George M. Bodner, Immediate Past-Chair, Fall 2013

Three years ago, I accepted invitations to be a candidate in two elections. One was for the chair of DivCHED, the other was to serve as a member of the ACS Board of Directors. I did so because I wasn’t sure I would win either of the elections. I began my position statement for the Board of Directions election with the famous quote from Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…”  

The pessimists that surround us seem to delight in bemoaning the state of K-12 education. Within the context of this column, I would like to comment on why I still seem to be among the group who views the glass as half-full, rather than half-empty.
I’d like to start by looking at the results of a series of Gallup polls that have been conducted every five years from 1985 through 2010, and should therefore provide insight into the general impression of the state of the K-12 educational system. As can be seen in the following figure, the results of this poll have stayed virtually constant for 25 years.

Every time the poll has been taken, only 20 to 25% of those polled would grade the nation’s public schools as A or B. But almost 50% graded their local schools as A or B, and 70 to 75% graded their own children’s schools as A or B. Isn’t it interesting that so many people who have a negative opinion about the overall state of our K-12 educational system are convinced that the schools their children attend are the exception to this trend?

In spite of all the negative publicity given to our nation’s schools, there are good signs for what is now called P-16 ─ preschool through bachelor’s degree ─ education in STEM disciplines. The percentage of high-school students taking chemistry, for example, has increased from 32% in 1982 to 66% in 2005. In recent years, the CPT has noted record numbers of bachelor’s degrees in chemistry; an all-time high in graduate enrollment; and remarkable progress toward gender equity in graduate programs.

In my experience, proponents of the idea that the U.S. education system has undergone continuous decline since the years they went to school are often of the age when they are likely to have grandchildren. When one encounters people who argue this position, you might want to respond by noting the existence of what has been called the “Flynn effect” It was Flynn who first noted that students in 1978 scored an average of one standard deviation above their parent’s generation on IQ tests. And the need to renormalize IQ has continued ever since [Flynn, James R. (2009). “What Is Intelligence: Beyond the Flynn Effect,” Cambridge University Press.] In other words, the individuals complaining about the decay of the US educational system would have difficulty competing with their children and even more difficulty competing with their grandchildren on the common standardized exams.

Another way to respond to critics of our K-12 system might be to mention that US Census Bureau statistics indicate that the number of high-school graduates has increased by a factor of two in the 60 years since 1950. Or that the number of college graduates in the US population was roughly 5% in 1950, and has continually grown to the present value of roughly 25%.

When someone notes that students in Asian countries score higher than U.S. students in overall performance on international exams, you might want to respond that the approach to teaching science in Asian countries also leads to students who are considerably less likely to report high or medium interest in science or careers as scientists [Chiu, M-H. (2010). Federation of Asian Chemical Societies, 2010(1), 35-39].

Yogi Berra is claimed to have said: “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” But I have reason to be optimistic about the future of chemistry education across the “P-16” spectrum of age groups. As I noted last year, (see C&EN, 12 December 2012, p. 32), the ACS was involved in the development of the Next Generation Science Standards that were released at the beginning of the year. In recent years, the ACS Education Office has fostered the creation of high-school chemistry clubs. It has also established a network of ACS Science Coaches; chemistry professionals who share their expertise and enthusiasm for science with elementary, middle and high school teachers. They have also increased efforts to work with the two-year college community, including the creation of a Two-Year College Advisory Board. Efforts are now underway to strengthen the relationship between the ACS and K-12 teachers of chemistry.

In addition to efforts the ACS has been involved in that focus on educating students for the future, the Society has also developed materials to help its members build successful careers in a competitive, global marketplace. Recent efforts of this kind include the chemical entrepreneurship initiative, webinars and sessions at ACS meetings to help members understand non-traditional career paths, and the development of a strong program of professional development materials. The Society has also produced web-based resources such as the climate science website (ACS.org/climatechange) that can be used to bring real-world examples of chemistry to students of all ages.

From my perspective, we live in a time when being known as a “chemical educator” can be as exciting as at any time since I took my first faculty position, 40 years ago. The challenges we face have changed, but so has our skill set for confronting these challenges.

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