28 September 2008


I really don't know where the last week has gone. It's a blur of meetings, road warrior activities, and the occasional stab at sleep---some of it interesting, but mostly not. In other words, it doesn't make for very good blog fodder. And while I've never been 100% sure which purpose this blog would serve, I know that I don't want it to simply be a catalog of the days' minutiae. Most of the time I'm not interested in it. I don't think anyone else would be, either. Therefore, I've been AWOL from the blog.

Amongst the hodgepodge of my days, I have been trying to ponder something a bit larger. I'm just grasping at it for now, but perhaps my always astute Readers might have some direction for me.
What is the purpose in teaching science in public schools?
I think that when I was in the classroom, the answer to this question was much clearer to me. But from the level I operate in now, the answer is mushy. It comes from the difference between being someone trying to shape policy vs. my old life where I just had to carry it out; however, I can't help but think that at a state or national agency, there is an even greater need to have a clear vision. The reason I am wrestling with this now more than ever comes down to the issue of accountability. Here are the two driving questions:
Should adults and students in the public schools be held accountable for what students learn in science? If so, what should that accountability look like?
Let's talk about kids for a moment. If we hold students accountable, then what should that look like? Is earning credit for high school courses enough---if so, how many credits? Should we direct what kinds of courses would be eligible or leave it up to school districts? If we increase requirements, what do we do about schools which don't have enough lab space or can't find high qualified teachers? Do we, instead, insist on using standardized tests as a measure for kids? What does this mean if the number of credits required for graduation would be completed after the test? Do we need a second accountability factor? I've been pondering what types of accountability might make sense and how those might be implemented and monitored. I actually like our standardized test for science in this state---but I can't say that I like that it's tied to graduation (or will be in a few years). When I read something like What Does Educational Testing Really Tell Us? over on Eduwonkette's blog, I can't help but nod in agreement...and yet, I'm hard pressed to suggest alternatives.

As for adults, that's a more difficult issue in some ways. At my place of work, we've had a few discussions about the time students (especially in the elementary grades) have to engage with science content. It's no secret that with the increased pressure on schools to raise achievement in math and reading, science and other content areas are being squeezed out. (see previous posts on studies of time spent on elementary science and its push-pull with literacy) But this brings up another question: How much time is "enough" for each content area? I know that the answer really isn't simple---every child's capabilities are different and every school serves a different population. However, can we make some general observations? Education Week seems to think we might be able to draw a few conclusions on the Effects of Extra Time for Learning. Yes, quantity can help, but quality is more important. "More" does not automatically equal "Better."

The heart of this whole problem is that without an accountability measure (e.g. AYP), schools won't teach (very much) science to kids...which gets me back to my original question: What is our purpose? I think that if this was well-defined, it would be easier to determine whether or not accountability should be required and what that looks like. Instead, we're trying to figure out all of these things at once. It seems disrespectful not to give each part of this issue its own bit of attention.

So, if things have been a bit quiet around ye olde blog, just know that I'm trying to find a way to balance the noise and pressure of my day with what I think my job should really be about. What do you think I should be doing?


Michaele Sommerville said...

I think you should keep doing what you're doing: thinking about things, reflecting, re-evaluating, wondering. It can be a pain though, especially when it feels like all we're doing is treading water, no conclusion or solution in sight.

In kindergarten I've been able to keep science alive and well since the grade is extremely exploratory, experiential. Integrated centers aren't a problem at this stage of course, but I've often seen science limited to three or four "obligatory" experiments or activities peppered throughout the year in the upper grades followed by the expected Science Fair project. Art classes are much more "canned" as well, with little time for students to explore or express themselves. Recess dwindles away too. Funny how math and reading skills don't *explode* with mastery after these alterations to the curriculum, isn't it?



Nancy Flanagan said...

Good morning, Science Goddess.

As Roseanne Rosannadanna on the old Saturday Night Live used to say "You ask a lotta questions." But they're good questions.

I've heard people recently suggesting that we can teach reading using science as if that were a new idea, a kind of two-birds-one-stone process. Well, sure--but we also need to teach science as more than "a bunch of content you can read." Science is its own discipline, its own set of ideas on examining, categorizing and testing phenomena in OUR WORLD!! (sorry, got a little carried away there--and I teach music)

And time is not flexible in secondary schools, as they stand, so we have double-ups in math and language arts to build skills while the most important content (science and social studies) goes begging. I suppose it was only a matter of time (ha) that people in the United States began to prioritize the four (inextricably bound) core content areas--everything else is competitive now, so why shouldn't we pit science against language arts?

Wonderful post. Keep asking questions.

How's the new job?

The Science Goddess said...

You ask a lotta questions, too. :) I like it! Maybe we can find a few answers between us.

The new job has a steep learning curve, so I don't know if I like it yet---but I am enjoying the opportunities to grow and learn. It's good to be me right now. LOL

Anonymous said...

Why teach science? Easy. Human beings, living in a world of media and pundits, need to know how to draw data driven conclusions. And need to be able to critically evaluate the methodology that produced the data.

Math can take care of the conclusions part, but science encompasses both of the above pieces.

How to evaluate? Personally, what I do is I give my students a current scientific journal article that I think they can understand. Then I ask them to write a peer review of it, being as critical as possible. I grade that on a rubric. It tests their knowledge of scientific concepts, the scientific method (even if there is no such thing as THE scientific method), and their ability to draw different, valid, conclusions from the same data. Plus it tests critical thinking and literacy. Can't get much better than that.

Though I teach high school. Not so sure how you'd do it for the lower grades. Perhaps the same thing but with a teacher constructed piece of scientific writing?