Waiting for Sputnik

by Quinn O'Neill

BellamyThere’s been a lot of talk about reforming American K-12 science education and it’s getting difficult to take it seriously. Educators, scientists, and politicians have been sounding alarm bells over the state of American science education for decades. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education revealed the US to be trailing most other industrialized nations in science performance. The commission’s report began: “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. […] What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.” It almost sounds as if the level of educational attainment isn’t as important as the rest of the world being below it.

Following the 1983 report, most states responded by revising their curriculum content standards.1 In 1990, the president and state governors adopted a new national goal: “By the year 2000, United States students will be the first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.”1 The statement proved about as genuine as Obama’s promise to close Gitmo. In 2000, a new national commission conducted an investigation and concluded that the performance of U.S. students at the 12th-grade level, compared to their peers in other countries, was “disappointingly unchanged,” with the US placing 19th out of twenty-one countries studied.1

Similar calls for reform were made in 2005 with the publication of the National Academy of Science’s report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”, which made a number of promising recommendations. Those anticipating improvement were to be disappointed. A follow up report in 2010 stated that “In spite of the efforts of both those in government and the private sector, the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years.” It found little improvement and noted that US K-12 math and science was ranked 48th worldwide.

Poor K-12 science performance is nothing new, nor are reports that are steeped in panic and urgency. The alarmist tone of the 2010 follow up to “Gathering Storm” didn’t go unnoticed. As reported in a Nature News piece, Jerry Marschke, an economist at the State University of New York at Albany, suggested that the report painted an overly dire picture. He put it simply: “The way they wrap up their policy recommendations, they're trying to scare people.”

To enhance the panic, the country’s science education woes are often framed in the context of security threats. The 1983 NCEE report suggested that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. […] We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” Such rhetoric led David Gabbard in a 2003 paper to describe the report as “the first shot in a massive campaign of propaganda whose language and logic bears startling resemblances to that of Cold War propaganda.”

The 2010 follow up to “Gathering Storm” matched the 1983 report's sentiment with a quote recycled from a 2001 report: “Second only to a weapon of mass destruction detonating in an American city, we can think of nothing more dangerous than a failure to manage properly science, technology and education for the common good. . . ” Gosh, Americans must be pretty vulnerable.

The reports also tend to mix in appeals to sentimentality. The 1983 report quotes analyst Paul Copperman: “For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.” According to the follow up report to Gathering Storm, it was the first time all over again in 2010: “Today, for the first time in history, America’s younger generation is less well-educated than its parents.” (p. 65)

Other calls for educational reform fortify the panic with a sense that America’s losing a big competition for global supremacy. A 2004 letter from the National Science Foundation to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology states: “Civilization is on the brink of a new industrial order. The big winners in the increasingly fierce global scramble for supremacy will not be those who simply make commodities faster and cheaper than the competition. They will be those who develop talent, techniques and tools so advanced that there is no competition.”

With all the talk of national security, competition, and global supremacy, it would seem that the most important function of K-12 science education is to ensure America’s scientific hegemony and military primacy. It’s well recognized that military primacy requires the world’s best science and technology, so the two go hand in hand. What may seem odd is that, despite egregious science performance at K-12 levels, America’s science hegemony and military primacy remain relatively unchallenged. How could a nation with embarrassing levels of scientific illiteracy lead the world in science and technology? How could a nation second only to Turkey in rejection of evolution be a global science leader?

As Michio Kaku explains in this video, the gap in science and technology has been filled by foreign talent, with about half of US PhDs in the physical sciences and engineering now being awarded to foreign students. Robert Paarlberg, an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard, concluded in a 2004 paper, “As long as the United States can continue to attract this trained foreign talent, the weakness of its own K–12 science preparation system will not have to undermine U.S. science hegemony overall.”(p. 144-5)1

Problem solved.

Of course, this doesn’t address the country’s troves of illiterate citizens – half the population doesn’t know how long it takes the Earth to circle the sun and almost 20% thinks the sun goes around the Earth – but that isn't much of a problem in the eyes of America’s leaders. It should be patently clear from the lanaguage used in the various reports that the American education system serves the interests of the corporate elite, not the interests of the American people.

