The following are some of the letters, or excerpts, received in response to the February 2006 Viewpoint entitled "The Downward Spiral." You will note that some common themes run through many of the responses. Thank you to all who spent the time responding - we love to get your letters and views! I suspect this topic is not finished.

Darlene Brezinski, Editor

I am very concerned about the state of our education in the U.S. Let me relate a quick story. My eight year old came home last week with an F on a math test. When I reviewed the test he had every answer right. I called the teacher for an explanation, and she told me that in second grade she prefers "estimates" other than the exact answer, as it makes it uncomfortable and puts an undo stigma on those children who cannot yet answer the questions correctly. I was dumbfounded. Needless to say my son will be attending private school in the fall. As for solutions - no easy ones but here is my list:

  • Vouchers so parents can pick either public or private school to get their children the best education. In the paint industry we all know what competition does for our overall performance.

  • Tax credits for home schooling. Ever notice the children who win the spelling bees are home schooled?

  • Teacher bonuses and salary reductions for missing clearly defined educational targets.

  • Have parents run the PTAs, not the teachers' union. The PTA is an arm of the NEA and is more interested in salaries and political action than student achievement.
I apologize that this e-mail is so negative; it's just that you have really struck a nerve with me. On top of it, I'm still upset over the Rhode Island lead-paint case and it's ramifications to the paint industry.

-Tom M.

I recently read your editorial on "The Downward Spiral" and tore it out for future reference, and comment, since it fit into a growing concern that I have about our entire profession. In short, I agree with your comments, and would like to add one observation.

About six months ago, I reviewed the ACS report in C&E News on where chemists are employed in the U.S. I was stunned to learn that only a small fraction were working in R&D, with the rest in production, sales or other ancillary areas. When I joined the industrial world in 1967, a substantial majority was employed in R&D. While I've observed the decline in R&D in the coatings industry in the U.S. over the past 20 years, I didn't realize that our entire chemistry profession was losing out to foreign outsourcing.

So I would add to your concerns about education that employability also appears to be on the same downward spiral.

- Lou F.

I recently read your article pertaining to the decline of engineering/science students' level of competence in the United States. I concur with your observations, for we have literally shot ourselves in our own foot. When I graduated from the University of Washington in Industrial Engineering, I had great expectations like all other young men and women today. In fact Boeing even paid part of my undergraduate tuition. Unfortunately, government subsidy for R&D, if not managed properly, can lead to devastating effects. In 1971, you may already know Boeing lost its SST military support, and over 130 K technicians and engineers were thrown to the wolves. Having to move to another state, country or whatever changed many people's way of thinking. I know it sure did mine, and I left the engineering field for more job security.

At present, after retiring from the Army, I teach high school engineering physics applications to 9th through 11th grade students. I have a lab that rivals many universities and believe that my curriculum could be substantially more in tune with higher levels of math. I am working with both the physics and math teachers here at the H.S. to supplement/enhance my lab to include rubrics designed to help them apply theories of these areas. I know that there aren't too many professional people in school districts with skills such as mine, but perhaps my writing is an omen that may change the way school districts recruit. I'm not saying that an engineering student needs to acquire teaching credentials, but perhaps working like a student teacher will help promote these two fields that students are moving away from.

I also note that many dollars are spent to educate students from other countries, and once their education is complete they leave. Every day I hear students telling me they have professors from so many countries you need to be a multiple-level linguist to understand what is being said. Perhaps we need to get out in the field more and touch the kids in the field. Sitting in an office or lecture hall isn't affording a pulse as to what our society's pulse is reflecting. I recommend that in order to be productive, we need the colleges to get in tune with what is really going on in society. I know that some of my materials are taught at sophomore college level, and this just shouldn't be.

-Ken Fetters, Hightower Engineering Academy, Missouri City, Texas

As evidenced by your examples, putting "politically correct" ahead of "scientifically valid" will result in "technologically challenged."

