Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Shoddy Science By Scientific American

“Experience and degrees don’t matter in the classroom nearly so much as mastery of science and math and some plain old smarts,” (Pat Wingert, Scientific American, August 2012).

Image from Flickr, by IrisDragon
Scientific American generally does a pretty good job of presenting exciting new discoveries in a clear and accurate manner. However, Pat Wingert’s piece, “Building a Better Science Teacher,” falls far short. In fact, it is outright embarrassing for its shoddy science and journalism.

To start with, her lead paragraph contains a math error. While I am happy to write this off as a typo, brain fart or slip up by the editors, a first impression often sets a negative tone for what follows—in this case, more of the usual education reform nonsense.

Let’s examine the above quote concerning experience versus “mastery of science.” Few teachers begin their careers with a mastery of every aspect of the content standards. The standards for some disciplines (e.g., life science) are so broad that it is impossible to master all of them. Consider that even a tenured professor in cell biology is unlikely to also have mastery of ecology, evolution and the nervous system (though he or she likely has a broad, general knowledge of them). Yet a high school biology teacher is expected to master each of these subjects sufficiently to not only teach the facts, but to identify the prerequisite knowledge necessary for teenagers to understand them and ensure that his or her students have mastered this, too.

It is through experience, not mastery, that teachers learn where their students tend to struggle and where they will need additional support and background knowledge. This forces a reflective teacher to not only learn that material more deeply, but to figure out how to make it more tangible and accessible to her students. Furthermore, an experienced teacher can quickly master new content, as I have had to do on numerous occasions when asked to teach a course I have never taught. An experienced teacher also develops the ability to make that science exciting and fun for children. She learns how to identify their particular academic strengths and weaknesses, manage their behavior, design engaging and meaningful lessons and lab activities, write good exams, and deal with the often conflicting demands of administrators, colleagues and parents. Mastery of science has little to do with these teaching responsibilities.

Wingert, like many who write about education reform, has identified a school (Troy Prep in New York) that has high science and math test scores on standardized exams despite having a predominantly lower income student body, and she uses this anecdotal example to draw the conclusion that Troy Prep has somehow found the magic formula that has eluded other low income schools in the country.

From a scientific point of view her example might be called intriguing and worth exploring, but certainly nothing close to compelling. Troy Prep is merely one example. In science, we need to have a statistically significant number of examples with similar results before we start getting excited. One reason for this standard is that the result might be coincidental. Her article provides no evidence of why their test scores are high or even if they have the ability to maintain those high scores. Troy Prep could have higher test scores for reasons that have nothing to do with teachers’ skill, experience or “smarts.” For example, it might attract a higher than normal percentage of students who have an interest in science and math or who have families that are more involved in their children’s education. They might receive more funding and support from philanthropists with STEM backgrounds. They might even push out students who tend to score lower on standardized tests.

Even if the school has found a legitimate and reproducible way to boost test scores, this is not evidence that its students are learning more science or learning it better. Most standardized science tests assess students’ knowledge of basic facts, like the role of mitochondria or their ability to translate DNA sequences into amino acid sequences, not mastery of the scientific process. The tests do not assess the ability to design a controlled experiment or critique the merits of an experimental design. Students are not expected to generate original data or draw logical conclusions from that data. Furthermore, most of the things that are tested can be taught through rote memorization and pen and pencil simulations and do not require that students engage in authentic science. The consequence is that even students who do well on standardized exams are not necessarily prepared to think scientifically or to explain why a particular scientific explanation is valid (or not).

Wingert makes another common error by drawing conclusions from a statistic that are not supported by that statistic. In this case, she uses Eric Hanushek’s claim that highly effective teachers make about three times the academic gains of those with less talented teachers, regardless of students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, to support her argument that a “good teacher trumps such factors as socioeconomic status, class size, curriculum design and parents’ educational levels.”

