Today presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke at my university, Purdue. Unfortunately, the security forum was invitation-only, and I couldn't attend despite the fact he was 10 minutes' walk away. Anyway, I did read through a transcription of his comments. While a part of me thinks it was in part to appease the crowd (mostly cyber-security experts from a university known for its engineering and computer science)... I liked this quote:
"In the Cold War, we didn't defeat the Soviets just because of the strength of our arms – we also did it because at the dawn of the atomic age and the onset of the space race, the smartest scientists and most innovative workforce was here in America. For the last few months, I've talked about how America's economic competitiveness depends on education. The same holds true for our security. If we're not investing in math and science education, our nation will fall behind. And if we're not educating the best and brightest scientists, engineers, and computer programmers here in the United States, we won't be able to keep America safe."
I hadn't picked a candidate, and I still haven't-- but I would be lying if I said that this particular quote didn't endear Obama to me a bit.
Education and the economy (and society in general) really are closely linked. Maybe not immediately, but our economic future ten years down the road absolutely will be affected by changes to our educational system now. Today's economy could use a quick fix if we have it, but in the meantime it would make no sense- in any field- to worry about now without trying to prevent the same things from happening in the future. And I think for many things, math and science education especially (but also all education), is the avenue for change that makes the most sense.
Yeah, maybe I'm biased because I'm an ed major- but I wouldn't be an education major if I didn't value education. I get frustrated when people tell me I should be in secondary ed because we need good math and science teachers. We do-- there's a severe shortage of math and science secondary teachers (much less good ones). But I think there's a shortage that's not as easy to document: the shortage of good math and science elementary teachers.
Without a decent foundation in math and science, students will struggle to succeed in secondary school, no matter how many resources are made available to them. It is the responsibility of elementary teachers to build this educational foundation, so that students can move on to continue learning newer and more complicated things.
Elementary teachers don't always get a lot of respect for being able to teach math and science, but just because a lot of the math and science taught in elementary school is considered "easy" to do does not mean that it is "easy" to teach. You try explaining to a kid how the base ten system works, and why he shouldn't add the denominators of a fraction. It's kindergarten, first grade stuff-- and yet some of the most difficult 'stuff' to teach well that I've ever tried.
But what does it matter if an elementary teacher can teach, if they don't? In my elementary teacher training, I've seen multiple future colleagues (both other future teachers, and current teachers) who simply lack the confidence in their own science knowledge to try teaching it. Science can scare these teachers- and particularly with the focus on improving standardized test scores in reading and math, it's easy for these teachers to skim over science, or even skip it altogether. In some cases, I've seen a teacher who seems to think it's okay to just read the science textbook or maybe a fictional book about an animal now and then. Because, you know, she's 'covering' it.
It doesn't take long for students to develop the opinion that "science is boring." If a student thinks science is boring and he's not even out of elementary school, I feel like we have missed a huge opportunity. Children are so naturally inquisitive about the world, which makes learning science so absolutely perfect for them- and we crush the curiosity. For a lot of kids, I don't think it ever comes back.
So yes, I love science- but I'm going to be an elementary teacher. And no, I'm not wasting my intelligence or any teaching talents I have. I'm still teaching kids things they don't know that can be really difficult to them- it's just that the kids are younger, with less predetermined ideas about school and learning. I get to be that teacher who teaches them that science can be fun, math can make sense, and reading doesn't have to be boring. I have the opportunity be a teacher that helps prevent kids from being burnt out on school by the time they reach junior high. I can not only teach skills, but I can get kids interested in and excited about almost any school subject, and teach them how to think.
I really do think Obama's looking the right direction. When considering current issues, he's trying to look back at some of their causes, including a deficiency in our math and science education, so we can try to prevent similar problems in the future.
But I hope that he remembers to look all the way back to where educational problems can begin. Science and math education don't start in the sixth grade, or in high school. If a student loses confidence, interest, or competence early, there may be no way to remedy the situation. Without a solid foundation in elementary school, students can forever be trapped playing catch-up with their potential. And that's not good for the future of our students- or the future of our country.