The Duck of Minerva

The decline of American math and sciences?

28 October 2010

I attended a forum on the math and science curriculum last night at my kids’ school and we had an interesting presentation and discussion on the general state of math and science education in the United States. Several of the parents present at the forum were math and science faculty members from Smith College and from UMass. One prominent theme was the lament that the US was falling behind China and India in the math and sciences.

One of the parents referred me to an article and data published last summer in Money magazine. A key finding:

As math and science talent accumulates abroad, companies do more of their hiring there, reducing demand in the U.S. That’s partly why undergraduate engineering majors are a shrinking proportion of the total, down from 6.8% to about 4.5% over the past 20 years. Employers then claim they can’t find engineers in the U.S. — so they have to hire abroad.

Another passage generated a sharp response from several parents:

The fastest-growing college majors in America as of 2007, says the U.S. Education Department, were parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies, as well as security and protective services.

Then this morning, Thomas Friedman’s column added another plug for the decline of American math and sciences in American education.

I’m certainly not pollyannaish on the state of math and science education in the United States. My 12-year-old son loves math and sciences but complains about “math limbo” at his school — as he puts it: “They keep lowering the bar and asking us to go under it.” OK, that may be a bit of pre-teen bravado speaking, but in the era of underfunded No Child Left Behind mandates, teachers are increasingly incentivised to teach to the state tests and discouraged from using a range of differentiated teaching techniques to meet a broad range of student interest and aptitudes.

But, my broader objection to this discussion and to the broader debate on relative decline, power transition, and the “rise of China and India,” is the failure to understand or examine the complexities and challenges that both China and India face. No one can dispute the extraordinary economic transitions and growth rates realized by China and India over the past twenty-five years. But most of the political discourse on power transition (and the lament of American decline) seems to assume linear trends over the next twenty-five to fifty years.

I’m not sure I see it that way. I co-edited a volume last year on China and it included interesting chapters by Iain Johnston and Sheena Chestnut from Harvard, by Susan Shirk from UCSD, by Cheng Li from Brookings, and by Kelly Sims Gallagher at Tufts among others, that all presented significant internal contradictions within China and questioned the viability and sustainability of current trend lines. With all due respect to the challenges facing the United States, both China and India face far greater obstacles in terms of internal political challenges and vulnerabilities, in terms of the relative disparities in the distribution of wealth, in terms of dealing with abject poverty, in terms of rural to urban migration and the subsequent social and cultural dislocations, as well as in terms of environmental degradation and resource scarcity. Given these challenges, I’m not sure I see China’s rise as inevitable — we may see it, but we may not….

All of this has implications for the more immediate discussion on the current state of American math and sciences. Prachi Patel has a nice summary of some of the contradictory indicators in last month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum Magazine (the flagship magazine of the leading professional organization for advanced technologies). She writes there remain significant quality gaps in the education standards in India and Chinese engineering programs. While students at the elite Chinese and Indian institutions graduate with skills on par with the top American students, these elite students account for only a fraction of the total graduates with these degrees:

Lower-tier colleges and universities in both India and China suffer from passive learning styles. Design and project work is typically absent, the curricula do not focus on problem solving or building project management and communication skills, and there are no internships or other work experience….

….[Vivek]Wadhwa [an executive in residence at Duke University’s engineering programming] adds that the quality of the educators is very poor, and there’s not enough depth or funding. The main problem, though, is the sheer mass of students enrolled in engineering classes. ”When you have 100 students per teacher, you really can’t get hands-on and be interactive,” he says.

The result is that most of the engineering graduates in these countries are not landing jobs nor are they fundamentally transforming their societies at the expense of the United States. I understand the instrumental claims, but we (especially Thomas Friedman) invoke(s) national security imperatives for everything these days. We should be able to discuss and address the current problems and weaknesses of math and science education in the United States without the constant drum beat of power transitions and interstate competition — especially when the analytic claims are so dubious.