Excellence and Equity: Mobilizing For Math and Science Learning
What would it take to change education to meet the future needs of the American people? Just as our nation once transformed its school system to enable the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy, we must reinvent our educational system again today, this time for a rapidly changing and increasingly technological global economy.Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz (2008). The Race between Education and Technology, Harvard University Press; see especially chapter 3, “Skill-Biased Technological Change,” and chapter 8, “The Race between Education and Technology.” Math and science learning belong at the center of that transformation.
Mathematics and science are essential components of a liberal education, the backbone of logic and analytic thinking from early childhood through the most advanced levels of learning across the academic disciplines. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics enable us to understand the natural world, the built environment, systems of society, and the interactions among them that will determine the future of our nation and planet. Like literacy, math and science embody habits of mind and methods for discerning meaning that enable students to learn deeply and critically in all areas. Just as adults need math and science to understand the world and function within it, students need math and science to understand and master subjects such as history, geography, music, and art.
The Commission is not arguing that math and science are more important than other branches of learning: rather, we believe that mathematics and science education as currently provided to most American students falls far short of meeting their future needs or the needs of society. Further, we contend that mathematics and science—and science in particular—have received too little attention in recent rounds of school reform. Mathematics educator and Commission member Uri Treisman has recommended that schools “inject mathematics throughout the curriculum by ending its unnatural suppression from other subjects."Personal communication to the Commission, November 25, 2008. The Commission endorses this view and believes that the same counsel should be applied to science. We believe that the goal of improving math and science could sound a call for change that would reverberate throughout our schools and increase student learning in all areas. And we believe that bringing national resources, solutions, and policies to bear toward enabling all American students to be “STEM-capable” would help schools and districts to take up the challenge.
Good schools enable students to cultivate math and science skills from the earliest grades, supporting their learning as they master not just content but ways of knowing that are applicable in many areas of learning and life. Summarizing the goals of science learning in kindergarten through grade 8 in its seminal 2007 report Taking Science to School, for example, the National Research Council described four crucial capacities that all students should develop: knowing, using, and interpreting scientific explanations of the natural world; generating and evaluating scientific evidence and explanations; understanding the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and participating productively in scientific practices and discourse.National Research Council (2007). Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Adding It Up, the National Research Council’s influential 2001 study of K-8 mathematics education, emphasized similarly foundational capacities: conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive disposition.National Research Council (2001). Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics. These are core capacities that, if developed systematically from kindergarten through university for every student, would reduce the educational deficits that limit our nation’s human capacity, producing what a recent report by McKinsey and Company termed “the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.”McKinsey & Company (2009). The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.
Math and science embody habits of mind and methods for discerning meaning that enable students to learn deeply and critically in all areas.
For today’s students, math and science also open the door to understanding new technologies—a realm of interest that is crucial to our collective economic future but whose value has yet to be fully tapped by our educational system. Outside the classroom, evidence abounds that new media are powerful vehicles for motivating young people, capturing their imaginations, and inspiring them to strive for mastery.Pew Internet and American Life Project (2009). Generations Online in 2009. In its 2008 report Fostering Learning in a Networked World, the National Science Foundation Task Force on Cyberlearning acknowledges that educational technology has not yet had the profound impact on American schools that has long been anticipated, but the Task Force also argues that “cyberlearning has reached a turning point where learning payoffs can be accelerated.”National Science Foundation Task Force on Cyberlearning (2008). Fostering Learning in the Networked World: The Cyberlearning Opportunity and Challenge, A 21st Century Agenda for the National Science Foundation. If so, the potential for offering students new and motivating avenues to build science, math, engineering, and technology knowledge is great.
The Commission urges schools to put greater emphasis on mathematics and science and to seek every opportunity to infuse other curricular areas with math and science content and methods. But schools alone cannot create a “science-and-math-rich” environment for young people. As a society, we must expand the walls of the traditional schoolhouse to encompass a much wider environment and set of resources. Math and science learning offer powerful points of intersection between schools and institutions such as museums, universities, research laboratories, businesses, and trade and professional associations. Organizations dedicated to science, engineering, and technology in particular are assets to the educational enterprise. Through programs like the National Science Foundation’s Math and Science Partnership Network, they have become increasingly important partners to school systems, working closely with teachers and school system leaders to advance research and provide students with experiences that deepen their knowledge and enliven their understanding of the world.For the National Science Foundation Math and Science Partnership Network, see hub.mspnet.org. National policies and resources could do more to promote partnerships that would bring new resources and momentum to transform mathematics and science learning for all students.
Math and science are calibrators for the depth, rigor, and relevance to students’ interests and passions that our educational system must deliver far more reliably. When students succeed in math and science, they are by definition showing strong literacy skills in academic vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency, along with decision making and problem solving. Achievement in mathematics and science is therefore an indicator of effectiveness at every level: classroom, school, school system, college or university, state, and even larger components such as the nation’s capacity to improve schools, educate teachers, ensure social mobility, and promote productivity. Raising the bar on math and science will set the bar high for every aspect of the education enterprise and every contributor to students’ learning.
- Mobilize the nation for excellence and equity in mathematics and science education
- Place mathematics and science at the center of education innovation, improvement, and accountability
Read what’s happening in STEM education policy, practice, and research:
STEM IN FOCUS