Monday, August 22, 2005

Are we falling behind in science?

There's an interesting article in the New Atlantis on American children's relatively poor showing among developed nationed on international math and science tests. It's generally skeptical of the "We're falling behind in science!" meme, pointing out several "confounding factors" (not including the laziness factor) that make international comparisons difficult, and then implying that maybe we're doing too well in some aspects of science education:
The United States is still pumping out tremendous numbers of new Ph.D.s in the sciences—more, in fact, than our economy can presently absorb, as there is a well-reported dearth of jobs for newly-minted science Ph.D.s. The same is true in engineering: According to a recent National Science Foundation report, the number of engineers graduating from U.S. schools will continue to grow into the foreseeable future, outstripping the number of available jobs.
On the other hand, they pithily dismiss "Alarmist media reports [that] often use GDP, against which research spending has fallen, as a comparative baseline," preferring to use the rate of growth of industry research spending and the proportion of federal discretionary spending going to science research. It seems to me that GDP is obviously the more relevant baseline.

They also raise the uncomfortable issue of race:
Two University of Pennsylvania researchers recently aggregated scores from a number of cross-national studies and found that white students in the United States, taken alone, consistently outperform the predominantly white student populations of several other leading industrial nations. “There is compelling evidence,” they write,” that the low scores of [black and Hispanic students] were major factors in reducing the comparative standing of the U.S. in international surveys of achievement. If these minority students were to perform at the same level as white students, the U.S....would lead the Western G5 nations in mathematics and science, though it would still trail Japan.” In PISA, for instance, white students performed above most European countries, whereas black students performed on par with students in Thailand. So while the performance of minority groups in the U.S. does refute the alarmist assertion regarding an across-the-board decline in U.S. schools, it does so in a particularly unfortunate way—namely, it suggests that some American minority groups will be shut out of high-paying jobs as companies look for better-educated workers overseas. Although the most recent TIMSS saw the white-black score gap close slightly, it is almost certain to remain shockingly large in the near future.

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