- Bob Springate

I just finished reading your thoughts on our education system in the United States. Being a practicing chemist in industry for over 30 years, I was not surprised at your quoted statistics. I have felt that the schools lost control (secondary and college) for some time now. For example, I hired a double-degreed chemist to work in our lab several years ago and gave the person a project to start. Much to my surprise the person had no clue as to where TO start. This was a rookie from college that I felt should have had the training to complete the project, not ask me where to start.

I think two possible dilemmas exist. (1) Schools are not allowed to teach as they did when I went to high school. Today, the schools are forced to allow kids to express themselves in ways that are distracting to other students, respond to issues parents should take care of, and, in general, babysit the kids. How can you begin to teach in such an environment? Or begin to learn with so many distractions? One place to start is to force parents to be parents and take some responsibility for their offspring and not shove it upon the schools.

(2) Pay the talented teachers what they deserve and get the untalented ones out of the classroom. But how can you do that in view of the strength of teachers' unions? Many of them deserve the money they make, but many of them do not. There are no checks and balances in the education of our kids. A bad teacher continues on until retirement, while underachieving kids can't see any reason to do better.

Until items like these are corrected, I see the situation continuing to get worse, and that will begin to affect the quality of life for our entire society. Throwing more money at it is not the answer. Schools need reform, and parents need to take responsibility.

-Bob O.

Your editorial "The Downward Spiral" was both interesting and saddening considering the decline in our national science and mathematics education.

I have taught college chemistry for over 20 years as an adjunct professor and noted a declining competence in students even in their major field. For example, on the first day of class I gave a quiz asking for the chemical structures of 20 simple monomers used in the synthesis of polymers, i.e., formaldehyde, ethylene, phenol. The highest grade I ever achieved was 3/20. From senior chemistry majors yet! I felt that the administrators were more interested in numbers than performance.

The decline in our education system is not accidental. I believe it is a contrived effort to dumb down the population so that our standard of living better matches those of Third World countries, making the U.S. an easier target for a takeover or collapse of our republic form of government. I look forward to forthcoming editorials.

- Dr. Thomas J. Miranda

Your thoughtful PCI editorial can't help but add to the awareness of the serious problem of losing the science race. Thanks.

The upward spiral toward a technical career needs to start early in a student's life. From my small vantage point, it isn't happening very often.

I'm a retired resin guy (DuPont) who still enjoys serving as a science fair judge in a nearby high school. "Missed opportunities" is an understatement describing this annual event. My heart goes out to the students and families who invest themselves in this activity, actually doing an experiment, versus others who ‘Google' a project or read ‘Science Fair Projects for Idiots', putting together the prettiest poster.

It's easy to spot the deficiencies, there are many, but I suppose we should be thankful that science fairs are in place. Professionals need encouragement to take part because they could become the drivers for change both as parents and as managers of our future competitiveness.

- Bruce W. Jackson

Here is my viewpoint on the current state of education in America.

I believe the decline in our public education system started to occur when several key changes took place in our society. No single one of these has resulted in our children's poor performance. But cumulatively, it has had a tremendous negative impact. It is not unlike a snowball rolling downhill; it started in the late '60s and continues today. Each year our middle class finds it more difficult to maintain the ‘American' standard of living. Each year our students learn less. Each year big business advertisements have more negative impacts on our society. Each year we lower the standards so more students can get through the doors.

The loss of ‘single' breadwinner jobs in our country has required the spouse to work and have the standard of living equal to their parents. We now have a generation, and into the second one, with latch-key children. Parents work longer hours and have less time for their children. Strong parental involvement is very important to any child's school performance. Some of the reason for this two-parent income need is our global economy. With the American workforce competing globally with a global workforce that has a much lower average standard of living than ours, the result is, Americans must work longer and harder to keep the same standard of living. Some with previously good-paying jobs (i.e., auto makers, steel making, airplane manufacturing, and electronic manufacturing) have been pushed to near poverty with lower paying jobs. This strains the family unit and makes it more difficult for a parent to deal with a struggling student when they are struggling themselves to provide for the family.

