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Math, science ed is vital
Saturday, March 3 at 12:01 AM

By Sen. Josh Penry and Rep. Rob Witwer

Let’s take a candid look at a very important question: Are our kids ready to face the challenges of an increasingly competitive global economy? Consider the facts and draw your own conclusions.

American students score near the bottom of all industrialized nations in math and science.

In 1975, the United States was third in the world in producing new scientists and engineers. Since then we have fallen to 15th.

Most startling of all, China produces more than four times the number of engineers as the United States. Japan, with half our population, produces twice as many. The late Nobel laureate Richard Smalley predicted that by 2010, 90 percent of the world’s most educated engineers will come from Asia.

Guess where the jobs in our tech-oriented world are headed if we don’t take corrective action? These facts are a clarion call. If we don’t better train our kids in math and science, they will be ill-equipped to compete in a world where science and technology are the coin of the realm. That’s bad news for our kids and worse news for our country.

In spite of these economic alarms, Colorado is one of only six states without a comprehensive set of graduation standards. Some of Colorado’s largest school districts require just two years of math and science.

Given the trends and the stakes, we believe it’s time for Colorado to join the vast majority of states in setting minimum guidelines for math and science. That’s why we’ve introduced Senate Bill 131, which would require students to pass four years of math and three years of science in order to graduate. The bill won broad bipartisan support in the Senate, and is headed for the House of Representatives.

Still, SB 131 is not at a loss for critics. Some in the education establishment dismiss the proposal as elevating “seat time” above substantive achievement. But the data refute this.

According to the Colorado Education Alignment Council, only 9 percent of kids who completed fewer than three years of math are ready for college-level work and 10 percent of students who took three or fewer years of science are ready to begin their college career. The same study showed that kids who took four years of math and three years of science are nearly five times as likely to be ready for college.

Still others criticize SB 131 for pre-empting local school districts. They argue that math and science standards will cannibalize electives like the arts and journalism. But 44 states have already figured out how to balance statewide graduation standards with other educational priorities.

Moreover, Colorado law already requires all students to complete a course in civics and U.S. history in order to graduate. And a bill that just passed the state House, supported by some of the harshest critics of our math-and-science bill, would direct local school boards to adopt detailed content standards for sex education. If it’s appropriate for the state to mandate sex education content, why can’t the state set broad standards for math and science? It’s a matter of priorities.

While the critics of statewide math and science standards argue for more of the same, the rest of the world moves forward. At the speed of information, jobs migrate from continent to continent. Meanwhile, America’s competitive advantage in science, technology and innovation is rapidly disappearing.

Other states are positioning themselves to compete in this complicated and competitive world by beefing up their math and science graduation standards. The only question now is, will Colorado?

Sen. Josh Penry is a Republican from Fruita. Rep. Rob Witwer is a Republican from Genessee.


READER COMMENTS

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Posted by nbvcgzamiu on August 6, 2007 12:31 PM

Note: I wrote this comment before seeing Christopher Becke’s Reader Comment but it pretty much agrees with his.

Senate Bill 131 is pretty much a no-brainer for those concerned about the Quiet Crisis and future US competitiveness in the global marketplace. However, it appears to fall short in at least two areas:
- The bill should require four years of science also, not just three. Look around. Most current issues are controversial due to the science illiteracy of many US citizens: climate change, energy issues, health care issues, stem cell research, genetically modified crops, nanotechnology, etc. – the list is long.
- Senate Bill 131 is really just a Band-Aid on a much larger problem than just math and science education. What is really needed is genuine comprehensive reform similar to the recommendations in the "Tough Choices Or Tough Times" report. Setting higher expectations for all stakeholders is critical.

To be effective scientists, engineers, and innovation professionals, they must also excel in the following skills: critical thinking, communications, emotional intelligence (social interaction), teamwork, and the ability to innovate. Only comprehensive reform in K-12 and university science and engineering programs will produce graduates with all of these critical skills. However, SB 131 is a good start if, for no other reason, it calls attention to the math and science education problem and the Quiet Crisis.

One of the opponents’ major reasons for killing the bill is, "There aren’t enough qualified math and science teachers." Duh?? The best way to develop more math and science teachers is to get them interested in math and science in the early grades, keep the flame burning through high school, motivate them to major in math & science in college, then become math & science teachers or scientists or engineers. That route takes approx ten years. A short-term solution to the qualified teacher shortage would be to allow/encourage retired scientists and engineers to teach science and math in middle school and high school.

Posted by Jim Leonard on March 5, 2007 01:16 PM

The one-size fits all approach to education has and continues to fail our children. We’re not going to create more scientists and mathematicians by forcing feeding every student science and math. It’s much better to find those students disposed to the subjects and encourage them.

Education should not be punishment nor should a school be a prison. Look at a group of first graders at the beginning of school. Once they have overcome their anxiety of being separated from their parents, they are eager and excited to learn, soaking up information and thrilling in the learning process. Look up that same group when they are beginning their senior year – those who have not simply walked away in frustration – and you will likely find tired, burned-out kids going through the endless series of hoops so they can get their diploma and get out; graduation becoming akin to parole.

Frankly, politicians micro-managing education has created nightmarish situation for students, teachers and administrators.

Posted by Doug Hawk on March 5, 2007 01:00 PM

Sen. Penry and Rep. Witwer state that America has a problem in creating engineers for our tech-oriented world, then propose that all Colorado high school students take 4 years of math and 3 of science. In a way, this is similar to suggesting that in order for Amerca to produce better hockey players, Colorado students should practice basketball.

In most high schools, the typical science curriculum consists of a year of earth or physical science, followed by biology, chemistry and physics. Being the last course in the sequence, typically only students taking four years of science (not three) will complete a year of physics, which is precisely the course that generates interest and develops skills in the field of mechanical engineering. This fact has resulted in the current level of only 30% of US high school students taking any course in physics. If Penry and Witwer's proposal is intended to solve the issue they raise, then it falls short. Requiring three years of science will ensure that more students take chemistry (basketball), but will not necessarily increase the number of students taking physics (hockey).

A more successful approach would be to aggressively promote in Colorado high schools the Physics First alternative sequence supported by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). With the realization that biology is founded in the chemistry of living things, and in turn, chemistry is driven by the fundamental physical forces described in physics, it is both a more logical and intellectually scaffolded approach to teach physics, chemistry, then biology. The curriculum would be much more sequential and coherent. Althought many would argue that freshmen do not have the necessary math skills to successfully study physics, if taught in a conceptual way, it is actually much more accessible to students as they are dealing with the phenomena experienced in everyday life. More information on Physics First is available at http://members.aol.com/physicsfirst/.

I hope Penry and Witwer reconsider whether or not their proposal effectively addresses preparing students for success in an increasingly technology-reliant world.

Posted by Christopher Becke on March 3, 2007 04:17 PM

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