More than 30 years have passed since the Soviet Union launched "Sputnik," the world's first artificial satellite. That 1957 Soviet triumph blew away the comfortable complacency of a U.S. education establishment that had grown accustomed to thinking of itself as second to none. "Sputnik" was an unmistakable warning that no nation could neglect math and science instruction and expect to remain competitive. As a result, U.S. educators were forced into a thorough re-examination of secondary school math and science programs in this country.

Thus it may come as a surprise to learn that Maryland is just now getting around to making such basic subjects as algebra, geometry and high school physics part of the required secondary school curriculum. This week a state education task force for the first time recommended that Maryland increase the number of required math and science courses to bring the state's schools into line with what its own experts say is needed for success in college. After years of mounting evidence that U.S. students lag behind their European and Japanese counterparts in these crucial areas, one wonders why it took so long for state education officials to finally propose a workable remedy.

Let it be said at once that simply adding a few more math and science courses to the secondary school curriculum will not solve the problem. By the time a student reaches 10th grade, you can't just pour a math and science regimen into his or her brain if a solid foundation hasn't already been laid. This is particularly true for algebra, which is the crucial "switch" that determines who will be eligible for more advanced math and science courses in high school. Poor and minority students currently are woefully under-enrolled in introductory algebra courses. Yet innovative programs, like educator Robert Moses' Algebra Project, have demonstrated that, given the proper framework, even the most disadvantaged children can quickly master basic algebraic concepts.

Math and science instruction in Maryland are long overdue for improvement. The task force proposals deserve the support of every educator and public official in this state. But make no mistake: They represent just the beginning of what must be done.