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Omitting a science standard for teaching the nation’s students is a big mistake

On March 10, a panel of educators convened by the nation¹s governors and state school superintendents proposed a uniform set of academic standards for all children in U.S. public schools.

On March 10, a panel of educators convened by the nation¹s governors and state school superintendents proposed a uniform set of academic standards for all children in U.S. public schools. The goal of the standards, they said, is to “provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.” Just one problem: There’s no science.
The standards lay out language arts and math standards, but science — arguably the single most important factor in determining readiness for college and the workforce in the 21st century — and the single most in need of a uniform national standard — is conspicuously absent.
One need look no farther than the sponsoring organization to suppose why.

The National Governors Association is, by nature, a political animal, and with the controversies stirred up by the religious right over teaching evolution or creationism in science class, it’s no wonder they sidestepped the issue, delaying it until an unspecified date. But a proposed national set of school standards that does not include science seems cowardly, and it hurts American credibility and competitiveness in a global economy that is increasingly driven not by language arts, but by science.
In fact, over the last half century, more than half of the economic growth of the United States has been driven by science and technology. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. economic activity today is science- and tech-related. Most of the nation’s major policy challenges revolve around science. And nearly all of modern health science, which has nearly doubled our life spans over the last two centuries, is based on evolution. Yet we have somehow become paralyzed over teaching science.
The National Academies, the Business Roundtable and others have repeatedly pointed out the flight of scientists and engineers to other countries. A recent ranking of the science literacy of school children placed U.S. students 21st, well behind Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and only one point ahead of the Slovak Republic.

Foreign students are no longer staying to power American intellectual and economic growth to the degree they once were. Now they found universities back home. How can we claim to be preparing our children for college and the workforce if we do not include a standard for science?
This Emperor-has-beautiful-clothes approach may be because there are so few people in politics who understand science and engineering enough to value it. Most of them are lawyers, who assiduously avoided science classes in school.

Less than 6 percent of members of Congress have any background in it, and that’s being generous by including members who were, say, optometrists. Only about 1 percent have a background in the hard sciences. Of governors, if you include veterinarians and people with animal and agronomy science degrees (think ranching and farming), you might get to 10 percent, but in the classic sciences, only Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen tout science backgrounds (biology and physics, respectively).
This raises the question of what the founding fathers, many of whom were scientists, would make of our current situation. Franklin and Jefferson, especially, would, I suspect, be concerned.

“If the people are well informed,” Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” One must ask: In an age when the nation’s major challenges revolve around science, are our elected leaders well-enough informed to be able to tackle them? By the education standards the governors are proposing, the answer would appear to be “No.”
Shawn Lawrence Otto is the co-founder and CEO of, an organization co-sponsored by the National Academies and the American Association for the Advancement of Science that works to elevate science in America’s national dialogue. He is the 2009 recipient of the IEEE-USA Distinguished Public Service Award. In his other work, he is a screenwriter.