Monday, September 05, 2011

America is losing another generation to science illiteracy | The Great Debate

By Margaret Honey
The opinions expressed are her own.

Steven Brill has it exactly right when he says that “our nation’s economy, security, and core values depend on [the] success” of our public schools.

That’s what President George W. Bush had in mind when he signed “No Child Left Behind” into law in 2001. Signaling his strong concerns about that legislation’s shortcomings, it is also why Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced earlier this month that he would override the requirement under No Child Left Behind that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Mr. Duncan said he is waiving the law’s proficiency requirements for states that have adopted their own testing and accountability programs and are making other strides toward better schools. Without the waivers, he said, 80 percent of American schools would get failing grades under the law.

But No Child Left Behind has an even more pernicious effect – it is discouraging the teaching of science courses, particularly at the elementary level, at a time when America needs them the most. What is more central to our current economy, security and core values than science? Where would we be without Google and Apple, stealth technology, gene-based therapy, and high-tech prosthetics?

Recent national studies show that at the elementary level, science is barely being taught. More than eight hours of instructional time are devoted each week to teaching “English Language Arts” (“ELA” is a story in and of itself) and over five hours per week to math. By comparison, science is taught for less than three hours.

The situation is worse in schools that have been identified as “in need of improvement”:  Science is entirely eclipsed by subjects that students will be tested on, and these are the very same schools that are likely to have higher levels of poor children and children of color.

A growing body of evidence indicates grade-level, high stakes testing has heavily biased schools toward teaching tested subjects and away from less frequently tested subjects like science. Further, when science is taught, students are more likely to be memorizing information and answering chapter-end questions. Students should be engaging in the kind of real-world problem-solving that employers say they want most.

We need to be wary of what might seem to be the obvious solution:  ensuring that science is tested the way math and English are. Adding more science tests will not remedy this problem anymore than testing in math and English have helped. Testing does not motivate engagement, passion, creativity and innovative thinking.

A quick look at the countries where children outperform the U.S. on the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that none of them do anywhere near the amount of testing that is done in the United States. Some of the top-performing countries do national testing, but at “gateways” only – e.g., upon leaving elementary school or entering high school. None have grade-by-grade national tests.

It is time to acknowledge that there has been an unprecedented and precipitous decline in science teaching and learning as a consequence of the focus and implementation of No Child Left Behind. We do not need any more commissions or studies to tell us what is strikingly evident — children of the NCLB era, who entered Kindergarten in 2003 and had little or no science education for the next seven years, are not going to do well in science in middle school or beyond. We are losing an entire generation to science illiteracy.

Yet science literacy is essential in the 21st century. President Obama and others have highlighted the need for improved national science education: “All American citizens need high quality STEM education that inspires them to know more about the world around them, engages them in exploring challenging questions, and involves them in high quality intellectual work.” STEM is a common abbreviation for science, technology, engineering and math.

According to a report from the Center on Education and the Workforce, there will be eight million job openings in STEM-related fields by 2018, yet the U.S. continues to lag behind in student achievement in these areas.

In 2009, PISA found that 15-year-old U.S. students ranked 17th of 34 developed countries in science and 25th of 34 in math. The same study revealed that the U.S. has among the most unequal performance in the world, with achievement levels highly dependent on socio-economic status. Low-income and minority communities are especially hard-hit by lack of access to high-quality science resources. The results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress drive home the severity of the problem – only 18 percent of New York City’s 4th graders and 13 percent of 8th graders performed at or above the proficient level in science.

Over the next six years, as “Generation NCLB” goes through high school, we can expect banner headlines about further drops in science learning and fewer students taking advanced level courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. That will be a precursor to the hue-and-cry from colleges, four years later, about the need for more remedial science and the falling number of American students majoring in sciences of all types, and then a renewed clamor from employers who need appropriately educated workers but cannot find them.

This is where our heavy-handed emphasis on grade-level high stakes testing has taken us. Unfortunately, we have successfully built a system nationwide that has led to a sustained level of decline in science learning at a time when we need it the most.

The endpoint of our current trajectory is clear, but the future could be – must be – different.

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