Science and Learning for All Americans

William 0. Baker

(Am. Philo. Soc., Nov. 7,1991)


An Information Age, named to celebrate the last half of the 20th Century, is fitting preparation for a new millennium. It is supported by the historic markers of the era—modem science and technology—with computers, communications, sensors and activators, that have helped to make human needs in health, agriculture, transport and, especially, social and economic freedom, accessible to all the World.

But there was, of course, a hooker in this glimpse of a Paradise of knowing, just as there has been in other ages of reason in human history. For America, it is that more and more of our diverse population have to have more and more learning, probably life-long. Now our people had a wonderful instinct about this. For from the mid-Century onward, our nation made more and more opportunities for higher study in colleges and universities so that our stirring goal of having at least 10 million Americans in higher education, presented to President Lyndon Johnson, was indeed achieved by the 1970’s and is now exceeded. Such a level of participation in learning was not imaginable even one or two decades before. And during this heroic magnification of minds, in which the national community in the profession of education should take the highest pride, some things were learned that were neither expected nor welcomed.

Please let me describe a specific personal example which, of course, is microscopic compared to the total condition represented. The entire population of New Jersey is a million less than that of Los Angeles County alone. Nevertheless, we have tracked consistently now for a decade basic skills, as reflected in special test designs applied to more than 50,000 students a year, for a total of about 650,000 students who chose to enter New Jersey colleges. Thus, we have conservative estimates of literacy and numeracy of high school graduates, since about 35% of such college-bound graduates enter college outside the State, and another considerable fraction do not enter college at all.

The results of these studies were expertly marshaled by Dr. Edward Morante of the Department of Higher Education in Trenton for us on the State Board of Higher Education. The findings, based on painstaking designs and analysis of tests and responses, begun by Prof. Lutz and associates of Rutgers University and carried on by a host of dedicated academic leaders, are devastatingly consistent. The initial 1978 findings in verbal skills, computation, and elementary algebra, the three arenas probed, showed a passable level, or what is called a proficiency, of about 24% in the verbal skills, about 32% in numeracy or computation, and about 13% in elementary algebra. Clear lack of proficiency, indeed certain qualification for illiteracy, was found for about 40% in verbal skills, 43% in numeracy, and 60% in elementary algebra. In the current assessment, proficiency in verbal skills is worse than a decade ago, although numeracy and elementary algebra scores are barely better than in 1978, but of course, as noted, are overall unacceptable.

These disastrous levels of nonlearning need deeper comparisons directly with the situation 20 or 30 years ago, but credible judgments assert that they are very much worse. A major collapse set in about 1970-72 (indicated also nationally in SAT scores). Simple localized diagnoses have variously attributed the situation to the climate of New Jersey, something in the drinking water, the attitude of New York and Philadelphia about what lies in between, and so on! By now, of course, there have been millions of words written to account for everything. But in getting to the focus of our present report, let us register that in 1990 among 48,568 students tested, all of whom had entered the public higher education system of New Jersey, 17,652 showed lacking proficiency (by now a wide-spread operational term for illiteracy) in verbal skills, 20,887 in numeracy, and 27,978 in elementary algebra. Others fell in between, with 24% appearing proficient in verbal skills, about 32% in numeracy, and 13% in elementary algebra.

This is the condition we faced and struggled to alter in New Jersey. So you can understand our feeling when, on August 26, 1981, President Reagan and Secretary Terrell Bell formed the National Commission on Excellence in Education, with Dr. David Pierpont Gardner, now President of the University of California, as Chair. So we assembled in the Cabinet Room of the White House, where some of us had met so often since World War 11 in assignments from Presidents to apply the resources of learning, particularly in science, engineering and technology to a succession of national urgencies. 18 Commissioners, representing all phases of American education—elementary schools to research universities—and a few other segments of American life were enlisted. Already those present sensed that this mission could turn out to be one of our most demanding, even most difficult. Nevertheless, our charter took an upbeat theme of “excellence,” a quality in which in 1981, America had still seemed to be pacemaker for the planet.

You all know the rest of the chronicle. After nationwide hearings and studies, when we presented the report to President Reagan in April of 1983, we had established catastrophic, surging national decline in learning and a threat to the future of our republic described in the report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” We reported briefly on the first features of response to this challenge, a few years ago, in this room. In the meantime, the early sobering assessments in New Jersey have become evident throughout the continent. They have been dramatized at least in mathematics, science and technology by progressive and sensational failures of, for instance, Grade 9 science students in comparison to others through the World. In a list headed by Hungary and Japan and all the other developed countries, the U.S.A. stood only above Hong Kong and, in the case of biology concentrators, fell far below even Hong Kong, at the very bottom of the list. (The rankings reported in 1992 show negligible change.)

