Presidential Candidates Reply to Science Debate Questions

The Presidential candidates have responded to Science Debate’s 14 questions on science and education. You can read and compare their answers at this Scientific American website. Scientific American will grade the candidate’s answers, and publish the results in October. Obama and Romney were asked questions about innovation and the economy, climate change, pandemics, energy, food, water, the Internet, the oceans, science in public policy, space, natural resources, public health, and science & mathematics education.

The answers are disappointing. In many instances, the question was not answered. Instead, party talking-points about the topic (education, climate change, energy) were spelled out. This was especially true for Romney’s answers. Obama at least provided some specifics on what has been done, and what plans are underway.

Science Debate created a forum to explore significant science issues in the presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Are the candidates qualified to discuss these issues? As Shawn Otto (co-founder of Science Debate) puts it, Obama and Romney spend a lot of time talking about the economy, yet neither is an economist. They express opinions on foreign policy, yet neither is a diplomat. They should be able to discuss science and how it impacts people and society, even though neither is a scientist. They should be able to talk about education, even though neither holds a teaching license.

Having the candidates submit written answers to important policy decisions does not substitute for a real debate. There is no opportunity for a follow-up, or to really hear from the candidates directly.

Education for Job Training and Economic Growth

The education question revealed that both parties think that education is in deep trouble, and that if America is to survive, education should be in the service of corporate interests by providing workers for 21st century jobs who will contribute to the economy. Schools exist to transmit knowledge directly to students defined by common sets of standards. Students are in school to absorb knowledge, and to get ready for tests that are given each spring. Using simple metrics, students, teachers and schools are held accountable. Passing or failing students, ridding the school of “bad” teachers, and closing down “failing” schools has become an annual right of passage for American schools.

In the question that follows, the candidates were asked what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?

In each answer that follows, President Obama and Governor Romney sidestep the question. Obama suggests we need lots more science teachers. As others have suggested, it might be better to try and keep the teachers we have in the schools. As it is now, the teaching profession is composed of an increasing percentage of inexperienced teachers. This is not in the interests of parents and schools. Romney hasn’t a new idea in education. Romney says we should turn the public schools into a market-place for profit-making charter schools, reinforce the standards-based and testing mentality of schooling, and make sure we get rid of those bad teachers.

What would your answer be to the education question seen below? What would you say to Obama and to Romney about their individual answers?

Science Debate Education Question

The Education Question. Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?

The Candidate’s Education Answers

President Obama Governor Romney
An excellent education remains the clearest, surest route to the middle class. To compete with other countries we must strengthen STEM education. Early in my administration, I called for a national effort to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement.Last year, I announced an ambitious goal of preparing 100,000 additional STEM teachers over the next decade, with growing philanthropic and private sector support. My “Educate to Innovate” campaign is bringing together leading businesses, foundations, non-profits, and professional societies to improve STEM teaching and learning. Recently, I outlined a plan to launch a new national STEM Master Teacher Corps that will be established in 100 sites across the country and be expanded over the next four years to support 10,000 of the best STEM teachers in the nation. These investments would improve the quality of STEM education at all levels, ensuring the next generation of Americans has the tools to out-innovate and out-compete the rest of the world. The education challenges America faces are not new. Since A Nation at Riskwas published almost thirty years ago, our country has understood the urgent need for reform. Yet today, fewer than 75 percent of freshmen graduate within four years of entering high school, and far too many who do graduate require remediation when they enroll in college. In a recent survey of more than 10,000 of its graduates, the Harvard Business School identified America’s K-12 education system as one of our nation’s greatest competitive weaknesses — only the dysfunction of our political system itself scored worse. Recent test results showing U.S. students lagging behind their international peers are unacceptable in their own right, and a sobering warning of a potential decline threatening our nation’s future.Politicians have attempted to solve these problems with more spending. But while America’s spending per student is among the highest in the world, our results lag far behind. We spend nearly two-and-a-half times as much per pupil today, in real terms, as in 1970, but high school achievement and graduation rates have stagnated. Higher spending rarely correlates with better results. Even the liberal Center for American Progress acknowledged in a recent study that “the literature strongly calls into question the notion that simply investing more money in schools will result in better outcomes,” and reported from its own research that most states showed “no clear relationship between spending and achievement” even after adjusting for other factors like the cost of living.Unfortunately, rather than embracing reform and innovation, America remains gridlocked in an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by the unions representing teachers. The teachers unions spend millions of dollars to influence the debate in favor of the entrenched interests of adults, not the students our system should serve. The efforts of teachers will be central to any successful reform, but their unions have a very different agenda: opposing innovation that might disrupt the status quo while insulating even the least effective teachers from accountability. Sadly, these priorities do not correlate with better outcomes for our children. To the contrary, teachers unions are consistently on the front lines fighting against initiatives to attract and retain the best teachers, measure performance, provide accountability, or offer choices to parents.Real change will come only when the special interests take a back seat to the interests of students. Across the nation, glimmers of success offer reason for hope. Charter school networks such as the KIPP Academies, Uncommon Schools, and Aspire Public Schools are producing remarkable results with students in some of our nation’s most disadvantaged communities. Florida Virtual School and other digital education providers are using technology in new ways to personalize instruction to meet students’ needs. In Massachusetts, whose schools have led the nation since my time as governor, students’ math achievement is comparable to that of the top-performing national school systems worldwide. In our nation’s capital, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has achieved high school graduation rates above 90 percent in inner-city communities where barely half of public school students are earning their diplomas. These successes point the way toward genuine reform.


My agenda for K-12 education is organized around the following principles:

Promoting Choice and Innovation. Empowering parents with far greater choice over the school their child attends is a vital component of any national agenda for education reform. To start, low-income and special-needs children must be given the freedom to choose the right school and bring funding with them. These students must have access to attractive options, which will require support for the expansion of successful charter schools and for greater technology use by schools.

Ensuring High Standards and Responsibility for Results.States must have in place standards to ensure that every high school graduate is prepared for college or work and, through annual testing, hold both students and educators accountable for meeting them. The results of this testing, for both their own children and their schools, must be readily available to parents in an easy to understand format.

Recruiting and Rewarding Great Teachers. A world-class education system requires world-class teachers in every classroom. Research confirms that students assigned to more effective teachers not only learn more, but they also are also less likely to have a child as a teenager and more likely to attend college. Policies for recruitment, evaluation, and compensation should treat teachers like the professionals they are, not like interchangeable widgets.


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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordinator of science education, and was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design and implementation of TEEMS, a clinically based...