Field of Science

Science Education Standards: Can New Recommendations Help 'Mediocre To Awful' States?

This may come as a surprise to many readers, but the USA scores rather poorly in science and math education in comparison to many other countries.  And independent think tanks rank many states’ science standards as poor to awful. 
Several states present evolution as unsettled science—“according to many scientists, biological evolution occurs through natural selection,” say New York State's standards.  Such iffy, wishy-washy standards are a green light for some poor science teaching.  Good old Lincolnland gets a D for its science standards, which don’t even use the word evolution, although things are couched in statements like “describe processes by which organisms change over time using evidence from comparative anatomy and physiology, embryology, the fossil record, genetics and biochemistry”.  This was done “to be less controversial”, as if evolution is still a matter for debate. 
Standards are a very tricky thing.  If you remove standards and just let teachers teach, a lot of good things are going to happen, but a lot of bad things will happen too.  You’d be amazed at how many high school teachers are iffy to downright negative about evolution; many of them actually think in all fairness alternatives should be taught so students can make up their own minds, as if things like this are up to the individual.  In Missouri students may soon be able to avoid any subject, any topic, that might be troubling or bring them to question their core beliefs.  The GOP platform in Texas wants to abolish critical thinking entirely!  Is the USA on a path to pig-ignornance?
So high science standards are important because they determine how curricula and courses are shaped, however if you mandate too many things, then it becomes a check list for your average teacher.  Really good teachers will figure out how to educate no matter what.  In my youth the state of New York had regents exams, state-wide achievement exams in a number of subject areas, and if you were college bound you took these exams, and if you passed them you got a NY State Regents diploma.  We also got a regular high school diploma, but it was a consolation prize.  Our best teachers figured out how to push us along such that the regents exams were the easiest thing we’d done all year.  The worst teachers plodded along topic by topic to cover all the “necessary” things.  Terrible.  So science standards should present levels of knowledge, concepts, but not too many specifics. 
Still a great deal about science education rests with having really good teachers.  You see science is not just a subject area, it’s a process, but many high school teachers have never done science.  And if you don’t know how some knowledge is acquired, how we know various things, what is taught can begin to sound like “this is what we believe” to which others will say, “well, we believe something different”.  A science teacher that hasn’t done science is just like having a swimming coach who can’t swim.  Put that way it seems pretty ludicrous doesn’t it?  You may wonder why this is the case, and the problem is really quite simple, a 4-year education degree has so many education requirements that the amount of science students take is minimal.  There isn’t enough time in a 4 year degree to do anything else.  TPP was assigned to a blue ribbon committee to consider how to upgrade teacher education.  Since no one else was offering any suggestions, TPP suggested that all high school teachers get a regular undergraduate degree in their subject area, and then get certified by getting a master’s degree in education.  In other words, treat them and educate them like professionals, a radical idea.  The idea of having no undergrad degrees in teacher education was too much for this committee to deal with, and it has been reported that they continued to meet, to no apparent success, but you-know-who never found out about any subsequent meetings. 
If a professional educational plan were adopted students on their way to teaching science would have more courses in science and have time and the opportunity to do some research, to experience the process of science, and without question this changes how you view and how you teach science.  Our biology department actually looked into such a change, but we were told it was a state mandate that we have an undergraduate degree in teacher education.  Maybe that committee did have an effect! 


Unknown said...

Excellent post. It's amazing to me that a post doc is qualified to teach college courses, but not high school ones. I Think that if we treated teachers like professionals, and respected and paid them accordingly (along with increased expectations in performance and education level), there wouldn't be an education crisis in the US.

GMP said...

I am originally from a small country in Europe. All high-school teachers have a BS in their subject, and with that alone you can teach part-time (I did when I started grad school). If you want full-time employment, then there are additional certifications you need to get, but they are a few tests, nothing more.

Even to teach specific subjects in (the equivalent of) middle school, the teacher has to have had at least two full years of college courses in the major.

The education degree alone where I come from is an associate's degree and allows you to teach only grades 1-4 (there is no kindergarten).

Lindsay said...

"A science teacher who hasn't done science is just like having a swimming coach who can't swim."

Yep. I think this is true for math teachers, too --- I remember whenever my calculus teacher in high school took a day off, the odds would be pretty good that the substitute they found for her didn't even know calculus. Like, at all, not even "oh, I took calculus back in college, [mumble]ty years ago, and I fear I might be a little rusty" --- nope, never even had it to begin with.

Didn't the President say something once about making it easier for people who majored in a math or science field to go into teaching? I think I remember a speech where he said that.

The Phytophactor said...

Without question that is true for math, but to be a good teacher not only must you know your math and science, you must know how to explain or provide an understanding of what you know. One of the worst math teachers ever was also one of the best at doing math, but on some intuitive level. You could never follow his reasoning because there wasn't any at our level.