Science Education: Another Casualty of NCLB?

"If you can hear my voice, show me a Joshua Tree Cactus...
If you can hear my voice, show me a butterfly's proboscis."

As soon as I gave these instructions, the twenty or so first graders at my student teaching placement in San Leandro, CA quickly struck a pose, arms out, with their fingers sprawled in all directions (Joshua Trees)... and then just as quickly made a curling motion out from their nose with their hands (proboscises). This was a fun way I had come up with of getting their attention, which had the added benefit of reinforcing what we had been learning in our science units on plants and butterflies this semester. As part of their science curriculum the students explored the parts and functions of plants, the relationship of plants to their habitats, and the life cycles of butterflies. Much of what they learned came from acting as real scientists: they observed the growth of their personal bean plants and noted what plants need to live and grow; they dissected different parts of a plant; and they got to raise their very own class butterflies from caterpillars and chart their development. They also sang songs to help them remember names and facts and they even went on two field trips related to science -- one to see carnivorous plants at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco and one to observe butterflies in the wild at a migration destination on the edge of a golf course. Needless to say, the children loved it, and I know that they learned a great deal both about these content areas and about the nature of science itself.

At the same time I know that less than 9 miles away, at the "program improvement" school I was placed at in Oakland last year, these sorts of experiences would be nearly impossible. In my eight week placement at that school there was not time for a single lesson on science, and I know that this trend most likely continued for the rest of the year. Due to the overwhelming pressure to improve math and reading scores for the school, in order to meet No Child Left Behind requirements, the students spent the entire morning on Open Court reading lessons, with the afternoons similarly devoted to math instruction. What was lost in the scramble was time for stand-alone lessons in subjects like art, music, science, and community-building. Because the middle class San Leandro school I am teaching has scored higher on the state-wide STAR tests it is allowed to spend more time on these subjects, which I believe have immense value and greatly improve the students' overall learning experience. Thus, when I look at these two student teaching placements side-by-side, I find that something is clearly wrong with this picture of education in America.

The U.S. Department of Education claims "America's schools are not producing the science excellence required for global economic leadership and homeland security in the 21st century." While one of the principal underlying messages here is good -- that we need to pay more attention to science education in the US -- another implication, which is being echoed around the country, is that our main problem lies in schools not knowing how to teach science. This notion, I believe, deserves closer inspection. The Urban Institute, in fact, did just that, and in the fall of 2007 came out with a report that stated "the data we have reviewed suggest that secondary and higher education systems are providing more than adequate supply [of science and engineering graduates] for industry's hiring needs."

So maybe there isn't a dramatic problem with our supply of scientists now... but will there be? I worry that the facts of this debate could change dramatically in several years when the impact of what Richard Rothstein terms "curriculum narrowing" (LA Times Editorial, 11/27/07) in our public schools as a result of No Child Left Behind gets fully realized. If schools continue to focus solely on math and reading in the elementary grades in order to improve their test scores, then it's likely that the affected students won't be adequately prepared for high school AP science classes, and much less advanced degrees and careers in science. Clearly this impact would be greater for students attending "program improvement" schools like my former school in Oakland, but the pressure to score high on standardized tests is felt throughout the public school system.

One could argue that more testing in science is the solution to all of this, in order to hold schools "accountable" for science as well. That is, in fact, part of the U.S. Department of Education's stated plans. I worry, however, that this could lead us down a slippery slope in which all of the goals of public education-from an understanding of history to an appreciation of the arts-will be accompanied by a high -- stakes test with resulting punitive consequences for low-income and minority schools. Is that really what we want our education system to look like?

The idealist in me would like to think we could pull ourselves out of this rapidly deepening hole we're digging and take a broader view of the purposes of education. Just as I don't think we should teach art simply to produce enough Picassos and Rembrandts among our populace, I would argue that we shouldn't teach science just to ensure American competitiveness in the modern globalized field of science. Maybe we should also teach it because it's a field that we value as a society, and because we find the study of science to be enriching to the lives of individuals. This would mean that all students should have a shot at learning science, not just those at the "high performing" schools. And maybe, just maybe, in the process of learning about Joshua Tree Cacti and butterfly proboscises, these children will decide that learning is fun... and should be freely pursued throughout one's life.

Tamara Henry is a second year graduate student in UC Berkeley's Developmental Teacher Education program.Through this program she is pursuing her Masters degree in Education and an elementary teaching credential.So far she has student taught in four different schools in the San Francisco Bay Area at a variety of grade levels.She hopes to be an active proponent of education reform throughout her teaching career.

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