These Chinese students are kicking our butts in science.

New test results confirm what many of us have feared: U.S. students suck at science. These new numbers are not only bad for our reputation, they spell trouble for the future U.S. economy and possibly the world. Maybe President Obama is right and we are in the middle of another “Sputnik” moment.

The most recent test results put us on par with France, the Czech Republic and Hungary and miles away from the likes of China, South Korea, Finland and Australia. The top countries will be producing the best scientists who will drive economies forward. Those of us in the middle of the pack will either fall behind economically or stay competitive either by attracting good scientists from elsewhere or by changing our education system to match the Finns or the Aussies.

Of course this is only true if these results hold for top performing students, too. Since most scientists come from this group, if the top performing students in the U.S. hold their own against their counterparts in other countries, then we may be OK.

The testing folks provide this great tool, the International Data Explorer, that lets you parse the data in lots of different ways. And no matter how I sliced the data, we are in the middle of the pack. If I look at wealthy folks, or students who have educated parents or students that have scientists as parents, each category is still behind lots of different countries.

So we can’t blame the test results on immigrants, the poor or any of our usual convenient scapegoats. We are simply doing a poor job of teaching science. Such a poor job that our economy is going to be in real trouble in the not so distant future.

And it isn’t just our economy that is threatened. A general U.S. public that is not up to snuff scientifically might just put our world at risk too.

A scientifically illiterate public will fear vaccines and GM foods, won’t understand and so won’t believe in global warming and so on. This could mean a spread of disease, starvation and environmental catastrophes just to name a few.

It is important to remember that none of this is inevitable. We can ramp up our science education so that we train the best scientists in the world and maybe even create a scientifically informed and savvy public in the process.

In fact, Massachusetts has done just that in the last 15 or 20 years. If it were a country, Massachusetts would now be in the upper ranks of countries. We need to look to Massachusetts for how to improve other states’ failing education systems.

Massachusetts shows that with the will and money to do it, we can turn our educational system around. Sadly, though, I am not sure most of the country will. Sputnik came with the fear of nuclear holocaust. Our current crisis comes with the fear of future irrelevance and a decreased standard of living.

The current risks are not life and death and so it will be much harder to mobilize the government, the public, and the unions to transform our education system. I guess our dominance economically and scientifically was good while it lasted.

A fun interactive that lets you compare math, science and reading scores between states and different countries.

State by state math scores compared to other countries.

Why this crisis will be harder to overcome than the Sputnik crisis.

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All (U.S.) Children Left Behind 14 February,2011Dr. Barry Starr
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  • Catherine Greene

    This article is yet another reflection of our process of leeching funds out of our education system and then being “surprised” that the quality of the education we can provide is impoverished. Maybe it’s not just science but logic and reasononing as well that are suffering.
    I do want to point out that many countries whose students rank above the US in science scores have laws against or at least labeling GM foods. Lumping this issue together with fear of vaccines and denial of climate change is an example of just the high impact, low reliability reporting we are unfortunately becoming all to comfortable taking at face value in the US.

  • Barry

    What is weird to me is that spending per student does not correlate as well with student scores as you might guess. For example, we have tripled spending per student since 1970 with almost no measurable impact on any test scores. One of the common features in countries that do well actually has more to do with teacher pay and/or respect as opposed to class size or spending per pupil. If teachers are paid well and given the respect they deserve, students do better. This certainly explains a lot of what we see in South Korea and Finland.

    The fear of GM foods in other countries shows that even though the people of these countries are better educated scientifically, they aren’t all the way there yet! At least many of the fears I most commonly hear are certainly unfounded from a scientific perspective. Similar to fear of vaccines in Britain…

  • andrew

    You need to re-evaluate the temporal context that you use to frame your article. There is the hairbrained (and non-scientific) assumptions that GM is benign (when in reality we can only postulate at this point). Though postulate we must, but don’t fall back and say that those who don’t take the opposite stance are unscientific and condone starvation. Not the case.

    The real issue here is that you seem to be applying these modern results in a cold-war context. We live in 2011, not 1980. The reality of tomorrow IS life and death, my friend, not some sort of economic dependency or loss of intellectual influence.

    what difference does it make that America can’t wear the gold medal anymore and be the title-holder of “the smartest, strongest, richest, and just downright bestest?” I don’t measure my quality of life on the hubris of my compatriots, and I scoff at those who do.

    Here’s the reality as: 80-90% of all the species are gone and the planet is incapable of supporting life.

    That is scientific. You can take that slip to the university.


Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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