Monday, September 1, 2008

International Competition

The Olympics are on. I watched the opening ceremony on T.V. Stellar! The incredible syncopation and coordination of human mind, body and, from the look of their faces, even spirit, of the performers! It just shows what is possible when we focus our time and energy on a goal together.

I also watched the determination on the faces of the athletes. The way the young female gymnasts worked together as a team. The way they hugged and comforted each other when the faltered. Their coach’s sense of triumph and pride when they finally qualified in spite of a number of challenges. I listened to the news. It’s all about the Olympics. The ads claim that the United States as a nation is “so into the Olympics.” I think about our sports policies…how kids who did not do well in school can get into major Ivy League Colleges along with free tuition and all expenses paid. I think about high school sports and how competitive they are. I think about how our identities, so many of us, are tied into the triumph of our sports teams. It is a national goal.

Then I read the newspaper…not the sports section…the headline of the Washington Post. According to the Post, “U.S. Teens Trail Peers Around World on Math-Science Test.” It reads, “The disappointing performance of U.S. teenagers in math and science on an international exam, in scores released yesterday, has sparked calls for improvement in public schools to help the country keep pace in the global economy.” It said that in the last two years the science scores of U.S. 15-year-olds lagged behind those in 16 of the 30 industrialized nations. Worse, their math scores trailed behind 23 of those nations. So, where is the national fervor we have for sports applied to math and science? Almost nowhere.

Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, shed light on these statistics only to darken the picture. He said that the international exams were designed to test a student’s ability to use "more sophisticated concepts and deeper reasoning skills." They were not designed to just measure a student’s recall of facts. Furthermore, he stated that most U.S. 10th graders received an average science score of 489 out of a 1000 points, 11 points below the average of 30 countries. In math, only four countries did worse than the U.S. and 23 countries had higher scores.

So, my question is this: If we, as a nation, are into competition, what happened to academia? If we want to succeed, it had better not just be in sports. I wonder what would happen if we backed our science and math programs like we do our sports programs? I wonder what we could do if we showed the same public support for math and science as we do for gymnastics and volleyball? I wonder what would happen if we cheered our students on, where’d we really be as a nation? Or will we just be known as all brawn and not enough brain…at least in math and science?

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