How the U.S. Measures Up in Math and Science A team of researchers have re-assessed the results of several common measures of math and science education success. One researcher says that, when it comes to math and science, the study found that "American students are no worse, and often score better, than students from many leading countries."
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How the U.S. Measures Up in Math and Science

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How the U.S. Measures Up in Math and Science

How the U.S. Measures Up in Math and Science

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Up next, to look at the status of American students when it comes to science, math and engineering. We've been talking about it for years. We've talked about it on this program. It's been the subject of congressional investigations and National Academy of Sciences reports.

And basically, what it boils down to is that U.S. students are falling way behind compared to other countries when it comes to science, math and engineering. We don't graduate enough quality science and engineering students to meet a growing demand in a high-tech world. We need to import high-tech workers to fill jobs in the U.S. that are going unfilled for the lack of talent. That's why we've been hearing from many of these sources.

Well, my next guest says, just wait a minute, not so fast. A lot of these may not be true. There is no real science to back it up. In fact, according to a new report he coauthored for the Urban Institute, there's been an increase in the math and science performance levels of high school graduates, and the U.S. is, quote, "not in any particular disadvantage in comparison to other nations."

Let me go down to some of the major conclusions of the report. One: that the number of our students finishing high school has increased over the past 30 years. High school students are being exposed to more science and math, on average, now than they were 25 years ago.

The report says, rather than concluding that the U.S. is behind the world, it would be more accurate to conclude that the test results showed that not only do U.S. students on average performed better internationally than reported in myriad policy papers, the majority of U.S. students - and are mostly white students - actually rank near the very top on international tests.

Another conclusion: The American Education System produces qualified graduates far in excess of demand. Each year, there are more than three times as many science and engineering four-year college graduates as there are job openings.

While improving average math and science aptitude in schools may be a worthy goal, such a strategy is not the most efficient means for supplying scientists and engineers to the workforce. We'll talk a little bit of that more, of what might be a better way.

The report also said, there is a broad chasm between - that divides the educational performances of majority and minority students, including new immigrants. But much has to do with the differences in the quality of educational systems and household income. Rather than focusing on the quality of the testing scores, the report says, there's an urgent need to look at non-school factors that are involved herein. We'll get into some of those with my guests.

My first guest is Dr. Hal Salzman. He's senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington. He is coauthor, along with B. Lindsay Lowell, of the report. It's called "Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality and Workforce Demand." He joins today from WBUR in Boston.

Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Salzman.

Dr. HAROLD SALZMAN (Senior Research Associate, Urban Institute, Washington): Thank you, it's my pleasure.

FLATOW: Here also to talk with us is Dr. Shirley Malcom. She's the head of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She has been observing science and education for many years, as she joins us by phone. Thanks for being with us today, Dr. Malcom.

Dr. SHIRLEY MALCOM (Director, Education and Human Resources Programs, American Association for the Advancement of Science): Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Also with us is Craig Barry. He is chairman of the board of the Intel Corporation. He was on the National Academy of Sciences Committee that produced the report this year called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future." And he joins us by phone. Thanks for being with us today, Dr. Barrett.

Dr. CRAIG BARRETT (Chairman of the Board, Intel Corporation): My pleasure.

FLATOW: Let me go right to the report itself. Hal Salzman, let's go over a few of those points. Are you saying there are plenty of students to fill the high-tech jobs in this country?

Dr. SALZMAN: Based on the evidence, it sure seems that we graduate more than are employed. If there are shortages, they don't seem to show up in the available data that we have. The data don't show any lack of students there, which is different from saying that there aren't hiring difficulties individual employers may have or in certain fields, and the subject that we want to turn to is what's the nature of those hiring difficulties. But the supply pipeline coming out of the colleges certainly seems to be ample.

FLATOW: Are you saying that, no, we don't really need to go overseas to bring them here for these jobs because there are enough graduates in this country?

Dr. SALZMAN: You know, we go overseas, we're bringing immigration for a number of reasons. So, partly, you know, it's to complement the labor force in terms of certain skills and talents and that's one flow. As to the other flows, whether it's substituting for an adequate workforce that we already have is something that we want to look at with more detail. But certainly, the numbers suggest we should look at that more carefully rather than assume the answer.

FLATOW: You also say that our - in general, our schools, our educational system is working for the most part. It's not that - it's getting a bad rap, if I would just summarize it that way.

