Friday, August 29, 2008

Math and Science


The performance of students in math and science has always been a high priority in the United States, but the successful launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957 mobilized resources in an unprecedented way. In 1958, Congress responded to the perceived threat to American security and competitiveness by passing the National Defense Education Act to increase support for education in math, science, and languages.

Interestingly, the US Department of Defense (DoD) included 10.3 million dollars in its FY 2006 budget for a New Defense Education Act (DoD, 2005) and business and community leaders are once again making reference to Sputnik. For example, the American Electronics Association recently released a document entitled "Losing the Competitive Advantage: The Challenge for Science and Technology in the United States." Their argument broadly addresses US competitiveness in a global economy, but includes the concern that US students will be unable to participate in a technological society without an increased emphasis on math and science. In a similar vein, Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, in a speech focused on the failure of American high schools, remarked that



When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow. In math and science, our 4th graders are among the top students in the world. By 8th grade, they're in the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, US students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations.



Gates is likely referring to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2003). The 1995 TIMSS showed significant performance gaps between American students and students in other countries (e.g. gaps of 1.5 standard deviations between American students and students in Singapore) with twelfth graders performing significantly below the international average. The 2003 TIMSS shows American students in the fourth and eighth grades performing above the international average with no change for fourth graders between the 1999 and 2003 administration, but significant improvement for eighth graders.


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