Now all this, of course, is old stuff by now. But a few broad indicators have emerged, as we continue to struggle for survival of our population's learning overall. Prominent among these indicators is the inadequate role of central Federal government in dealing with recovery of literacy. In the present Administration, worthy and appealing gestures have been made, such as the goals in science and mathematics in America 2000. Sadly, by this time, nothing much has happened, nor is there sign that it will. There is nothing really new about this Federal lassitude, except perhaps the demonstration of the basic qualities causing it. After all, about 30 years ago, with the formation of the National Institute of Education and its advisors, the National Council for Educational Research, programs of reform in K-12 education were forwarded. Their national, Federal components were almost exactly the same as those being advocated today. The focus on math and science/technology does show new vitality. With respect to mathematics and science, the current careful judgments of independent analysts as well, such as the Carnegie Commission recently issued, contain again virtually the same notions being forwarded in America 2000. (See NEE-NCER proposals for improvement in education for mathematics and science: compared to Carnegie Commission Report on "Federal Measures for Educational Improvements.

Accordingly, the current assessment of Federal endeavors, specifically America 2000, appearing in the Report, “Voices from the Field,” (sponsored by the William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family and Citizenship, and the Institute for Educational Leadership), brings out convincingly many reasons why such Federal endeavors have been unproductive. The nearest, easy approximation to the cause is that almost all have run into politics in a form which educational change cannot survive.

It should be emphasized that the Federal pathway (as suggested in “A Nation at Risk...”) does involve Administrative and Congressional suitable aspirations and goals; changes have been worthily attempted. But then the compromises and horse-trading and half-truths intrinsic to regular politics begin, and curative processes are lost. So, 30 years ago, when the National Institute of Education and its advisors, the National Council on Educational Research, undertook to outline progress even then needed in primary and secondary education, almost the same words that are well deployed in the current Carnegie Commission proposal for Federal role in pre-college teaching of science and mathematics appeared. So, little wonder that the bases for inadequacy or inaction for the current program, America 2000, are well forecast by the current report of 30 different reviewers, in “Voices from the Field.” Naturally, an abundance of studies continues, showing why the Federal endeavors fail. But the easiest overall explanation seems to be the structure of the state/locality public education system, in which the most delicate brush with Federal politics immobilizes everything.

Now, obviously, resolution must occur. We submit that the best chance for gaining this is by the American resources cited by de Toqueville, and those before and after him. This is of independent, self-help and volunteer mobilization of private talents. Having benefited from this trustworthy strategy in many other demands of wars, weather, diseases, depressions and the like, it is not surprising that in this time of extreme educational stress similar modes will be forthcoming. These are characteristically driven by visions and convictions of a few passionate people.

And “Science for All Americans” is a living example of that force, primarily in the person of Dr. James Rutherford, who is depicted in Fig. 2. Our initiatives forthcoming in this report are now mostly attributed to individuals, among whom he is primary. Early in the 1960's we saw in the National Science Board a role of the National Science Foundation in primary and secondary schools, for readying the Nation for a culture of technology, engineering, science—and international competition (even with Soviet Russia). A proponent of such revolutionary preparation was Rutherford, who realized in a lifetime of educational zeal that one of the things the Age of Science could' do was to elicit the wonderful enthusiasm and joy of living in the very young if they learned and felt some suitable science and some technical understanding. (For instance, we had watched the Westinghouse/science service programs for decades, with Glenn Seaborg.) Rutherford's vision of kindergarten onward made high appeal to the Science Board and to the Foundation. But our responses to his plans were excised in the mid1960's from authorization and budget by Congressional committees dominated by traditional theories of home rule, and local school board control. However, Rutherford never forgot, the American Association for the Advancement of Science never gave up, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, under the leadership of Dr. David Hamburg, whose own role in the AAAS was incisive, sponsored with feelings as well as funds, the creation of Project 2061.

After extensive information discussion, on March 22, 1984, some 14 partisans for progress, including Dr. David Hamburg, President of the Carnegie Corp. as host, Dr. Cecily Selby, active in the continued concerns of the National Science Board, Dr. Sheila Widnall, a prime mover in the vast constituency of the AAAS, Dr. Gerald Holton, a co-author of “A Nation at Risk…,” Dr. David Robinson, Executive of the Carnegie Corp., met with Dr. Rutherford and expert staff associates. Plans were drafted, and the unsurpassed outreach began, to the national cohorts in science and higher education, such as to our colleague, Dr. Ronald Graham, already working on recasting of mathematics study.

