Science and Math in the Spotlight

May 22, 1994

There is a direct relationship between America's crumbling competitive position in the world marketplace and the pervasive weakness of students in science and mathematics. The problem is not exclusive to urban public schools; it extends to private and suburban schools as well. But it is in the cities where scientifically and mathematically illiterate students are concentrated.

This means, of course, that blacks and Hispanics have the worst achievement levels. It means, too, that too many of these students leave the academic pipeline because of failure or lack of interest. At pipeline's end, only 1 percent of the doctorates in the physical sciences in the U.S., 1.5 percent in the life sciences and 0.8 percent in engineering are being awarded to African Americans.

The federal government has decried the situation for years; the Bush administration (followed by the Clinton administration) included science and math literacy in its "Goals 2000" legislation. Now one federal agency is offering more than talk. The National Science Foundation has awarded Baltimore the first $3 million of a $15 million grant to improve science and math instruction over five years and increase the number of students ready for college-level study in those fields.

Morgan State University and the city school system are sharing most of the grant money for teacher training, for tapping into the city's many science and math resources, such as museums and universities, and for purchasing materials to help teachers. In elementary classrooms, where most teachers have majored in neither math nor science, where many have little knowledge of those fields, and where some, indeed, are hostile to them, there is a critical need to help strengthen science and math so $H students can cope confidently with the demands of a technological society.

This is a grant from one huge bureaucracy to two other smaller ones. Federal grants have come and gone since Sputnik with mixed results. This one could be a success, if the parties involved realize the importance of the task and refuse to get bogged down in red tape, squabbling between Morgan State and North Avenue and squabbling with unions and politics.

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