In our commercial society, children are bombarded with advertisements 24 hours per day to buy this or do that. There are too many of these consumer items that have invaded the classroom. These are a learning distraction. At home, parents are now challenged with not just the TV, but with the Internet, to monitor and control for appropriate viewing and distractions.

In the '60s, when I attended public school, I was required to attend a physical education class daily. Among the many advantages of regular physical exercise for the body, a sharper, more alert mind results. Today's children are overweight partly due to our relaxing of this requirement. It does not require additional money to have a physical education program of some form in any school. It should be a daily requirement for every child through grade 12 to have at least 1/2 hour of vigorous physical exercise. Part of the cause of our overweight children is their diet. Our society eats more pre-prepared, packaged and restaurant food than ever before. One of the most common ingredients in prepackaged food is fructose or corn syrup that contains a lot of calories with little nutritional value. Too many children are overweight, not alert from lack of exercise and not supported from a struggling home environment.

Some of the local, regional and national changes in our public schools have contributed to this downward spiral. ‘No Child Left Behind' is one of them. To slow a curriculum for all so that the few that are struggling in the classroom can keep up is an injustice for the majority. I saw this happening when my children attended public school in the '90s, and it prevails today. School administrators are too concerned with the highest possible number of students at a passing level, even at the expense of the majority getting a quality education. Children that learn at an average or better level quickly get bored and distracted from the process when too much time is spent with those struggling, or if the material has been ‘dumbed down' so all can more easily learn.

The administrators (politicians) that control our public schools are more concerned with keeping their job than the quality of education that our children are getting. They give lip service to these ever-growing problems and always choose the short-term, quick-fix solutions that ultimately fail. They add to the ever-growing numbers of administrative staff so that little money is left from bloated funding for quality teachers. They say the answer to every education problem is more money. We know that is false. Too little funding gets to the classroom. The training and hiring of quality of teachers should be a number-one priority. The second priority should be to fire the teachers that are not producing. As with all government-run organizations, that is almost impossible.

Our legal system has run amuck. Parents and others sue the schools, the teachers, the bus drivers, the administrators and anyone else that a lawyer can think of for the least little infraction or perception of one. This drains funds from learning. Many cases that get to court should never be there. The ACLU has contributed to this. They are a fine organization, but have many times lost their common sense in many of their cases.

There is no easy fix. Money is not the answer. It will have to start from home, and with the vote, if there is to be a significant change in the future. It will have to happen despite a standard-of-living decline for the masses. I don't believe a learning change for the better will happen anytime soon, but I have hope for my grandchildren now in public schools.

-Rich Tieman, Manager, Puget Sound Coatings

You asked for some thoughts from your readers about the downward spiral of our education system. I think things may have to get worse before there is a chance they can get better, and probably the ideas needed for improvement will not come from the current professionals in the (education) industry. Actually, I believe there is a better chance of a dramatic turnaround in underperforming poorer schools. Anyway, here are some ideas.

  • Totally reorganize the management team in the schools. Do away with the traditional structure of a principal, a couple of vice-principals, etc. Instead, one person in charge of motivation (and only motivation). Put another in charge of discipline (and only discipline). Put a third person in charge of academics (and only academics) and a fourth person in charge of administration. The motivation deliverables might include smiling faces and students eager to come to school every day. Maybe we give the motivational person an hour every day for motivational speakers, "pep rallies," etc. The discipline deliverables might include no graffiti on the walls, no litter in the hallways, no disrespect, teasing, etc. Maybe we give the discipline guy an hour each day to present skits, etc. to teach respect and tolerance. Academic deliverables might be great scores on standardized tests, and administrative deliverables might be on-time payment of invoices, a heating system that always works, etc.

