Saturday, January 17, 2009

Why Johnny Can’t Calculate Speed

FortBendNow has an interesting article that I just read, twice, about the state of science education in a local Texas school district. As a science teacher myself, I was interested to find out what administrators think about science instruction, and what they think will improve student performance.

Student performance as measured by a statewide science test, the Science portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills or TAKS.

A test that has become so discredited that it has been voted out of existence by the state legislature as of 2011.

From FortBendNow:

“Herron noted that while the district has made significant gains on many areas of the TAKS tests in recent years, the science portion of the test is not producing the results that teachers and administrators believe that students are capable of achieving.”

In other words, despite all of its best efforts, Texas’ elementary science instruction endeavors have failed to improve its students’ TAKS Science test scores.

Have you ever seen a TAKS Science test? You can, you know. They released the 2003 to 2006 tests to the public and it is available here.

TAKS Science tests are truly exceptional instruments, and I don’t mean that in a good way. These tests contain some of the most obtuse concepts. You see countless questions that test a student’s knowledge of “The Scientific Method,” a mythical series of steps in scientific inquiry that no one uses out there in the real world.

You see entire series of questions where an existing system, or even one that no longer exists, is analyzed with a wide variety of science applications. Now this sounds really nice but in reality, testing a student’s knowledge of science by requiring a sophisticated analysis of applied sciences goes way beyond what is taught.

Goes way beyond what is in the curriculum.

And this is something that is special to Science TAKS tests. The other tests are far more closely aligned with what is actually taught.

But enough ranting over TAKS. It is going away and like the final exit of the Bush Administration, that day can’t come too soon.

The FortBendNow article also reports the areas that have been targeted by the district audit of its elementary science instruction – areas where improvement can be made.

These areas are:

  • Professional development to build teachers’ science content knowledge.
  • Professional development to build inquiry-based teaching strategies.
  • Professional development to integrate technology into science instruction.
  • Professional development to increase the rigor of science instruction.
  • Enhanced resources for science instruction

Did you get that first one? Science instruction suffers because elementary school teachers don’t know anything about science.

Gee, no kidding.

Not to criticize my colleagues, but should anyone be surprised that a firm grasp of scientific concepts is not number one on the list of things elementary school teachers have? Or number 10?

But wait, there’s more. How many times does it happen that you tend to remember the first thing you learned about something? More often than not really. That’s something you learn when you take a class in the theory of learning. Elementary school teachers have the first crack at unleashing scientific knowledge on eager young minds. And sometimes, not surprisingly, they get it wrong.

I can’t count the number of students that I finally get as they are about to leave public school education who know for a fact that “the sky is blue because it reflects the ocean”.

Someone in elementary school keeps telling the kids this, and I want them to just stop it.

And finally, did you get the second one? Inquiry-based teaching strategies.

Someday someone is going to tell the school boards of this country the truth about inquiry. Yes, studies show that learning improves when the student is engaged in an inquiry-based activity. No one disputes that. Here are the two problems that an inquiry-based lesson has:

Inquiry-based lessons take too long.

For inquiry to occur, a student must be inquisitive.

After you subtract out all of the testing days, all of the days of distractions, that 183-day school year is more like a 120-day year. Given that, which lesson will a teacher opt for, a 2-day inquiry lab where Newton’s 2nd Law is rediscovered, or a 45 minute lab that reconfirms it?

I’ll tell you why the 45-minute lab is the way to go. Many of today’s science students are not very inquisitive. They just aren’t all that curious. What they want to do is to extract from the teacher what it is they are seeing in the lab and write that down quickly so they can get back to playing games on their scientific calculators and texting their friends about what is on the Biology test.

Sorry, but that is what a classroom teacher sees, as opposed to what an Education PhD reveals when they unveil their latest flavor of the day.

So what is the solution? Don't ask me, I'm just a science teacher. But I have a couple of suggestions.

When you stop making it all about the grades and the test scores, when you start respecting teachers again and start paying teachers a living wage that will attract high quality professionals to the classroom, when administrators stop building impediments by embracing false educational myths and flavors of the day, when you do these things you will start to see positive change in student performance.

And America can get back to work building better mousetraps.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your commentary on the subject.

One minor correction. This year the number of days elementary children receive real instruction is down by another day because they spent all day watching the inauguration.

Hal said...

Normally I would agree with you, Anon, but in this case, watching a presidential inauguration is such a valuable teaching moment that the time lost to watching the ceremony is time well spent.

Anonymous said...

Did you feel this way when GWB or GHWB were inaugurated?

Hal said...

When GWHB was inaugurated I was living overseas and couldn't give a tinker's dam about the outcome.

When GWB was inaugurated I was among the millions who were outraged over how the Supreme Court delivered the election to the loser. But, again, I wasn't teaching at the time so the lesson of the moment was lost on me. Had I thought about it as a classroom teacher I would have regarded it as a teaching moment as well.

Teaching our eager learners of the 21st century that it is OK to cheat. OK to lie. OK to steal.

Just don't get caught.

Anonymous said...

So, he wasn't your President. And you never got over it?

Hal said...

No, obviously.

The man who, in 2000, was never legally elected President of the United States drove our country into the ground. His mistakes were incalculable. His ego was enormous. His hubris destroyed our standing in the world.

That he was never actually elected to the office he served in for the 1st four years of his term is the only explanation we Americans can offer to the world in explanation for our years of misconduct - and war crimes.

For the 2nd 4 years, we have no valid excuse.