Dr. SALZMAN: Right. It's not abysmal. It's described by the rising storm report as an abysmal system; it's not that at all. It has some, you know - we produce the world's best scientists and engineers, they're highly prized the world over, so we have part of it that's working very well but that's a little different from saying that we have no problems. There are certainly some significant problems, but it's probably not at the top end.

FLATOW: Craig Barrett, any reaction?

Dr. BARRETT: Oh, sure, I have lots of reactions. I have read the report that Mr. Salzman put out. I agree with a few parts of it, but I think his main conclusion's fly in the face of a lot of evidence to the contrary. If you just looked, for example, at the number of H1bBs as a U.S. grant student poured high-tech workers, we wouldn't be doing that if we had an adequate supply here. If you look at the number of foreign graduate students in our physical science and engineering schools, why do we have 60 percent foreign nationals if we have an excess supply of U.S.-based students?

And I think if you talked to anybody in the business world about international competition, you'd find that the K through 12 system in the U.S. is not performing at the level it should be. I would agree with Mr. Salzman that the U.S. university system is still the best in the world of producing great scientists. The unfortunate part is, increasingly, more and more of them are foreign nationals, not U.S.-based.

FLATOW: Hmm. Well, we're going to take a break. We have to - this is opening up a large can of worms. We're going to come back and talk about the study and some of the reaction to it. We'll bring in Shirley Malcom. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about math and science education. My guests: Dr. Hal Salzman of the Urban Institute, Shirley Malcom of the AAAS, and Craig Barrett of Intel. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Let me just get an on-air response to Dr. Barrett from Hal. Hal, Dr. Barrett says that why would we be importing all this talent from overseas and why would we be wanting more visas for them if the industry didn't agree with you?

Dr. SALZMAN: Well, that's part of what I think we need to understand, is what is about the jobs that it doesn't induce enough of the students to continue on. So if we look at bachelors in science and engineering, only about a third to 40 percent go on to masters or graduate school or into the workforce in the science and engineering careers. So this is part of the puzzle that - something that puzzles us is that we produce vast number of qualified bachelor degrees -bachelor graduates in science and engineering, and only a small fraction continue on either in a career or graduate school. The evidence that they suggested is that they just don't find these careers attractive.

FLATOW: Is it, there's not enough money in it for them?

Dr. SALZMAN: It's probably money, it's probably boom and bust cycles, you know, employment, they see what the careers prospects are. And from the field interviews we're doing, there's just not the optimism about the future in some of these fields - in some of the engineering fields, in some of the IT fields. You know, people we talked to - managers, engineers - say, you know, it was a great they loved their careers but they think the ride is over and they say -they would tell their son's, daughters, nieces, nephews - if you're looking for a stable career, it's not here. Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. You say…

Dr. SALZMAN: That's disheartening to hear.

FLATOW: …you say almost that it's a self-fulfilling prophesy in your study that they hear, that they, you know, that all these jobs are going overseas so they say, why should I get into one of these jobs?

Dr. SALZMAN: It certainly is. You know, we have, kind of, a maxim in Sociology, that says if perception to believe something to be real, it's real in its consequences. And, you know, people make decisions one by one, day in day out, and when they believe there's no future, they make career decisions based on that perception, you know, whatever the numbers. And I think we'd all agree that whether or not it's true, that certainly is a widespread perception out there and that's something worth discussing about. Is that in accurate perception, if not, what do we do about it?

FLATOW: Shirley Malcom, you've been a critic of the education system. In your testimony before Congress you have said that, our need to import talent has been necessitated by failures to develop talent by expanding the talent base for technical and scientific fields. How do you square that with this report that says there's plenty of talent, they just - they're not go into the fields?

Dr. MALCOM: I think that one of the things that you have to look at is page 2 of the report. And the caveat that is put over there that, in fact, a lot of this does not apply when you're looking at under-participating and underrepresented populations. And as I've said before, one person's caveat is another person's headline.

And if you look at the growing percentage that these students represent of the entirety of the talent pool that's available to move on into higher education and into the workforce, then you look at this particular aspect as being a one that is not a part of this descriptor of the schools working well. Schools work least well for these students. And I think that every bit of data that we can find, including that which they acknowledge in the report, indicates that this group is not included in those for whom the system is working well.

FLATOW: Hal Salzman, you do point out that big chasm I talked about. There's a big chasm between minority students, immigrants and the general white student population and achievement, and you say that it doesn't have a whole lot to do with how, you know - it has to do with outside forces, outside of the education system. Can you talk about that a bit more?

