Acton Institute Powerblog

America’s 12th Graders Dumbing Down in Science

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“Last week, the Department of Education reported that science aptitude among 12th-graders has declined across the last decade.” Anthony Bradley explores some of the root causes for why science education continues to falter in schools across the country. Bradley asserts that the typical American now views education as a means for a comfortable lifestyle rather than a means to knowledge about the world. The purpose of education, instead of producing knowledge and insight into the workings of nature and society, is now to teach everything you need to know in order to enter the work-force. The results of this distortion of the purpose of education is the decline of interest in less “practical” fields including science.

Read Anthony Bradley’s full commentary here.

Jonathan Spalink


  • Mari Hobgood

    As Thomas Sowell has pointed out, the process of acquiring an education degree actually discourages the best and the brightest from becoming teachers. The curriculum is inane, geared toward generalities, and it attracts the college students with the lowest SAT scores. Finally, the path to an education degree in this country leads away from any seeking of truth- rather, they seek the politcally correct trend of the month.
    The miracle is that today’s graduates can actually adapt to the real world as well as they do. It is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit (or could it be the Holy Spirit?)

  • Kevin Killion

    The reason for the decline is simple: You can’t expect kids to know what they haven’t been taught! Science class in today’s schools is overwhelmingly driven by "hands-on" "discovery learning" busywork that has cut drastically into learning of actual science content. Proof? I live in Illinois, and I just did a word search on our state learning standards for the specific topics mentioned in this article. Study of acceleration and friction (but not coefficients) was specified in the briefest of terms, but nothing at all in the Illinois standards specifically requires the teaching of Newton or his laws, centripetal force or induction. For MUCH more on the dismal state of science education, see the Illinois Loop’s webpage on science at

    Of course, this applies to other subjects as well. Just as Illinois teachers aren’t required to teach anything at all about Newton, they’re not required to mention even the slightest bit about Henry VIII or Dickens either.

  • Michael JR Jose

    Ah! Thomas Sowell…a black man who came up thru the N.Carolina/N.York education system via Harvard, to Standford think-tank status…who said in his autobiography, ‘A Personal Odyssey’, that when he got his first university teaching post as unknown junior lecturer in the 60’s, he got more automatic respect as an academic than as a widely-published PhD in the 80’s in a far more exalted post and far more prestigous univ. Why? Because so-called ‘affirmation’ practices had devalued his achievements – some (like Sowell) actually do make thru the system the hard way, by merit, and more others get there by the ‘leg up’ method. People know this, and their attitude downgrades the default level of respect (know there’s a word to conjure with!) given to minority group achievers. Is that doing anyone a kindness? Looking back on a long career, Thomas Sowell does not think so. Personally, I think it is just another way of patronising those we don’t want to have to explain meritocracy to.

  • Dennis Redovich

    This is the most stupid article I have ever read on science education.
    See 264 Just Another Big Con: The Crisis in Mathematics and Science Education
    By Dennis W. Redovich February 2006
    Center for the Study of Jobs & Educartion in wuscinsin and U.S.
    What is the rationale for all United States high students passing three advanced courses in math and science to receive a high school diploma? What is the rationale for “all” high school graduates satisfying the requirements for admission to a four-college program? There is none!

    The United States is the uncontested leader of the world in scientific research in respect to published accomplishments, Nobel Prizes, volume of research and expenditures on scientific research. The United States is the leader of the world in technology and the unchallenged leader of the world in the global economy. The United States dominates the world because of its educational systems, including K-12 public education, post-secondary colleges and universities that produce the most highly educated, productive and successful workforce in the world.
    (Example See 260 Nobel Prizes in Science 2005

  • Jeff in Kabul

    What is the rationale for all United States high students passing three advanced courses? How about so we can stop sending kids to college so they can spend 2 years getting ready to go to college. Most of our students begin college with remedial classes in math and English. They can’t read, they can’t write and they can’t add, subtract, multiply or divide. The accomplishments of the U.S. is in *spite* of, not because of, the public education system since 1973.

