Obama’s Education Challenge

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Obama at SOTU with handsThe newest report card on U.S. educational progress shows just how much investment needs to be made in science education if the country is to “win the future” as President Obama outlined in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
 
The report, 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows that only 34 percent of all U.S. fourth-graders and 21 percent of all twelfth-graders performed at or above proficiency level in science in 2009, while just 1 percent of fourth-graders, 2 percent of eighth-graders and 1 percent of twelfth-graders performed at advanced level. Only one-third of twelfth-graders said that they took a science curriculum that includes biology, chemistry and physics in 2009.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is a project of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Its just-released 2009 findings coincide with those published last December in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, showing that U.S. highschoolers rank 23rd in science, 31st in mathematics (significantly below the OECD average) and 17th in reading, with only about one-third of the country’s 15-year-olds meet reading benchmarks that indicate readiness for higher level work. 
 
The NAEP’s science proficiency rates for Black, Hispanic and low-income students are about four times lower than the rates for their white and more affluent classmates, a particularly troubling scenario since the three groups combined make up the bulk of the country’s public school students. Among eighth-graders, 41 percent of white and more affluent students are proficient or higher, against 12 percent of Latino and low-income students and 8 percent of African-Americans. 

“At some point, you begin to wonder how many warning bells have to ring and how many political speeches must call for change before we actually do what’s necessary to reverse these trends,” says Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels, from pre-kindergarten through college. “Our kids – and our country – can wait no longer.”

The NAEP clearly links the country’s ability to innovate and compete globally to its science knowledge, a link President Obama emphasized in his state of the union address.

“Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies,” the president said. “We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world…We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that science and engineering jobs in the U.S. will increase by more than 21 percent between 2006 and 2016, double the growth rate of all other workforce sectors combined.