Dr. Miller's data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.But there's more! Miller also identifies the key reason why American education is failing:
Dr. Miller, who was raised in Portsmouth, Ohio, when it was a dying steel town, attributes much of the nation's collective scientific ignorance to poor education, particularly in high schools. Many colleges require every student to take some science, but most Americans do not graduate from college. And science education in high school can be spotty, he said.The property taxes issue really is key -- wealthy families move out of the city to the suburbs, segregate themselves from the poor, so once you cross a county line, the difference in schools becomes evident.
"Our best university graduates are world-class by any definition," he said. "But the second half of our high school population - it's an embarrassment. We have left behind a lot of people."
He had firsthand experience with local school issues in the 1980's, when he was a young father living in DeKalb, Ill., and teaching at Northern Illinois University. The local school board was considering closing his children's school, and he attended some board meetings to get an idea of members' reasoning. It turned out they were spending far more time on issues like the cost of football tickets than they were on the budget and other classroom matters. "It was shocking," he said.
So he and some like-minded people ran successfully for the board and, once in office, tried to raise taxes to provide more money for the classroom. They initiated three referendums; all failed. Eventually, he gave up, and his family moved away.
"This country cannot finance good school systems on property taxes," he said. "We don't get the best people for teaching because we pay so little. For people in the sciences particularly, if you have some skill, the job market is so good that teaching is not competitive."