The Gathering Storm report, for example, iterates the vital role of science and technology in a healthy economy, but it does little to address the offshoring of jobs by US based multinational companies. Ron Hira, an engineer at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and an expert on the offshoring of US jobs, was a reviewer of the 2005 report. In a Nature News article, Hira points out that the committee was comprised of academics whose universities stood to benefit from investment in basic research and industry leaders who favor flexibility for business and therefore aren’t interested in giving concrete recommendations on how to stifle job loss due to offshoring. The committee was chaired by Norman Augustine, a former CEO of Lockheed Martin and included former or current CEOs of Exxon Mobil and Merck. As Hira states, “There is no one on the committee who represents the interest of US workers.”

In a piece for Truthout, Henry Giroux and Kenneth Saltman posit that the attacks on public education over the past decade are not genuine calls for reform but attempts to “transform schools from a public investment to a private good, answerable not to the demands and values of a democratic society but to the imperatives of the marketplace.” History lends credence to their view, with its steady stream of reports full of recycled alarmist rhetoric and the continued poor performance of K-12 students. One might think that there’s been no change in the education system at all, but this isn’t the case. Education has become increasingly privatized both at university and K-12 levels.

A noticeable change has been the increase in charter schools, which have been enthusiastically endorsed by the Obama administration as well as the Gates Foundation. Diane Ravitch, in a 2011 piece for The New York Review of Books, explains that these schools have become an important force for privatization. Under Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, low-performing schools may be closed, while high-performing ones may receive bonuses. Since the schools are in competition for high test scores, charter schools have an incentive to avoid students who might lower their scores. According to Ravich, some charter schools expel students just before testing day and some have high attrition rates, particularly among low-performing students.

The Gathering storm report acknowledges the increase in privatization, noting that “the growth of costly private K–12 schooling, and the shift of the cost burden to individuals have made it increasingly difficult for low-income students to advance beyond high school.”(p. 31) It’s worth noting that non-school factors, like family income, are important determinants of student performance, but growing levels of poverty are seldom highlighted in calls for reform.

Reform that would leave children in poverty and have their teachers fired for their poor academic performance is not reform that serves the interests of “the people”. The point of the educational system, as seen by America’s leaders, it would seem, is not to cultivate a well-informed, critically minded citizenry for democratic participation but to prepare the workforce of the future and to serve the interests of corporate America. Of primary concern is the maintenance of US science hegemony, which is essential to ensure global military primacy. If US K-12 students can be surpassed without jeopardizing American hegemony, their poor performance isn’t really a problem.

Not only does weak K-12 science education not threaten America’s global dominance, it undoubtedly helps. In addition to cutting edge technology, the world’s most powerful military requires masses of people who are willing to blindly follow orders and often act against their better conscience. Particularly if participation in unjust wars is desired, you can't make your military out of well-informed, critically minded citizens who question things. If global dominance is the primary goal of America’s leaders, and it seems to be, it makes perfect sense to keep the populace poorly educated and unquestioning because you can import geniuses to do your science but you can’t import your military. In this respect, America’s firmly entrenched faction of irrational and illiterate citizens makes perfect sense.

There’s nothing wrong with the American education system – it’s working like a well-oiled machine – it’s just not serving the interests of the students or the interests of American citizenry, it’s serving the interest of America’s corporate elite. Global dominance seems to be their number one priority and this influences every facet of society, including education.

A well educated citizenry is one that questions everything, and demands evidence and transparency, a citizenry that rejects ‘us versus them’ thinking and embraces principles of equality and sustainability. It’s a citizenry that recognizes the arbitrary nature of borders, the foolishness of patriotism, and the danger of unconditional allegiance. If you’re willing to die or kill for your country without even knowing what interests it would serve, your education system has served the state well, but it has failed you and more importantly it has failed humanity. A well educated citizenry knows that there’s no honor in blind obedience and it would pose an insurmountable threat to American global dominance.

In light of the recent anniversary of Kristallnacht, it’s worth keeping in mind that it takes more than a psychopath to make a holocaust. It takes masses of ordinary people willing to blindly follow orders and betray their moral values. To the extent that it could make critical thinkers out of blind followers, a solid education is the best gift any nation could give to its own citizens or to a potential enemy.

There are serious problems facing humanity today, like climate change, population growth and dwindling essential resources. Humanity needs a unified team of critical thinkers and problem solvers. If overcoming global challenges is desired, America's next “Sputnik moment” should come as a realization that we're all on the same team with mutual interests that are better served by cooperation than by competition.

1 Robert L. Paarlberg, “Knowledge as Power: Science, Military dominance, and U.S. Security,” International Security, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Summer 2004), pp. 122–151.