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Maintaining Our Edge

From Sputnik to cyberspace, the key to keeping the United States competitive comes down to quality math and science education.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made object to orbit the Earth and beat us into space. The Sputnik satellite weighed just 183 pounds, and it only stayed in orbit for three months. But its launch sparked fears that the United States had fallen behind our Cold War rival in science education.

President Eisenhower challenged us to strengthen math and science education and we answered the call. Soon after, Americans walked on the moon. The United States had won the Space Race.

Now it’s déjà vu all over again as we face claims that the United States is losing its edge in science and technology. In the years since we landed on the moon, the United States has led the world in the Internet and technology revolution. Yet we must continue to find better methods of teaching science and math as a way to stay competitive in the 21st century global economy.

How do we begin? Start by ensuring that every student has a qualified science and math teacher who knows how to engage young minds. There is a severe shortage of qualified math and science teachers, and public schools will continue to come up short until we raise the earning power of teachers and make a career in the classroom a more attractive option for math and science graduates.

Like any professionals, teachers also need the opportunity to sharpen their skills. National Science Foundation grants for professional development should be expanded, not reduced, as the current Administration’s budget proposal would do. And America’s teachers should be able to have the kind of professional enrichment that their colleagues around the world already enjoy: time to meet with colleagues, collaborate on lesson plans, and learn more about their field.

As is often the case in education reform, educators will play a key role, but moving this agenda forward will require shared responsibility. Students must rise to the challenge by taking the most advanced math and science courses available to them.

Fifty percent of college-bound high school seniors have not taken physics or trigonometry and three-quarters will graduate without taking calculus. We cannot afford to let our students glide by without the benefit of gaining these important academic skills.

We also need help from parents, who should insist that their children take courses that prepare them to secure America’s role as a world leader in science and technology.

By keeping track of their children’s progress and directing them to the right classes, parents can set their children on the track to college as early as elementary school.

Finally, we must break our national obsession with testing, which threatens our ability to teach students how to think for themselves. Our economy has always rewarded innovative thinking, and great public schools have prepared generations of American students to become creative thinkers.

Team NEA, we know that the purpose of an education is not to score well on a test—it’s to succeed in life. In a recent article about science education, Diane Ravitch of the Hoover Institution wrote, “The relentless pursuit of higher scores has led to a heavy investment in test preparation activities, at the cost of a sound education….Tests are no substitute for a coherent curriculum and well-prepared teachers.”

That was true when the Russians launched Sputnik. And friends, it’s still true today.

NEA President Reg Weaver

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