While it stands to reason that a good teacher will have more success with her students than a mediocre one, it does not necessarily follow that she will be able to overcome the effects of poverty or that she will be effective with all of her students. For example, her classes might get better overall test scores than those of her mediocre peer, yet she could still have a significant number of students who do poorly on the tests because they are reading far below grade level, have too many absences, do not do homework or have trouble focusing for extended periods of time—all problems that are more common among lower income students.

Numerous studies have found that an achievement gaps exists before children even begin school (see here,  here and here) and that it tends to grow over time. Poor children may come to school hungry or malnourished, which affects their ability to concentrate. They tend to miss far more school than their more affluent peers because of lack of health insurance, which decreases the chances they will graduate on time. Poor children have higher rates of lead poisoning, iron deficiency anemia, low birth weights and other health issues that can lead to learning disabilities or cognitive impairment. And they suffer more familial stress which can lead to chronically higher levels of cortisol in the blood, which some researchers suggest can impair memory and learning. Furthermore, lower income children have less access to enriching extracurricular activities after school and during the summers that contribute to the academic growth of their more affluent peers. Children who fall behind their peers, particularly in math and reading, tend to fall behind in other subjects as a result. Many lose self-confidence and self-efficacy and, as a result, tune out or give up on school.

Mastery of science content does not make a teacher better able to address these seemingly intractable problems, though it certainly could make the teacher better able to design authentic science lab activities for those students who have the requisite skills to benefit from such curriculum. Experience, on the other hand, is far more likely to help a teacher serve the diverse needs of today’s classroom. For example, experience not only helps a teacher learn to recognize when a student is losing focus or misbehaving because of hunger, pain or familial stress, but also to develop strategies for helping that student survive in the classroom.

It would behoove Wingert to not only pay closer attention to the logic (or illogic) of her arguments, but to also look more closely at the breadth of work of those she cites. Eric Hanushek (whom she quotes to support her claim that teacher expertise trumps socioeconomic status),  also said that less than 10% of students’ academic success is attributable to teacher quality and the rest was due to other factors, including students’ socioeconomic status.

Wingert also makes a number of interesting claims without providing any citations, which is frustrating for those of us who would like to read the studies. However, it also draws into question the validity of her claims. For example, she says that “several studies indicate higher math achievement among students whose teachers hold an advanced degree in math,” yet she does not identify any of these studies or their authors.

Nevertheless, it does seem likely that a more in-depth training in their disciplines would benefit teachers in concrete ways. For example, one would expect them to be better able to answer students’ questions, make connections to current research trends and discoveries, and to design more authentic science activities.

Yet even if advanced training does improve the quality of teaching, one must consider whether the costs are worth it. Requiring advanced degrees for math and science teachers would also require significantly higher pay and probably greater autonomy and academic freedom, too. Anything short of this and those highly trained scientists and mathematicians will go to work in academia or private industry where they could make a lot more money and have a significantly higher social status, with a lot less of the aggravation. As it stands, too many teachers from all disciplines leave the profession because of dissatisfaction with the overwhelming and often unreasonable demands, low status and pay.
Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
 Of course there are many out there who would argue, “Yes, it is worth it—anything to improve our schools!” But these same “reformers” seem to have no interest in increasing taxes to a level that would permit ample funding of our schools or provide the services and support that would shrink the wealth gap or give lower income children some of the same developmental advantages that affluent families take for granted.

There are numerous reforms that would probably give more bang for the buck than requiring higher degrees for teachers. For example, many districts, in response to the harsh punishments of NCLB, have slashed science curriculum in the k-5 grades in order to create more space for test prep. As a result, many kids now receive little or no science education prior to middle school. Thus, ending NCLB and the testing mania that has decimated education over the past decade seem like the cheapest and most expedient ways to improve science education and achievement.

Other relatively inexpensive reforms include requiring preschool or head start, particularly for lower income children, as it would help close the achievement gap before kids start school and improve their chances of being academically ready for science. Likewise, state-funded summer school could help shrink the achievement gap that typically occurs during the summer.

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