  • Get rid of all the text books. They are mostly boring and far too expensive - especially for poorer schools. Everything can be found on the Internet for free - or could be in the near future. This was a lesson I learned not too long ago when my son called me and said that in his job he needed to follow the rules of math for working with significant digits. I told him to chat with his mother while I looked up the subject in one of my old textbooks from Michigan State University. By the time I returned they had already solved the problem and moved on to something else. My wife just Googled "significant digits" and found hundreds of websites discussing the subject. One was perfect for what my son needed. Teachers should be finders of lesson plans rather than creators of lesson plans.

  • Increase the school day by two hours/day; increase the school year by 40 days/year.

  • Have a policy of no homework.

  • Place two webcams in each classroom - one from behind the teacher looking towards the students and another at the back of the classroom looking towards the teacher. (Of course, the teachers' unions would scream Big Brother - too bad!)

  • Place adult monitors in classrooms on a periodic basis. (Like getting selected for jury duty, but instead you have to sit through a couple of classes.)

  • No athletics - far too expensive.

  • Increase opportunities to participate in competitive forensics, speech, etc.

    - Dave D.

    I continue to be impressed with your sense of what is happening in the United States, your call for more science and math, and the situation in China, which I believe has dampened incentive in these areas. I offer for you the following thoughts:

  • Environmental pollution and safety regulations surrounding the business manufacturing processes passed from the 1980s on, at rapid rates adding costs and regulatory burdens. The domestically imposed costs on manufacturing according to a report from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) are "adding 22.4 percent to the cost of doing business in the U.S., or $860 billion per year." Funny thing is that adding costs for compliance did not always address the main issues of dealing with the source of the pollution or safety hazards. Avoidance of fines and costly legal battles became one of the by-products of this era of regulations.

  • With the passage of National Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA) in 1992, companies have tax incentives to move their companies overseas, creating another by-product with the movement of furniture manufacturing to offshore and overseas manufacturing facilities where labor costs are 1/10th of the U.S. labor costs, and regulatory and environmental costs are insignificant. Now avoiding these fines became easier, with NAFTA.

  • I think once these dynamics were in place, science and math went overseas in cases where high-tech R&D were in demand. It still costs so much less to manufacture, engineer and do R&D overseas. Not all Americans want to use their science and math overseas - and the competition here is more selective than ever. Not all want to move to India or China, so under stress they learn about zoos along with their math. Spooky, and certainly changed from when we were in elementary school.

  • In lower-tech manufacturing, like furniture manufacturing, think of all the movement of plants overseas, and think of all the pollution still going on China: benzene in their rivers, etc. Math and science could help prevent pollution and improve the global environment, I still think, however, the $ needed to invest are behind the 90-day reports needed at Wall Street.

    My conclusion remains that the big companies and multinationals are ruling the world, calling the turns. I hope NGOs (non-government organizations) might take the lead and change this culture. Are there NGOs affiliated or connected with PCI?

    -Bob Cox

    Starting January 2003 to date, I am a substitute teacher at Fort Bend County School District and have first-hand knowledge of being a "full-time chemistry teacher 9 to 12 grades" for one straight month. So, I know what you say in your editorial - The Downward Spiral - PCI, February 2006 is 100% true.

    - Ashwin P.

    I share your concern. I suppose the cause may be uncovered by noticing the ads that we are bombarded with that are a reflection on society in general. That is, our society places considerable emphasis on relaxation and not on accomplishment and that is reflected in our children's attitude towards school. In itself, such a relaxation is not bad. However, if this becomes the focus of one's pursuit, it probably is perceived by one's children.

    A professor at a state university confided in me that students are more interested in the job the degree provides than in the knowledge that embodies the degree. It is logical, but it seems to drift away from the joy of learning. I suppose it is hard to maintain such momentum from generation to generation, given the success of my generation. In the end, I suppose we do what we enjoy. As my son put it, "That teacher taught me to really enjoy poetry." Perhaps if we sought to enjoy the journey, we would find others inspired. Is it possible that the advent of video gaming with its easy rewards is beguiling our youth away from the delayed joy of creation resulting from riveted attention to a goal using education-developed skill-sets?