Dr. SALZMAN: Well, what we say is that if students comes - meet more challenges. If you're from a poor family, certain schools have many more challenges to compensate forward, to provide a good education. And given part of our system - the resources, the talent, you know, in some of the schools -they have a harder time providing kids would come to school with a disadvantage, the kind of quality education that would make up for those differences. And a lot of what kids learn comes from their home, in the background, and some children have more of a disadvantage, and that's where we need to strengthen those schools to provide them the opportunity the other kids have.

FLATOW: Let's go to Dave(ph) in San Antonio. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dave.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. How are you? I just wanted to comment on your show today - thank you for talking to me. My wife graduated from University of Massachusetts and came down to San Antonio, Texas to get her Ph.D. and after getting her Ph.D. at the Health Science Center in biochemistry and immunology, she just -and doing with some postdoc, she decided to go to medical school because the pay outlook for all the work that she did was pretty dismal for a Ph.D., either she could do postdocs for the rest of her life or, you know, maybe she could write grants and then be successful.

But the thing is, is that people just don't make a lot of money going into science for all the work they put into, getting their degree - a lot of people, a lot Americans. And she seems to really think that a lot of foreigners will come over here because this is very attractive, they'd come over here and get away from a bad situation the country they came from even working for a low pay because the green card makes up for much, you know, it's worth much more to them than high pay. And so it's just…

FLATOW: Craig Barrett - let me ask Craig Barrett about it. You're a businessman, why not just hire cheaper labor that way?

Dr. BARRETT: Well, first of all, you'd - it's illegal to bring people into the country and pay them at substandard ways because you have to pay them that the going competitively wage rate in the U.S. The second point is a company like Intel or a Microsoft or Cisco, pick any of the high-tech companies, we hire at Intel hundreds and hundreds of Ph.D.s each year, who do exciting work and make above-average wages. I think there's huge opportunity in these fields.

I would like to go back to the comment that you made earlier, Ira, about minority students. I think we would agree that if you're in the urban school system, heavily populated by lower-income class minority students, those are the places we are least likely to get a good math or science teacher there, those are the areas where are least likely to get a good preparatory math or science education.

There's no question about that. That's been recognized by every study that's taken place, and that's one of the reasons you see studies like "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" say, hey, in this country, we need more and better match and science teachers in K through 12. They get the overall education level of kids up in school, out of school, whatever the factors are. Unless you have good teachers, the system doesn't work.

Dr. MALCOM: Let me just jump in on that. You know, I'm glad that Dr. Barrett brought that up because Dr. Salzman seemed to imply that what you had was largely driven by the home environment. That is true. That, in fact, there's a lot - it may be a lot be may be a lot harder if you, in fact, don't know about these kinds of careers, that you have other kinds of social and cultural issues that you're trying to address at the same time.

But in many cases, you're talking about policies that school systems are putting into place or not, that of - that are driving a lot of the things that you are seeing. For example, the distribution of highly qualified teachers, those are decisions that school systems are making that lead to lesser qualified individuals being disproportionately assigned to teach the students with the greatest challenge.

FLATOW: Hal Salzman?

Dr. SALZMAN: Oh, I think we would agree, and I think Dr. Malcom made a very important point that what's in the footnote should be the headline, and I think that's part of our study and certainly one of the issues we have with, you know, about gather - about "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" and some of these others. That rather than the average, we should talk about where the deficits are which is the bottom half, bottom third, and that really needs to be the headlines to where funds should be and resources should be put in the education reform efforts.

FLATOW: Well, I also don't want to miss that your headline, which says there are enough qualified graduates in science and engineering, and where are they and why are they not going into the jobs that Craig says are all there and going to well paid foreigners?

Dr. SALZMAN: Well, we hear - at least from your caller - that's we hear from the field talking to people that it just doesn't have the attraction it once did, you know, there are other career opportunities out there that pay more, people perceive have a better future in terms of employment stability, and those are the decisions people are making, you know, from the people we talked to and interviewed…

Dr. MALCOM: Let me raise an issue here, though, and that is that you can't just look at the numbers aggregated. As I have said before, the devil is in the disaggregation. And if you, in fact, do look in the field of medical sciences, those are areas where we do, in fact, have oversupply. And if we don't believe that, we look at the numbers of postdocs and the kind of leap and the continual participation one postdoc after another. I mean, that an individual having multiple or serial postdocs.

