Friday, February 10, 2012

Obama Throw’s More Money at the Wrong Problem

President Obama has unveiled a plan to spend $100 million to train 100,000 new science teachers over the next decade, according to the Washington Post. During his State of the Union speech he said that “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job,” a problem he blames on the dearth of quality science teachers.
Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
 Yet training is only a tiny piece of the picture. With low (and declining) pay for teachers and difficult (and worsening) working conditions, why should science majors want to go into teaching in the first place when they could earn so much more with so much less stress and aggravation working as scientists?

Standards Undermine Scientific Inquirey and Comprehension
At the same time, what are we doing about the poor state of science education among existing teachers? Even the best science teachers are hamstrung by an overwhelming number of standards—most of which emphasize rote memorization of facts over actual scientific inquiry and analysis—and high stakes exams that dictate a narrow curriculum and limit depth. Consequently, many good science teachers rely on the expedients of multiple choice exams, worksheets and “cookbook,” proof-of-concept labs which allow quick and easy assessment of the standards, but which also dull students’ curiosity and turn many off to science completely.
Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
 This is true even in states like California, which was the only state in the nation to earn an “A” for its science standards by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s “The State of Science Standards 2012.“ In many states, the science standards go much further to undermine students’ understanding of science concepts and their ability to develop their critical thinking and analytical skills. Ten states, including Alaska, Oregon and Wisconsin, earned an F in the survey
Many states earned their D’s or F’s because their content was minimal, poorly written and/or contained errors. Some states, like Louisiana and Texas, have undermined or discredited solid science with legislation requiring the teaching of creationism or mandating that teachers provide “both” sides of the evolution or climate change “debate.” Others failed to emphasize the link between math and science.

No Child Left Behind and the “accountability” mania that has swept the nation over the past decade have also contributed to the poor state of science education in the U.S. Many schools have forsaken science entirely at the K-5 level either to make room for more test preparation and English and math support, or because the multi-subject credentials required for teaching K-5 do not emphasize science standards, labs, and inquiry-based activities sufficiently for teachers to feel confident and competent teaching them. Some middle schools have also jettisoned science curriculum for similar reasons. Every year I get a handful of 9th graders who say they never took science in 6th-8th grades and their background knowledge and success in my class often reflect this.

Poverty Undermines Academic Achievement in All Disciplines, Including Science
The biggest cause of U.S. students’ poor showing in science has little to do with the quality or quantity of science teachers. U.S. students rank poorly compared to students in most other wealthy nations in numerous disciplines, not just science, while their poverty rate is among the highest. Placing more good science teachers in the classroom will have little benefit for students who come to school hungry, homeless, sick and several years behind their affluent peers in literacy and prerequiste skills.

A class-based achievement is already firmly in place before kids have entered kindgergarten, (see Burkam and Lee and Hart and Risely) and it worsens over time. This leads to significant differences in vocabulary and pre-reading skills which can reduce children’s self-efficacy and confidence and limit their ability to access high level content, especially science.

Though good science teachers can make science engaging, fun and tangible, even to students with low literacy and prerequisite skills, they will have only limited effect on students’ perseverance, ability to concentrate for sustained periods and study habits, all of which are correlated with social class.

Obama’s plan is just another example of blaming teachers for low student achievement while ignoring the larger societal causes. Students are struggling in science primarily for the same reasons they are struggling in other disciplines, with teacher quality being one of the least significant causes.

Nevertheless, more money for the training of good science teachers is not a bad thing. On the contrary. We should be spending more to train teachers in all disciplines and especially in science, but not at the expense of other investments that could provide a bigger bang for the buck in terms of educational outcomes for children, like programs and policies that reduce poverty, support low income families and promote early childhood education.

We should also make sure that once we have invested millions of dollars into training new teachers we also encourage their continuation in the profession with generous pay and benefits packages, on-site mentoring, professional development, respect and academic freedom. Otherwise, high attrition rates will continue and the investment will be a waste. Likewise, we need to give these professionals more autonomy and decision-making authority and not quash their motivation and creativity (nor that of their students) with high stakes exams and lousy standards, or their expensive training will be for naught.

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