Science teachers must rise to the challenge of the future

Dec. 20, 2006
This is the first of a number of columns from Grace Klonoski of the Optical Society of America (OSA) on "SCIENCE & TECHNICAL EDUCATION: Spotlight on inspiring the next generation of scientists and business leaders."

Spotlight on inspiring the next generation of scientists and business leaders


The need for improved science and math programs for young students has received a lot of attention in the United States and around the world. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this topic. Today's students will, after all, be relied upon to advance the field and run our businesses in the not-to-distant future, and it is vital that we do all we can to prepare them.

The Nation's Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), is a continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Since 1969, these evaluations have been periodically conducted in reading, mathematics, science, writing, history, geography, and other fields. In 2005, a representative sample of more than 300,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12 were assessed in science. Results were compared to those from 1996 and 2000, along with reporting on aspects of schooling such as teachers' time spent on instruction, teacher preparation, and courses taken by students. This report is available online at

According to the 2005 report, the percentage of fourth-grade students performing at or above the "Basic" achievement level increased from 63% in 1996 to 68% in 2005. There was no improvement in the scores of eighth-graders.

The percentages of fourth- and eighth-grade students performing at "Below Basic" level were 34% and 43%, respectively. In other words, by fourth grade, one-third of our students are disengaged from science learning¿and that gulf grows as students move through middle and high school. In fact, since 1996, average science scores of 12th-graders have declined (see Graph).

Black and Hispanic students have a far greater proportion of students in the "Below Basic" category than their White counterparts. By eighth grade nearly three-quarters of Blacks and 70% of Hispanics scored "Below Basic." At the same time, there was no change in the overall performance levels for White students from fourth to eighth grade¿about 28% of White students scored at the "Below Basic" level. There is also a disparity in the "Proficient" level, with roughly three times as many White students attaining that category as Blacks or Hispanics.

How do you explain the race gap? It would appear that we are more likely to lose the interest of Black and Hispanic students at an early age, and by the time they reach high school only a fraction of these students even try to advance their science and math studies. Sadly, only 7% of African American, Latino and American Indian students take calculus and physics. Do traditional teaching models need reexamination? Are our teachers presenting science as a fascinating and challenging topic?

Income appears to be a factor as well. The achievement levels of children from low-income households were below those of higher income classifications. These disparities start as early as kindergarten, and persist as students advance through high school.

In its 2003 comparison of worldwide student performance, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) conducted a study with 46 participating countries. This assessment of fourth- and eighth-grade students showed that in the case of eighth-graders, 16% of countries outperformed the U.S. These results fall far short when compared with the economic rankings in the U.S.

These trends become even more significant when U.S. demographic shifts are taken into consideration. Compared with today, it is anticipated that in 2025, the population of Black and Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds will grow by 29 percent to total 11 million. Whites in that age group are expected to decrease by 10% to 17 million. These shifts further emphasize the need for our education system to erase racial achievement gaps.

Human resources are key to improving student performance. We must ask ourselves the uncomfortable question: Are pre-college educators up to the task of teaching math and science? Unfortunately, in many cases, educators are simply not qualified to teach their classes. Science & Engineering Indicators from 2004 show that for physical sciences, 46% of U.S. high-school teachers lack the qualifications to teach their courses. Clearly, more qualified teachers are needed if we are to capture the interest and imaginations of today's students.

Addressing these challenges can seem overwhelming, and yet I remain optimistic. This is because I have first-hand knowledge of the enormous contributions that are being made by individual science and math experts, and concerned philanthropic groups. I urge you to get personally involved through volunteering at a local school, helping out with extracurricular programs or by supporting the outreach programs that are hosted by professional societies. Students are not a liability¿they are one of our biggest assets, but they need our support and active involvement.

GRACE KLONOSKI is the senior director of the OSA Foundation and Member & Education Services for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; e-mail: [email protected];

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