Making science a core subject isn’t a matter of “fairness”; it’s a matter of economic common sense

If you’re looking for evidence that K-12 science education has fallen off the education policy radar screen, look no further than this statement from Patricia Levesque published on last week.  Levesque is Executive Director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Jeb Bush’s main education operative and a political powerhouse in Florida’s Capitol.

Most disagreements about academic accountability today arise from differing views on how to define school quality. Literacy and numeracy continue to be the core functions of school – and thus, the focus of state accountability systems. Yet, many say it is unfair to limit labels of school quality to just a few subjects. The problem is: if you ask 10 people what should be included, you will likely get 10 different responses.

Levesque considers our concerns about the decline of science in the K-12 schools to be a matter of fairness, as if it is “unfair” to scientists and science teachers.

Let’s be clear about this:  Making science a core discipline in the K-12 schools, as was intended when the No Child Left Behind legislation was approved by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, is an economic imperative, not a matter of making scientists like me feel better.

Looking for ironies in this situation?  Let’s start here:  The Common Core, which is a critically important initiative pushed hard by Ms. Levesque and Governor Bush, is sold in large part as an economic imperative.  For our nation to compete with other nations, our students must be better educated.  Yet while improving the reading and writing skills of all of our students is necessary for economic improvement, it is not sufficient.  Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research was quoted in the New York Times this morning on the importance of educating the bulk of American students to fill technical jobs like X-ray technicians.  Those jobs require an understanding of science.

And as a recent report by the New York Fed (which was quoted here at BTT) demonstrates, just earning a random bachelor’s degree is not all that useful either for the student or society.  Prudent students (and parents) are making sure they have strong science backgrounds so that they have access to the most economically attractive careers.  Being an engineer is a great choice.  So is being a physicist (of course).  But a student who wants to make it as an attorney – which is a really tough profession these days – could do quite well in patent law, which requires a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering (and, incidentally, college majors in math and physics are at the top of the heap in average score on the Law School Admissions Test).  Want to major in studio art in college?  Fine, but keep taking math and science and you could become an architect (which doesn’t look so bad in the New York Fed report).  I have personal experience with both of these career tracks.

The preparation of students to compete in our globally competitive technological society is a three-legged stool on which the legs are language, mathematics and science.  By cutting off the science leg, we are causing some serious balance problems for our society and its students.  It would be a wonderful thing for Ms. Levesque and Governor Bush to recognize this and support the improvement of K-12 science.

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