Scrambling for remedy to science, math deficit

March 08, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

Cyprus and South Africa. Remember those two countries. Cyprus and South Africa.

You've heard the news by now. Recently the Third International Mathematics and Science Study released the results of a general math and science test taken three years ago. American students, seniors in elite high schools who had taken advanced courses in physics and calculus, took the test along with students from 20 other countries.

To put it kindly, our guys and gals got creamed. Students from every other country taking the test did better than our students, except for two countries.

Cyprus and South Africa.

Cyprus. An island, for heaven's sake. Cyprus, so tiny it's not much bigger than the room you're reading this paper in.

OK, that's a bit of hyperbole. But -- and this is not intended as disrespect for natives of Cyprus -- students of a country that's a major military and industrial power should be expected to do better than students from Cyprus.

We also beat out South Africa. Well, whoop-de-doo. Here's a country that for years took pride in either not educating or ill-educating a large portion of its population because its leaders felt they belonged to an inferior race. Is this company we want to be in?

What was the reaction of our esteemed leaders in Washington when they got the news? President Bill Clinton said the test results were a "wake-up call" and repeated his belief that American classes need to be smaller. The Republicans responded to the news of this crisis the way they normally do: They blamed Bill Clinton.

Pennsylvania Rep. Joseph Pitts chided Clinton for not "turn[ing] back the authority and the dollars to the local level" and for not "get[ting] dollars to the classroom." The federal government bureaucracy has no clue about what local school districts need, Pitts said.

They need to get on the ball in math and science. The whole country knows that. Playing partisan politics with this issue is misguided at best and demagogic at worst. These test scores indicate that America will lose its edge in math, science and technology. That would be an ignominious fate for a nation that gave the world the light bulb, radio, motion pictures and airplanes. We face a future in which the United States may become, technologically, a fifth-rate nation.

Pitts is right to be wary of a federal bureaucracy meddling in local education. Washington bureaucrats might well mire local districts in useless -- even goofy -- rules and regulations. There's good reason to distrust federal officials getting involved in education.

But someone should remind Pitts and the Republicans that the same can be said of the states. It wasn't that long ago that some Southern states felt it imperative to keep a significant portion of their populations uneducated or ill-educated -- for the same reasons Afrikaners in South Africa did. The performance of American students vis-a-vis other nations is now so critical that conservatives and liberals alike have to ask if education is something that can be entrusted to the states or if there should be a national consensus on it.

Werner Kloetzli, Jr., a retired engineer who lives in Ellicott City, believes Pitts is closer to the right solution.

"Education is best handled locally. Definitely," Kloetzli said. Americans should not look to the federal government if our students are to perform better in math and science, Kloetzli believes, but to the past.

"I think they ought to do what they did when I was at Poly," Kloetzli insisted. "I was in Poly's A course. They told us we would have to do two hours of homework a night. I found two hours of homework wasn't enough. I had to do three, maybe four hours."

Kloetzli went to Poly in the 1940s. He scorned Clinton's proposal for smaller class sizes.

"All this baloney about class sizes," Kloetzli scoffed. "We had 40 guys in class constantly. I don't believe a small class is necessary. I believe what's necessary is for kids to work."

Kloetzli took a year of calculus, physics and chemistry, and a course in the workings of steam engines when he was at Poly. Students then were encouraged to study independently.

"The norm at Poly was for a teacher -- when we started a new unit -- to have us go home and study a certain number of pages from the textbook and be prepared to discuss them the next day," Kloetzli recalled. "The teacher would not go over the new stuff in class. We learned the new stuff ourselves."

Americans have learned some "new stuff" in the past week or two: that our students need to improve in math and science. As other nations surge forward in those areas, they are probably looking with some amusement at those curious Americans, who are still debating over how it should be done.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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