NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: America's Math And Science Gap

By Tom Luce

Dallas, TX –

The latest numbers show an ongoing problem in this country when it comes to student performance in math and science. Commentator Tom Luce is a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Education Department. He says this is a problem we can do something about.

Test results released this month show once again that U.S. students rank well below many of our foreign competitors in math and science. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rankings, American students scored 23rd in science achievement and 32nd in math ability.

This grade C report card comes on top of recent ACT scores that showed that only 24 percent of the students in our country are college ready.

How many alarm bells do we need? How many wake-up calls does it take?

What we see in the education performance of students in other countries today will repeat itself in economic advantage tomorrow. The only cure for America's painful recession is stronger economic growth. That growth only happens with innovation that creates new jobs - and that brainpower is sparked by education.

China's leaders understand this all too well. They are making education a top priority, encouraging excellence, emphasizing math and science. For the first time this year, students from the Shanghai area were included in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment and guess what? They came in first in math, science and reading. The best scores were in Shanghai, not Seattle or Atlanta or Boston.

The economic repercussions are stark. American demand for scientists and engineers is expected to grow four times faster than other professions in the next decade. Yet only five percent of our college students are graduating in math and science, compared to 42 percent in China.

As President Obama has warned, we need a national commitment "to win the future."

We already know what works. We just need to do more of it:

More than a decade's worth of data confirms that students who take Advanced Placement courses - no matter what their family income, race or ethnicity - are three times more likely to graduate from college. Data that we have compiled at the National Math and Science Initiative shows a 95 percent increase in the number of students succeeding in rigorous AP courses. The obvious answer is we need to encourage more students to tackle college-level courses from Calculus to Chemistry.

We also need to inspire more of our students to become math and science teachers. It's estimated the U.S. will need 280,000 more math and science teachers by 2015. The UTeach program developed by The University of Texas at Austin has more than 10 years of data proving it can produce more teachers with the knowledge that's needed. UTeach enables math and science majors to graduate with a teaching certificate along with their math and science degrees - at no extra time or cost. The program is so popular it has tripled in enrollment in three years and is being implemented at 22 universities. Many graduates go on to teach at high need schools.

All that is missing is more federal and private support to expand these proven programs. As the recent international rankings have brought home, we don't have time to experiment. It's time to invest in what we know works.

Tom Luce is currently CEO of the nonprofit National Math and Science Initiative, which is dedicated to improving math and science education in the U.S. public schools.

E-mail questions and opinions about this commentary to the "Contact Us" section of