By January 18, 1985, this group and a few others adopted Rutherford's crusade. His detailed plan of January, 1985 remains current and dynamic today—in its mission. “The purpose of Project 2061 will be to put into motion a process that eventually will result in all young people in the country receiving an education in science during the elementary and high school years appropriate to their times and futures.” (In all accounts, “science” means science, mathematics and technology.) Thus emerged Project 2061, named after the date of the return of Halley's comet—and a cosmic tribute to the wisdom of its first sponsors, AAAS, and the Carnegie Corp. of N.Y. with Jim Rutherford.

So now, the chronicle of Science for All Americans is already an example of this independent initiative and patriotic purpose that individuals and institutions can generate in our land. The institution of the American Association for Advancement of Science, with its multiple links through education, research, and the public interpretation of modem science and engineering, and its wise pluralistic leadership from every phase of American professionalism and enlightened amateurism in the field, long welcomed Dr. Jim Rutherford's conviction that we must offer scientific learning to the young. He, in turn, was in a fighting mood arising from the implications of the “A Nation at Risk...” and its derivatives for the general decline of our society. Accordingly, the AAAS with Rutherford undertook one of the boldest among the multitude of independent and even governmental responses in the United States for the reform of education and restoration of literacy. Rutherford also knew very well the fate of many other efforts based on indicators of disaster, preceding the one we now had in 1983. Some of us worked with him in his initiatives in the National Institute of Education in connection with our similar struggles on the National Science Board in the early and mid-60's. Accordingly, he and his contemporaries determined to have a rocket launching rather than firecracker or shotgun approach. Here were found the ultimate resources for mathematics and science education, without depending on the considerable but necessarily constrained talents of the vast existing educational establishment itself. This oxymoronic sounding doctrine was achieved by the formation of the National Council of Science and Technology Education, under the auspices of the AAAS, and with Dr. F. James Rutherford as Project Director, Dr. Andrew Ahlgren as Associate Director, and with Ms. Patricia S. Warren as Project Manager. The sponsors accepted Rutherford's doctrine that the models intended had to be long-term in range, of the highest quality and most precise guidance, with many other astrophysical properties that made metaphorical connection with Halley's Comet and with rocket launching highly relevant. Thus, the year 2061 was adopted as a name signifying the multiple goals.

Margaret MacVicar, Professor of Physical Science and Dean for Undergraduate Education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and I were designated to chair the Council which had to guide and validate the sweeping regeneration of modem science and technology, reinforced by mathematics in all scales. All of this new content was to be fully independent of the vast and powerful public precollege education establishment. The response of the national, academic, scientific, technical and industrial communities to this call is one of the happy epochs of our times. What special mission moved these 26 women and men, almost all from distinguished college and university posts in science, technology and pedagogy (with a couple in the applied social science of human resources) to give many hours of many days over years, to completion at the end of 1989 of “Science for All Americans”?

It is nothing less than the primary goal of Project 2061: To shape up and record what the high school graduate should know about mathematics and science at the end of the millennium and beyond. What a bold, perhaps brash, presumption it was that this could be done. The general judgment that indeed it has been done, a judgment shared now by education and scientific and technical communities distributed around the planet is as exciting as the original concept first forwarded by Tim Rutherford and executed so fluently by him and Arthur Ahlgren and the panels and writers and reviewers whom we cite. In the same buoyant spirit in which the National Council was formed, the Panel on Biological, and Health Science (9 members), on Mathematics (11), on Physical and Information Sciences and Engineering (9), Social and Behavioral Sciences (8), Technology (9), each with a distinguished and productive Chair, and with, as you see, an effective staff, composed monographs. Each embodied the essence today of each of these arenas of science and technology (with, of course, the appropriate engineering inferences for each).

In these unassuming rosters of our colleagues reside the insights and agreements of more than two years of work, about what the high school graduate, the citizen, the human essence of our Nation tomorrow, should know about what humankind has learned today, in these five fields of knowledge.

At the beginning of each report, the acknowledgment of Prof. Sheila E. Widnall, Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Association for Advancement of Science, gracefully characterizes what would seem to be unprecedented agreement on the most significant knowledge of nature. But consistently, this resulting construction of the subject monographs, was then translated into an integrated prose, which was mostly connected with the life experience of students from their beginnings, and should thus be teachable and learnable in new and satisfying ways. We have adopted the revolutionary—nowadays almost bizarre—position of not teaching more than can be learned!

