Close math, science gap

September 10, 2001|By Craig R. Barrett

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- The last time the United States really made improving math and science education a national priority was when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957.

We might take comfort, then, that nearly a half-century later our 12th-graders perform about as well as their Russian counterparts in both subjects.

The problem is that the most recent international comparison of math and science proficiency showed U.S. and Russian 12th-graders performing well below their peers in East Asia and Europe.

In the past decade, the Cold War "space race" has given way to an international space station, but the need for American students well prepared in math and science has become an even greater national priority.

It's hard to imagine the agricultural revolution prospering without the plow or the Industrial Revolution booming without steel. But that's essentially the prospect we face when only a quarter of American students are proficient in math. The New Economy is driven by knowledge, and math and science skills play an increasingly important role -- whether the challenge is unlocking the human genome or managing a retirement portfolio.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) last month showed that the percentages of American fourth- and eighth-graders who are proficient in math nearly doubled over the last decade -- from 13 percent and 15 percent, respectively, in 1990 to 26 percent and 27 percent in 2000.

While this is welcome news, it should be measured against the backdrop of a world in which the number of host computers on the Internet doubles every year.

The NAEP report sends some clear signals about what we need to do.

Eighth-graders who have well-qualified teachers and preparation in algebra performed extremely well, and we can help all students learn math by focusing more attention on teacher preparation and by setting more rigorous academic standards.

We can't afford for another decade to pass to learn that most of our children still have not mastered math and science.

Particularly in math, states need to test children each year from grades three through eight to uncover learning gaps and to target extra help to those who need it.

We should also administer NAEP more frequently and in all states because the NAEP is the only consistent benchmark that states can use to verify the results of their own tests.

We need to expose every student to challenging math and science by ensuring that every school offers a rigorous curriculum with textbooks and classroom materials aligned to high standards.

Perhaps most importantly, we need more highly skilled teachers who can teach math and science effectively. Between one-fourth and one-half of our students learn math and science from teachers who lack even a college minor in those subjects.

We need to attract talented people to teaching with scholarships and teaching academies that offer intensive preparation for the classroom, and we need to give veteran teachers more professional development opportunities.

This may seem like a daunting task, but the time has never been better to address it. States are doing their part.

Maryland, for example, has joined with 13 other states in Achieve Inc.'s Mathematics Achievement Partnership, a collaborative effort that is redefining middle school math by using world-class expectations to build professional development, teaching tools and a common annual test.

Now the federal government has a chance to do its part. Because federal programs are reauthorized every six years, the education package currently being negotiated in Congress offers a great opportunity to reassert our national priority in math and science education.

The key needs -- annual testing against high standards, teacher quality, and curriculum and classroom materials that align with state standards -- have been addressed.

President Bush and congressional leaders must now see to it that these provisions are enacted shortly so that the real work of closing the achievement gap can begin before another school year passes.

This time, we won't have the benefit of a beeping Soviet satellite passing overhead every 98 minutes to remind us all of what's at stake.

Craig R. Barrett is president and CEO of Intel, a member of the board of directors of Achieve Inc. and co-chairman of the Business Coalition for Excellence in Education.

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