It turns out that test scores for US students are going down for science. And Steven Strauss, a leadership fellow at Harvard, says the US is approaching Third-World status because student math scores are so low. But you know what? Math scores are not the harbinger of developing society. Women entering the workforce and earning their own money is what leads a developing country out of Third-World status.
And you know what? Science scores are not what make women employable. Grit, determination, and self-confidence make women employable. Not because you can wish your way to the workforce, but because those traits make you able to get the help and mentoring you need to make your own money.
Real scientific progress comes from the geniuses who succeed regardless of the fact that they often leave school early on. (Einstein, for example.) You know when we were making huge science progress as a nation? When the Jews in Europe were streaming into the US to get away from discrimination and the population skewed disproportionately to math and science geniuses. Today, people who make big contributions to math and science do it independently, or in spite of, school curriculum. For example, Philip Streich who had six science patents by age 17, or the kids who win the Intel science competitions and do so largely outside of our school systems.
The reason that politicians focus on science scores is because it's measurable. They can have fights about statistics and debates about policy decisions if the issues are measurable. You cannot measure grit. How do we teach grit on a national level? How to measure it? We don't have tools for that. (Though you could argue that the best way to increase grit and determination on a national level is be generous about letting in immigrants because they had to work so hard to get across the border. But that's for another post.)
Science knowledge isn't easily measurable. What knowledge even counts as scientific? I have noticed, on the farm, that the kids know tons about biology. They know why the alpacas are trying to mate even though they are boys. They understand why there is sex drive leftover even though the alpacas are castrated. At dinner we evaluate ethical alternatives to de-horning goats.
Does this count as science? Because none of it's on the test, so very few kids are learning it.
Which is to say that science knowledge is too specialized to be a measure of our success. Curricula tries to keep our science knowledge broad. But we should not aim for broad science knowledge. We should aim for teaching kids to ask and answer questions: 'Why is the sky blue?' is as valuable a question as, 'Why is the pig's vagina bleeding?' The world of questions is vast. And learning to ask good questions is where the value is.