One section of the report, Science for All Americans, deals with systems as a common theme. It deals with designs related to their human use. Above all, the volume deals with the unity of natural science without degrading or destroying the elegant disciplinary domains which have evolved in the last several centuries. The report has several sections on strategies of learning and teaching, but by no means prescribes how they can be done. It does, however, seek to engage the student, as the following quotation from the report indicates: “Students need to have many and varied opportunities for collecting, sorting, and cataloging; observing, note taking, and sketching; interviewing, polling, and surveying; and using hand lenses, microscopes, thermometers, cameras, and other instruments. They should dissect; measure, count, graph, and compute; explore the chemical properties of common substances; plant and cultivate; and systematically observe the social behavior of humans and other animals. Among these activities, none is more important than measurement, in that figuring out what to measure, what instruments to use, how to check the correctness of measurements, and how to configure and make sense out of the results, are at the heart of much of science and engineering.”

We would venture at this stage to report that in our own half-Century of pursuit of science and engineering in telecommunications, computers and their supporting realms, that these doctrines work well at all levels of endeavor. These range from the guild craftsman, shop person, technical aide and laboratory assistant, to the most people enabling sophisticated exploration and discoveries, such as the transistor, the digital computer, the laser, the lightguide and other direct experiences of many of us here. And the concepts particularly apply to the evermore subtle and pervasive understanding of life processes, of the polynucleotides and proteins, molecular genetics and neurophysiology. And in addition to the technologic implications, the deeper culture of learning about the heavens and their role with human beings and communities are also simply and directly a goal for the content of Science for All Americans.

Now there will have to be another time if this assembly wishes to hear more about the progress of “Science for All Americans,” and restoration of literacy, and accordingly, we believe, the extension of the useful arts in America. But already, Dr. Rutherford's carefully designed Phase H and Phase III for the pursuit of Project 2061 in the schools of the U.S.A. is moving steadily ahead. Many States in several areas of the Nation are conducting pilot programs for teachers, students, school boards, and administrations. Finding of the initial report and of its supporting monographs, and of the experience in the field since 1989, are also being applied in the crucial element of President Bush's America 2000 requiring some national assessment of student abilities. Another group has produced, during the past year, a draft of possible assessment items, which has been sponsored by the Chief State School Officers. The knowledge of Project 2061, especially provided by Dr. Ahlgren and fortified by others of us, comprises an important part of that approach to unprecedented national evaluation.

So the daunting issue of whether we could have a relatively agreeable form and content for measuring the capabilities of our school graduates in mathematics, science and technology seems to be in view. There could be a wonderful convergence of the content of Science for All Americans, this modern formulation of the agreed essentials to be learned, and a set of assessments which would lift the noble role of teaching and study to a proper status in life for a new millennium.

Of course, we do not yet know the offshoots of the five Panel reports of Project 2061, but we look forward to their insightful assimilation by generations of students and teachers and scholars and researchers. We believe they represent a new continuum between what the gifted indeed, talented, and merely interested, kindergarten pupil can learn about nature, and a sophisticated vision shaped by mature leaders in each field. This plasma of learning might even tell something about how the frontiers of knowledge in mathematics, science and technology are formed and composed in these times. From our own experience and interest in the early evolution of solid state and materials science and engineering, we would guess that the strong cross-linking of traditional fields, a special motif of the eventual Science for All Americans report, could have a profoundly stimulating impact. This might be on the interest and pursuit of higher learning on one hand, and the understanding of the citizens about their new culture on the other. If, indeed, the output is proportional to the input, our expectations may be warranted, for we report herewith that the many days, weeks, and months in which members of these working groups argued, weighed and conjoined and concurred about the best distillation of knowledge from the huge reservoirs of this Age was an altogether inspiring generation of new precepts and understanding.

Acceptance of these radical principles of combining mathematics, science and technology into new paths for the restoration of literacy seems to be gaining. Led by Rutherford, the Central AAAS staff worked with 102 volunteers and about 41 professional advisors on five Task Forces this past Summer. An expanded Editorial Board analyzed six curriculum models, developed by the various functional groups in the Project, compacting them to four, which will be tried out this coming year in a variety of school districts around the country. The experience in these schools will be supported by so-called benchmarks, which identify the actual curriculum development through all the subjects treated in the basic report, “Science for All Americans.” Task groups on implementation, communications and resource base were convened to produce a plan, extending over the next 15 years or so, for K-12 implementation of the eventual curriculum. Use of the early curriculum in the classroom is expected to begin in the 1993-94 year. In preparation for that, a variety of other national leaders in math, science, technology and social studies are reviewing and advising about what is in preparation.

