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March 31, 1998

U.S. Students Rank Low in Math and Science Performance:

There Is Enough Blame To Go Around

by Edmund Tsang

Dr. Sheldon Gottlieb took time out from organizing and packing the papers he has accumulated over 40 years of work in research and teaching science to talk to The Harbinger about a recent column written by Thomas Sowell, who blames the NEA (National Education Association) on the poor performance in mathematics and science by U.S. high school students. Dr. Gottlieb has just retired from the Department of Biological Sciences, University of South Alabama.

"Thomas Sowell is doing a disservice to the public and being intellectually dishonest to put the blame on one person or organization," Gottlieb said. "There is enough blame to go around."

"One has to be aware that there has been a big change in society. At one time when children went to school, the teachers were the authority figures," explained Dr. Gottlieb. "Just look at the teacher who clipped the fingernails of a student because the fingernails were interfering with the child's performance. The teacher even asked the parent to cut the child's fingernails and the parent didn't. Now the parent is suing the teacher for assault. When parents are undercutting the authority of teachers, students are picking up on that, they are talking back and the teachers become powerless. When you have a disruptive class, it's very difficult for teachers to teach. That's the fault of parents and has nothing to do with NEA."

"And let's look at another change in society. In recent years there has been tremendous growth in movies and television shows about angels and all sorts of supernatural phenomena. They try to put in some semblance of science but they are not science. These fantasies give more credence to unscientific explanation than scientific explanation," Gottlieb added. "So we have an entire culture given over to the supernatural, and the recent growth of fundamentalistic religiosity, which always has been anti-science and anti-intellectual in our society. They are fighting biology and geology textbooks that deal with evolution and they are misleading children. I had one student in Introduction to Biology who stood up in class and said, 'Dr. Gottlieb, what I believe in has more validity than scientific facts.' I had to bite my tongue so I wouldn't say, 'Then why go to school? You believe and you have perfect knowledge.' So instead of using their brains to learn, which is an active process that requires the expenditure of energy and time, students take the easy route and believe because belief requires no work. In a culture where belief has more validity than facts, is it any surprise that we have a decrease in student performance in math and science."

Dr. Gottlieb also said that teacher colleges in the nation have to shoulder some blame too, because there is too much emphasis on "how to teach math and science" and not enough emphasis on teaching future teachers the contents of math and science. With the explosion of knowledge in recent years, teachers also need to have professional development opportunities to stay current in their fields and to become effective. But most communities in the United States are reluctant to increase school funding to provide these professional development opportunities to teachers, Dr. Gottlieb said.

To improve student performance in math and science, Dr. Gottlieb says "we need a rigorous curriculum and teachers who are well trained." "But if the implementation of a more rigorous curriculum is going to be fought by parents who complain that their children's self esteem would be hurt because they get poor grades, or if there are pressures put on teachers for higher grades or social promotion, then it's all for nought. Now, that's not the fault of teachers or the NEA either."


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