By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
In a recent speech, President Barack Obama referred to our country as currently facing a “Sputnik moment.” He called for more innovation in education and more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – a currently popular buzz word) education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been creating competitions for better education between states and between school districts. One of the emphases he’s put into these is science education.
What does all of this whoopla really mean? What are the real stakes? Why should the average citizen care? Start with education in general and understand its import.
Education is the soul of a society.
I put that single sentence in a paragraph alone because it’s so important. Today’s citizens function as they do and contribute what they do to our society due to the education they’ve received. I don’t merely mean their formal education but all educational experiences including at home, in religious establishments, on television, in magazines, and, in modern times, from the Internet. Over millenia, education has been the responsibility of the elders toward the new generations. While other species may train their young, we have the unique ability to build upon the knowledge passed on to us. With the invention of writing, that ability multiplied manyfold.
Although it may not be very evident because of the relatively conservative nature of the educational establishment, education can slowly turn society onto different paths. Finland stands as a strong example of how a commitment to improving education, especially science education, changed a society so that it is rapidly becoming a powerhouse of technology. Education matters.
As a democracy, education counts even more. Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Consider the contrapositive, which says effectively that you cannot trust people with their own government when they are ill-informed.
Franklin Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
The spirit of these remarks appears repeatedly in our history. But what is meant by education in this context? By my interpretation, education in a democracy must include information about how a democracy works and the role of its citizens. It must also teach people to think, to be able to distinguish between propaganda and information.
In my opinion, this knowledge and these skills should come out of our social studies and science classes. Yet, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation focused on the other two core subjects of mathematics and literacy. While numeracy and literacy are important precursors to acquiring additional knowledge, students should begin to learn the others as soon as they have enough skills to do so. The appropriate study of social studies and science best prepares our young to be full citizens in a democracy. For this reason, NCLB has it exactly backward, especially past the primary grades.
This sort of education is not just a right of all our children. It’s a necessity for securing our future as a democracy. Leaving any child out is a crime against our society. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening today. I have visited classrooms across the nation. Within New York City, for example, the differences between different schools is stark and very unsettling. A student’s zip code should not determine that student’s quality of education. To compete in the world, we must have “all hands on deck.” That phrase means that we must truly leave no child behind. Our next Thomas Edison could be sitting in an underserved classroom today and never have the chance to demonstrate that world-changing ability. Even those who may not be recognized as great can make great contributions if just allowed the opportunity.
We must make every child smart. We can. It’s simply a matter of putting our nation’s future before that extra bottle of beer, that extra feature on our new TV, that vacation in Bermuda instead of in our own national and state parks. A modest sacrifice today can make a huge difference tomorrow.
Higher wages for K-12 teachers will mean that we can attract the best, just as Finland does. It’s not about today’s teachers; it’s about tomorrow’s graduates. What’s wrong with national standards as guidelines so that we’re all reading from the same page? Why shouldn’t our school adminstrators be required to be technology literate so that they can tell the difference between technology baloney and real solutions to learning problems?
In the end, it’s still the teacher who makes all the difference. Our best teachers challenge students to do their best. They engage them in thinking and in activities that stretch their imaginations. They make our future possible as a society.
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