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You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive October 2011 Science and Technology: The Newest Frills

Science and Technology: The Newest Frills

  • 10-28-2011
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Themes in the News for the week of Oct. 24-28, 2011

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State and federal school-testing programs do little to improve instruction. By themselves, they do nothing to enable schools, principals, teachers and parents to work smarter. This week’s reports show how current testing policies can make us less smart; high-stakes tests narrow the mission of schools and restrict students’ preparation for key sectors of their communities and the economy.

When there’s news of test scores improving, declining or reaching certain thresholds, it’s usually only about English language scores and math scores. Those scores can determine schools’ reputations and sometimes their survival, not to mention educators’ jobs and salaries. So when schools are struggling with budgets, it’s predictable that instructional time and resources would be drained from subjects that that don’t directly boost language and math scores. Quickest to depart the curriculum were courses often related to students’ health and well-being, such as driver’s ed, cooking, aerobics, etc. Next, the arts hit the chopping block: choral and instrumental music, art appreciation, drawing, etc. Then civics and social studies. And now, science and technology are endangered. Are these the newest educational frills?

As with most problems facing American schools, the effects of neglecting science and technology education are felt most deeply by minorities and poor students. The Boston Globe reported that although African Americans are roughly 11 percent of the population, they received just 4 percent of master’s degrees and 2 percent of the Ph.D.s in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in 2009.

The problem, especially for children in poor neighborhoods, starts in elementary school. Students are not exposed to quality science education, according to a report commissioned by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning and conducted by UC Berkeley and SRI International. Released this week, High Hopes-Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California surveyed more than 1,100 teachers, principals and school administrators. The survey found that just 10 percent of students receive “quality” science education. Sixty percent of the respondents reported they don’t have staff dedicated to science and 85 percent said their schools don’t offer professional development in science (San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Times, California Progress Report, Whittier Daily News).

Even when science courses are listed in the curriculum, teachers may lack the deep knowledge necessary to make learning meaningful and relevant to other topics—teaching students “to do investigations, to discover things, to ask research questions, to collect data, interpret the data and report it out,” said Patrick Shields, director of SRI International, who led the study (KPCC). Standardized tests don’t assess whether students are equipped and eager for many high-level 21st century careers. Of course, application-oriented, hands-on assessments are possible, but there’s little pay-off for these if the accountability structure doesn’t value the content. In calculating a school’s Academic Performance Index score, for example, English counts for 57 percent, whereas science is 6 percent (San Jose Mercury News).

It’s not as if American teachers can’t teach or their students can’t learn science, technology, engineering, and math:  trained teachers—like those in the college-preparatory Exploring Computer Science program, a partnership between UCLA and LAUSD—are teaching students to make connections, develop problem-solving skills, learn web design and programming, use technology to analyze data, and more.

Teachers will get students excited enough to pursue the STEM fields as careers just as soon as society decides that they (the subjects and the students) are important enough.

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Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.