A 2009 study found that students in the United States ranked 25th among 34 countries in math and science. Some cite this study alongside wistful comments about the so-called “Golden Age” of education in America during the 1950s and 1960s. Others reference the success of Finland’s schools as the world’s remedy for a seemingly broken education system. Both presumptions are misleading.
The notion of the United States on the downward track is likely a myth. Education columnist Jay Matthews stated in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2011 that “we have been mediocre all along as far back as 1964. If anything, we have lately been showing some signs of improvement.” His column also noted increasing concerns in Finland about the academic preparedness of its young people. Every country has problems with its education system, it seems, but support for better and more focused math and science courses is increasing. Matthew concluded with these encouraging words: “We should stop talking about some golden age of schooling that never existed, and instead look for ways to create one.”
How might we create a “Golden Age” of education?
Let me make a prefatory reference to a July 2012 report from Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. Its authors warned, “Because rates of economic growth have a huge impact on the future well-being of the nation, there is a simple message. A country ignores the quality of its schools at its economic peril.” An investment in sound education then is an investment in the future economic sustainability of the nation.
A “Golden Age” of education begins with two crucial aspects of the program: its educators and administrators, and its curriculum. Without meaning to be tautological, the former must be educated: that is, they must have incontestable credentials and experience germane to their respective fields. A football coach may not be qualified to teach biology just because he knows a thing or two about hamstrings and concussions; a biologist needs to teach biology! The second crucial aspect of any education program, of course, is a unified national curriculum. For the economic sustainability of our nation, it must be grounded in math and science. I don’t intend to discount other disciplines such as languages, arts, history, and religion; but math and science afford an important contextual platform as a starting point. Science provides for the study of natural phenomena, and math is its language. Every person on the planet needs an effective understanding of both to be a responsible citizen.
A word or two about standardized tests. In a “Golden Age” of education, such mandated tests would not be allowed apart from one exam at the end of a student’s senior year in high school. The curriculum (and all its valuable resources) would focus instead on preparing young people to learn, not how to take a test. Good-bye, then, to SATs, Advanced Placement tests, GREs; in fact, good-bye, Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS. Finland and other places have showed the potential success of jettisoning something that yields so little value to the education of young people.
Do you know about ETS? Before its 1996 spin-off into a for-profit, its annual corporate revenues exceeded $380 million with income surpassing expenses by $4.8 million. Its largest income sources were its College Board programs ($134 million) and graduate school testing ($68 million). Government grants totaled almost $20 million. Its president received a total annual compensation of just under $339,000 plus the use of a manor house on the former horse estate where ETS is based in New Jersey. No doubt, these figures increased after the 1996 creation of its for-profit; but to what degree? This spectacular outlay of money – from the pockets of test-takers and taxpayers – seems a shameful exploitation of what’s supposed to be the education of our youth. ETS, and all its programs, should be abolished henceforth from the halls of academia. In a unified national curriculum, we can do better.
And a word or two about the science curriculum. Whether the subject is biology, physics, or chemistry, its framework should be ecology and evolution: the present and past, if you will, of all natural interlinked phenomena. Theodosius Dobzhansky, a prominent evolutionary biologist and educator, once wrote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I would modify this maxim: “Nothing in life makes sense except in the light of evolution.” We should reject unreservedly the falsity and pseudoscience of so-called creationism to relegate it to the classrooms of religion, not science, as a companion to astrology, alchemy, and ancient astronauts. Further, we should reject the tiresome arguments against human-accelerated climate change. The evidence for global warming is unequivocal based on actual observations with the most rapid warming since the 1950s and very likely (95% confidence) anthropogenic. Climate change is upon us. It’s our fault. We don’t have time to waste in futile debates with naysayers who might benefit from a few good lessons in math and science.
Perhaps a “Golden Age” of education is an illusion, always an apple on a tree just out of reach. But our global ranking as 25th in math and science indicates plainly that we have both a problem and an opportunity to excel in our collective understanding of Earth and all its living treasures. Let’s reach for that apple!
H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Ecologist, Educator, and Explorer