Similarly, during the Summer, Dr. Ahlgren represented the AAAS in the Curriculum Congress pursued by the Education Commission of the States. It is composed of 33 curriculum organizations that are presumably working together on total U.S. curriculum reform, in which we hope, of course, Project 2061 will be a major player. We are looking forward, however, to more global impacts, and it is believed that the 2061 will be a major player and prominent in an assembly on mathematics and science education to be held in Paris later this month. Likewise, the AAAS is cooperating steadily with an oncoming examination of mathematics and science education reform, by the National Academies/NRC. So we believe national realization is growing, that this math and science regime provides a major mechanism for recovery in basic skills of our people.

On the concretely practical side, the original independent sponsoring funders from Carnegie and Mellon Foundations have been generously joined by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Then recently, a substantial National Science Foundation grant for the next year, and finally a Department of Education plan of a grant for three years are forthcoming. We hardly need to add that the momentum and content of 2061 have now reached stages so that Governmental bureaucracy, although welcomed for its good intentions, does not seek to dominate our staff. And the National Council, now chaired by Dr. Franklin Jennifer, President of Howard University, and our former colleague in his notable service as Vice-Chancellor of Higher Education in New Jersey, is actively connecting with the host of more conventional education reform efforts. Indeed, no area is being passed over, and Dr. Rutherford has met with Dr. Connie Clayton, Superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools, full discussion of the lively doings of the Philadelphia 2061 programs.

Likewise, by now, of course, many official endeavors are emerging which could impact strongly on the central themes of Project 2061 which we have noted here. For instance, the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education established a new Institute for Literacy Research and Practice this Summer. It is seeking nothing less than national coordination of reform enterprise, including such things as OERI's National Center on Adult Literacy here at the University of Pennsylvania. There will, of course, be strong correlation with assessment programs and "progress toward the national goals" from this direction. Nevertheless, the current national sampling continues to show that only 46% of 12th grade "averaged graduates" can handle decimals, fractions, percents, and the simplest algebra. Our New Jersey experiences indicate this is probably much too optimistic a figure. 68% of colleges and universities have to give remedial courses in mathematics, 65% in writing, 58% in reading. In the public and two-year colleges, more than 90% offer some remedial study. But only 54% of the colleges interact with the high schools about the skills needed for college, and only 19% joined in or pursued workshops for high school faculty.

Although between 1970 and 1986, public school enrollment declined from 45.6 million to 39.5 million, the total school staff increased from 3.4 million to 4.2 million. In the same decade and a half, the inflation corrected educational costs per pupil increased 53% from $2751 per pupil to $4026 per pupil. So, although the resources are continuing to rise, the average SAT score for college-aspiring students went form 948 in 1970 to 890 in 1980, (drop was sharp in 1970-72) and was recovered only to 906; ACT scores went down by 6% in the same time. (Council on Competitiveness - Human Resources, 1989; “U.S. Department of Education Issues, 1991, National Center for Education Statistics”). Similarly, on July 25, 1991, the President signed the National Literacy Act of 1991, legislating America 2000 through HR751, with all the appropriate coordinating Task Forces, etc. So there will be plenty of officials to express approval, if indeed we can maintain the unofficial dynamics of Science for All Americans.

Above all, the appeal and excitement of what might be done through Project 2061 energize us all. They augment our appreciation to Dr. James Rutherford, to the AAAS and its officials and staff, to the cherished memory of Prof. Margaret MacVicar, Co-Chairman of the National Council, and to the devoted and also voluble members of that community. Maybe fate and fortune are with us—we need them both. But we do note in 1987, high school graduates studied more science and math than in 1982, before “A Nation at Risk…” In 1987, more Bachelor's Degrees in science as a fraction of total 22-year-olds were achieved by U.S. than by equivalents in Japan, though in engineering, the percentage of U.S. men graduated was less than half that of Japan. Highly encouraging is that the number of math and science Bachelor's degrees awarded to U.S. women, a fraction of 22-year olds is two or two-and-a-half times greater than Japan, West Germany, England or France. Indeed, in science and engineering specifically, the number of degrees awarded to U.S. women is 3 or 400% greater than Japan or West Germany, but in our view is still far less than desirable.

Further, the fastest growing zone of education is the numbers of three- and four-year-olds are in pre-kindergarten, which is about 300% greater in 1989 than in 1972. For here we believe, as in “A Nation at Risk...," that the opportunities for math and science learning are unexcelled and particularly compatible with the Project 2061 themes (information from “The Condition of Education,” 1991, published by National Center for Education Statistics - U.S. Department of Education).

Will math, science and technology become accepted components of the humanities?