On Wednesday I went to a panel on science education at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was a fascinating exchange. To highlight just one point, Andrew Rotherham discussed how the recent focus on competition from China and India echoes previous concerns with the Soviets and Japanese. Then as now, a narrow focus on science education risks misdiagnosing the problem and supporting false solutions.
We currently use an incentives-based approach to an alleged shortage of scientists. That is, we offer scholarships and forgive student loans to entice people into technical careers. Rotherham argues that such policies simply reward people for choices they would have made anyway. We end up fiddling at the margins rather than confronting the real issue. The main problem isn’t a lack of incentives for a few rich white kids. It’s that most poor and minority kids are so woefully unprepared to make the choice. No amount of incentives will help them pass multivariate calculus if they can’t do basic algebra. To quote an article Rotherham co-wrote a few years ago:
Unless we believe that a substantial number of such students are failing to choose science careers for want of proper inducements, many of the scarce resources devoted to new scholarship programs may well reward people of means for choices they would have made anyway. In fact, the richest untapped source of future talent will likely be found in our underserved cities and among low-income and minority students who are failing to receive a good education in our public schools. A college scholarship is worthless unless you graduate from high school, but only about half of America’s minority students even finish high school on time.
Likewise, few students can handle college-level science without first completing a high-quality secondary math and science curriculum, but many disadvantaged students attend high schools that don’t even offer those classes or where the courses are often taught by teachers who do not know the material themselves. Consequently, minority students who do reach 12th-grade lag behind their white peers by four grade levels, on average, on national tests of reading and math.
As a result, the best long-run strategy for boosting America’s global economic standing isn’t giving more students a reason to choose careers in science. It’s giving more students the ability to choose careers in science. Without expanding the pool of well-prepared students who can take advantage of them, no amount of scholarships will make a difference.
All of this has got me wondering. Science organizations themselves are the ones often pushing these incentive-based policies. We also do nothing to temper the sky-is-falling-rhetoric about the threats from India and China even though the facts aren’t straightforward and more nuance is needed.
Given that poor minorities most benefit from education reform and are most hurt from misplaced attention, are we unintentionally screwing over poor black people by focusing on incentive-based policies? It’s a distinct possibility that our rhetoric distracts from a broader education reform agenda. As I’ve argued before, it may be that the public voice of science negatively impacts race in America.
I know I’m being a bit provocative here. In this case I’m not really convinced our actions really have that much of an impact (although I’m more convinced in this one). Education reform is and will be a major national issue, and one that scientists usually support. Scientists clamoring for more scholarships will not change the situation and most of us are happy about that. That said, I do think we should be more hesitant about promoting the need for more scientists and these incentives-based policies. I’d need several to articulate all the reasons we should be more circumspect. But even the slightest chance that we divert resources from the poorest Americans should make us pause and think.