them, believe in their academic potential, have high expectations for them, and demand commitment and hard work from them.
Most minority students are turned away from mathematics and science very early in their educational experience. Only 6 percent of African American, Latino, and American Indian children complete high school with the prerequisites for a college major in a science-based discipline. Although these groups make up 28 percent of the college-age population, in 1995 they received only 9 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 2 percent of the doctorates in engineering. We cannot maintain the nation’s economic competitiveness and standard of living by continuing policies that exclude people of color from the technical professions. Drew also makes the important point that excluded groups must themselves-parents and students-make access to high-quality mathematics and science education a priority in their communities.
Presenting the well-known problems with unusual clarity, Drew delivers compelling arguments for national curriculum and achievement standards, for accepting the idea that all children can master advanced mathematics and science, and for providing access to quality education for all population groups. The challenge is to make it happen. In the case of education reform, behavior modification, always a formidable undertaking, requires a fundamental change in beliefs that are deeply imbedded in our culture, our language, and our attitudes-a very difficult proposition. The bottom line is that no amount of curriculum reform, content restructuring, or education spending will solve our problems as long as teachers and professors believe that most of their students can’t learn mathematics and science.