    Having said all of the above, I must pause. It seems that there is a lack of science and math science standards for Middle and High School that match the state of knowledge or the extent to which these subjects are taught abroad. I think there is a tendency in the U.S. to low-ball these standards so that no student is left behind, which unwittingly leaves our students in the proverbial international dust. Once in college, the student must address obtaining an education that results in a job. The perception that anything that can be done over the wires can be outsourced has had a dramatic cooling effect on science enrollment. In other words, if it clearly has to be done and is worth doing, it will be done. Ironically, some have noted that it is not the invention but the connection that turns the profit. I will be surprised if the military complex takes this sitting down, since MBAs don't design fighter jets.

    -Doug Brown, Hershey, PA

    The Downward Spiral editorial almost sounded right wing. Certainly NAFTA has had a huge effect on our manufacturing base. Here in Buffalo, N.Y., we have lost thousands of jobs. Booze Allen has a very interesting commentary on R&D dollars and results. You can download it free. The rest of the world is merely imitating what started in the U.S., except our government is subsidizing it. It is not money that produces results, but brains, and American industry does not like brains.

    The electrical grid in Western New York is at least 50 years old, maybe even 80. Any innovation in industry is probably a violation of OSHA standards, work rules and other management obstacles. The accountants will stop any change. Look at what a leading oil company said recently, " would be bad for the U.S. to achieve energy independence!" There are no Teslas or Edisons today. Everything is over 100 years old on its basic parts. I work in the chemical industry and could tell you many strange comments. One is, "The microscope is an unscientific tool!"

    - Tom Batorski

    [Ed. Note: A quote from the Booze Allen report: "After surveying 1,000 companies over six years, Booze Allen concluded that while some minimum of R&D spending is necessary, simply piling on the R&D dollars doesn't generate the kind of innovation you would expect."]

    I read your Viewpoint article with a lot of emotion and agreement. I was shocked when I read last fall about the mediocre math scores in the U.S., and that science/engineering is on the decline. You asked for some input.

    My children are in one of the top school districts in the country, which consistently has high test scores and significantly above the national average. Our school district also has one of the highest Asian attendances in the country. My daughter is in the very competitive advanced math class and is one of a handful of children of American heritage. I have been amazed at the discipline that is instilled in the Asian children that is unlike anything most of us know. They almost nearly make all As, play a musical instrument, take language class on Saturday and set the standard for excellence in class. Could it be the discipline that sets them apart?

    As a parent, I find the attention that my children need from me to complete their schoolwork extremely intense. They are working at an incredible pace, at which I praise the school for the excellent curriculum. I keep wondering how parents can keep up with everything their child needs to do well in school, as it takes all of my energy. Today's parents are being pulled in so many directions with both working, more demanding employers, financial problems, etc., that sometimes it is not possible to also keep up with children's homework. The child is then left to figure it out for themselves, which some can do and some cannot. I don't think it is that parents don't care; I think that it is too difficult in today's busy environment to keep up with everything.

    This is a very interesting subject, and I welcome further discussion.

    - Renee Shreves, Quaker Color

    I read your piece, The Downward Spiral, in PCI, and I was angered and dismayed reading your synopsis concerning the current trend in science education. Your examples of what's happening in math education floored me. I think that we, as scientists, need to become more political. We need to have people with science backgrounds become involved in the decision-making process when it comes to textbook content. We cannot allow the politically correct social manipulators to do it. Maybe this means that science-oriented people need to run for local school boards. Unfortunately, most scientists are concerned primarily with science (DUH!), not politics. If I wanted to be a politician, I wouldn't have spent all those years in organic chemistry, quant, biology, physics, etc. Absent direct involvement, the science industry needs to seek out representatives who are sympathetic to science concerns. It's the old adage: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. We need to be squeakier than the social engineers.

    - Steve Schliebe