But you've got to look beyond that. That is in part an artifact - I guess you would say - of the doubling of the NIH budget. But if you look at other fields, you don't see a similar kind of a situation. And that you have to disaggregate the fields in order to have this discussion in a meaningful way. It's a lot more nuanced than generalizing from the aggregate numbers.


FLATOW: Yes. Go ahead.

Dr. BARRETT: This is Craig Barrett.


Dr. BARRETT: Could I just also take this back to a basic premise in Mr. Salzman's report that the U.S. kids, basically, do okay in math and science coming out of K through 12. In his report, he goes to a great effort to kind of discount the TIMSS test, the PISA test, and the results of NAEP. It's kind of a backward-looking analysis showing that our kids do better than they did 30 years ago.

But his conclusion is they kind of do average or standard, at best. And I think if you look at the quantitative result of the NAEP test, which is the best example - this is the National Assessment of Educational Progress test that the U.S. gives to measure different states and how our kids are doing. You know, only 30 percent of our kids or less are measured as proficient on the NAEP test. Proficient. That means 70 percent are below proficient.

That's not a positive measure. The U.S. cannot be successful if we are only average. We have the highest standard of living. Our workforce has to contribute more to justify that higher standard of living than any other country. And saying we're okay because we're average just can't be right. That's a - that's backward-looking. That's not looking ahead at competition with India, China, Russia - the rest of the world that are putting heavy emphasis on education.

And I just want to encourage Mr. Salzman not to look back at - do we do 2 percent better than we did 30 years ago, but how are you going to compete against the onslaught of millions and millions of kids studying math and science in India, China, Russia, et cetera. That's where the competition is in the future. And we can't be satisfied with average. We have to be way up average.

FLATOW: Hal Salzman?

Dr. SALZMAN: Well, in part, that's just not quite what we say. I mean, what we took this report to do was to look at the claims that were being made by "Rising Storm" that our system is abysmal and that we ranked, you know, worst in the world is some of the headlines. And what we state is that reviewing the evidence doesn't show that. Now, whether that's adequate for the future or not is not what we were speaking of.

FLATOW: What do you mean the evidence doesn't show that?

Dr. SALZMAN: It shows that - basically, if you look at the test results, the there are three groupings. Kind of like an A group, a B group and a C group. And the U.S. is in the solid B group, year-in year-out, in math, science and the top group in reading - internationally, when you compare it. And the A group, if you will, the leading group, is the few countries like Singapore, Korea, Japan - fairly consistently perform well in math and science, not so in reading and other subjects. And then other small countries sort of cycled in and out of the A group. So it's clear that there is - there are these few two or three countries that perform better, but I'm not sure what the conclusion is. Would we want the Singaporean education system? I don't think so. I don't think that's where competitive advantage is.

Again, we're not trying to say the system is doing well, but rather have the scare tactics that we're falling behind the world, you know, there's a rise of millions elsewhere is not - I don't think it's productive and it's not accurate. I mean, what we want to say is let's look at the evidence, what does the evidence say, and then let's have a record assessment of what do we need for the future and how do we get there.

FLATOW: Let me just - let me - let me break in because I have to give a station break.



But that's just what Craig was saying. You said the Indians, the Chinese, they're going to out-produce us educationally. We should be wary of what's going on in other parts of the world. You're saying that that doesn't matter.

Dr. SALZMAN: Well, first if all they are far away from doing that. And secondly, if it's a numbers game, there's a billion people, you know, compared to 300 million or two billion if you take the two countries. We're not at a numbers game with them. You know, the terms of competition being - are creativity, overall performance and other things. So we're never going to out-produced them in numbers of engineers and science. We never out-produce the Soviet Union in numbers of engineers and science, nor, you know, the Japanese, and yet, our economy is doing quite well. So it's a broader look about what does it take to be economically competitive and the kind of education we want. And I think we want a broad-based education.

Singapore, for example, has a creativity initiative. Who are they looking to? The United States. They're moving away from the kind of route(ph), math, science, education that leads to high test performance. And, in fact, the creativity led to, you know, the leading products. You know, iPhone. You know, the iPod and on and on are out of a product of U.S. education system, of a good broad-based education that may not be the test. That's on a high side. From the bottom side, I think, as Dr. Malcom said, there are some very real problems that need attention.

Dr. BARRETT: I would just, Ira, against Craig Barrett, I would emphasize what was just said that this is not an absolute-numbers game. It's a quality game. And that's why being average or in the middle of the pack is totally unacceptable to the U.S.

FLATOW: And he says we're not average. You're misconstruing what he just said. He said we're not average.