    When it became more important that people graduate than it was that they earn their graduation, we started loosing the education from the public educational system. Now they’re mearly places to learn new and wonderful social skills; how to understand that Joey has two mommies and accept that he wants be a girl when he grows up.

    There was a time that people in this country could read Latin when they graduated high school. Now they can’t even speak English.

  • Stanislava Judinyova

    Well, it´s true that the American universities are the best in the world and that the U.S. is curently dominating the scientific research but Mr. Redovich just forgot to say that it is more due to researchers coming from other countries of the world because they are better paid and have better career prospects in the U.S. rather than in their home countries.

  • Jude Chua Soo Meng

    Dear Anthony,

    I found your essay very agreeable indeed. Teachers have to learn to see beyond what they physically do. They have to see that what they are doing, how the things they do, if done right, are part of a greater, more meaningful effort to promote human rights. One thing we have learnt from Aquinas, is that the meaning of an act is to be taken from its object. If a teacher’s final object is merely to do what he or she has to do to get the paycheck, then he is just earning a wage. But if he does what he does because he believes and can see how all he is doing is to make the world a better place, then the latter is what he is doing.

    In my country teachers can be paid quite well, even for a start. But the monetary incentive can be a stumbling block; they need to be invited to find a more noble meaningfulness to the things they do.

    You other point I find particularly agreeable. Students need to be invited to see that some things are just worth learning for their own sakes. Philosophy (truth) , Theology (religion): these are aspects of human flourishing. Religion is often perceived as quite useless: you can’t get a priest to build a bridge. But the blind do not know what they are missing out on. Like the man stuck in the Platonic cave, they are three times removed from reality. A religious person has an insight into the overarching meaning of his life. This overarching insight returns to inform all his acts. He is doing something else each time he is performing the very same act as the atheist.

    My own reflections have left me ever more convinced how religion must be studied.
    Think of the businessman who graduates with a very prestigious MBA but without a religious vision. What is he doing with his life? Earning money, like everyone else. EVen if he has a ethic, he can do not more than be a ethically sound businessman, but no more. But suppose he grasps that when he acts in certain ways, orders his career in line with certain principles, he is sharing in God’s very being, the very imitation of God, that could make a difference.

    But suppose further that his theological and religious insights tell him more about his God, who has such and such qualities, is charity, etc and in imitating God fully he has to go the extra mile, be compassionate, be generous, beyond the measures of justice, then his whole worldview, his whole interpretation of what he is doing, and what he ought to do is tranformed.

    The very focal meaning of his own life, career and point is shifted, altered, ennobled. This kind of shift of focal meaning is impossible without a religious vision, because reason can only give so much.

    Finnis argued that the practically sound person’s grasp of focal meanings of social acts is different from that of the unsound man. I believe that the religiously sound man’s grasp of the focal meaning of social acts can significantly differ (but never contradict) from the merely ethical man’s. What is (the focal meaning of) law? What is a free market? What is a family? The religious man and the merely ethical man will have very different answers (though not mutually incompatible). What it is: what it ought to be, how it ought to be, what ends it serves…everything about it, will be quite different for both men. That kind of difference is a difference of two completely different paradigms.

    I cannot elaborate here, but for the sound religious man (I suppose, Christian, and forgive me, thomistic theologically) everything will be an insight into the Divine Godhead. As Aquinas says, God is man’s final end. Meaning, God is the terminus of his speculations. As he confronts and experiences the theologically informed life (in family, in law, in economics, in the market place…), an experience which he knows speculatively reflects as best as he can the imitation of God, he acquires a better vision (though still muddled) of the very life of the Godhead. By experiencing the finite good, he can reflect and terminate on an (poor) inductive grasp of the infinite good.

  • Plato’s Stepchild

    I think there is a more prevalent problem which infects the entire school cirriculum — The War Against Grammar.