Dr. BARRETT: I read his report and it basically works the numbers to try to get us to an average assessment on TIMSS or PISA or any of these international tests. If you look at the NAEP test that I mentioned, 30 percent of our kids are proficient, 70 percent are below proficient. We can't exist as the economic power that we have been unless we have a high quality workforce. So we're not going to compete with the Chinese in absolute numbers, but the people we produce dang well better be more productive, more efficient, higher quality, if we want to be competitive in the future.

And that's the issue. That's what "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" focuses on. That's what the National Governors Association focuses on. That's what every institution, every study on this topic has come up with, which says we are stuck. We're average, at best. A lot of tests show us below average. What do we do to get the system to produce high-quality kids in K-12 such that we're not importing foreign workers, that we do maintain this entrepreneurial spirit. We do invest in R&D, but we got the best darn workforce in the world.

FLATOW: All right. Let me - we have to take a break. We'll come back and get an answer to that. Talking about science education, science workers, the labor, and everything else that has tentacles to it and from it. So stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking with Hal Salzman, senior researcher associate at The Urban Institute, Shirley Malcom of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Craig R. Barrett, chairman of the board of Intel Corporation.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Hal, why is your data so different than the data that Craig cites. Are they ignoring stuff that you find or are you ignoring stuff that they find?

Dr. SALZMAN: I think we're, in part, talking about the same issue, which is, you know, I think we're in agreement that there's a large portion of the students that are not being well-served and are not performing well. So I think we're in agreement with that. Where it seems that we may have different conclusion from the data is to whether there is a top portion of the group that in sufficient numbers graduating from our colleges that could supply the workforce if we could convince them to go into those careers. You know, we point out that only a third of four-year graduates of the science or engineering degree go on in that field. You know, they're making other career choices. I'd like to know why they don't find science and engineering careers attractive.

FLATOW: You say…

Dr. SALZMAN: But there are the people there.

FLATOW: You say there's - and we keep talking about the future and economic growth and stability of the country. You say in your report - on page 14 - that there is no substantial evidence to support the assertion that a nation's average levels of math and science mastery lead to a disproportionate year of innovation or economic growth.

It's not necessary to have a - tell me what you mean by that?

Dr. SALZMAN: That you can't tell a lot from the average, all right? I mean, as we say in statistics, if you have - you know, one foot in the boiling hot pail of water and one freezing cold pot or water, in average, you're fine. The average doesn't tell you much. You know, you can get the average up by cracking up the hot or doing something about the cold. So you have a small group, highly performing companies or individuals and do quite well without worrying about the bottom. I think what were trying to say is we need to focus on the bottom as well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SALZMAN: The average isn't going to tell us much about the other.

FLATOW: Shirley Malcom, do these types of reports - regardless of their conclusions - tell us anything about scientific literacy in this country or, you know, whether or regardless of whether they're turning out a lot of scientists or we're giving our students enough of an appreciation of science? It appears that some students get it, some students don't.

Dr. MALCOM: Well, I actually like the fact that these reports come out because I don't know that otherwise we wouldn't be having this discussion.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MALCOM: And so we can, in fact, reexamine all of our assumptions. Let me just say that some of the assumptions that are basically embedded in the guts of the report I don't know that I necessarily attach myself with.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MALCOM: For example, if everybody who gets a degree in science and engineering does not go on in science and engineering, well, that's not bad. That is not bad. I hope some of them go into business. I hope some of them go into politics. I hope some of them go into journalism. I hope some of them, you know, go into banking or whatever. And I think that this idea that one degree equals one job is really - it doesn't make a lot of sense. We don't say - we don't talk about that with any other field. For example, we have lots of lawyers coming out but they aren't all in law firms.

So we need to readjust our assumptions about what constitutes a working system. We do have major challenges with regard to education in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. We have them in concentrated in certain populations in - to a higher degree than in other populations. But as those populations are becoming a larger portion of all of the total population, I think that we have to disaggregate our concerns and begin to see that we need to increase the literacy for all. But we really have to work hard on addressing the specific issues of careers associated with certain segments of the population.

FLATOW: All right. Dr. Malcom, as always, you summed it up very nicely and you have the last word today. We've run out of time.

Shirley Malcom is head of the education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Harold Salzman is senior research associate at The Urban Institute in Washington. And Craig Barrett is chairman of the board of the Intel Corporation.

Thank you all for taking timeout today to be with us - talk with us today. Have a good weekend.

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