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Ask a scientist in their mid 50s or older where they were in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy spoke to Congress about the urgency of sending a man to the moon, and chances are they’ll remember.

After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, into space in 1957, competing against the Russians in science and technology became a national obsession. The federal government poured money into improving science education, sponsoring summer institutes on college campuses for K-12 teachers and awarding grants to science education experts to develop cutting-edge textbooks and curricula. The American students who studied science during this period went on to invent the artificial heart, the personal computer, rockets that have flown to Mars and two-in-one shampoo.

Reform agenda

Science educators and researchers consider these four areas particularly ripe for reform:


There’s a growing consensus that students study too many science topics, but not in enough depth. “Many existing national, state and local standards and assessments, as well as the typical curricula in use in the United States, contain too many disconnected topics given equal priority,” a 2006 report from the National Research Council found. The NRC recently launched a project to write a new set of national standards with the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other groups that will identify a more manageable set of essential concepts that students must understand. The NRC’s previous science education standards, published in 1996, have strongly influenced state standards.

Elementary education

Sixty-five percent of scientists and science graduate students said their interest in science began before middle school, according to a study in the March 2010 International Journal of Science Education. Women were more likely to report that their interest was sparked by school-related activities, while most men said trying experiments at home and reading science fiction inspired them.


STEM education experts want to see more inquiry and problem-solving in science classrooms, especially at the high school level. The College Board is revising its AP science courses, beginning with biology, to reduce emphasis on memorizing facts and promote understanding of the scientific process through inquiry-based laboratories. In districts where in-school time is consumed with reading and math, after-school programs that give students opportunities to experiment can provide a similar boost, says Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It does not substitute, but in a pinch, it’s better than nothing,” she says.


Not enough science majors teach science. Forty percent of fifth grade students in 2004 were taught math and science by teachers with a degree or certificate in those fields, federal data show. Only about one-third of high school physics teachers have a major in physics or physics education, the American Association of Physics Teachers reports. The National Science Teachers Association has long pushed to pay science teachers more than teachers in other subject areas to attract science majors away from industry jobs. “We need to get more scientists more connected to the teaching community,” says the Malcom of the AAAS. “The teaching community has not been perceived as the front lines of the scientific enterprise, but it is.”

In the years since, however, enthusiasm for science has faded. Teachers stopped turning on the television for space shuttle launches, and the federal government declared other national priorities, such as fighting terrorism at home and abroad. Hollywood and the news media once treated people in science, like John Glenn and Carl Sagan, as rock stars.

No longer.

While American students do better in science than they do in math on international comparisons, over time, science scores have not improved, while math scores have risen, and other countries have caught up. Eighth-graders’ scores on the on the 2007 Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), put the United States in the middle of the pack in science achievement, behind nine other countries, including Japan and Russia.

The United States also does not have as high a percentage of top science students as those countries do. Ten percent of American eighth-graders hit the advanced benchmark on TIMSS 2007, compared with 32 percent of students in Singapore and 13 percent of students in Hungary.

In the first seven years of the 21st century, the number of people entering science and engineering jobs grew at the smallest rate since the National Science Foundation began tracking the data in the 1950s. Foreign scientists have filled the jobs left open by Americans who lack the interest or ability to do them—25 percent of all college-educated workers in U.S. science and engineering jobs in 2003 were born abroad—but they can’t work on national defense projects and may be tempted to return home as the aerospace and pharmaceutical industries take off outside the U.S.

At the same time, scientific illiteracy is high. According to a 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only 52 percent of Americans know that stem cells can develop into many different types of cells, and 65 percent know that carbon dioxide is a gas linked to rising temperatures. Only 47 percent of adults know what percentage of the earth’s surface is covered by water, a 2009 California Academy of Sciences survey finds.

Results on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science, released in January 2011, show that American students have a long way to go to improve their science skills. The 2009 test was revamped to keep up with scientific developments, so can’t be compared to prior tests, but experts were generally dismayed.

About two thirds of fourth- and eighth-graders performed below proficient on the test, and high school students did worse. Only a fifth of 12th graders were proficient or better on the test. Southern states did worse than northern states, and black and Hispanic students scored significantly lower than white and Asian students.

The state of science education is troubling because, increasingly, making personal choices, like whether to vaccinate children or how much energy to use, requires an understanding of science, educators say. In the political sphere, “there are only two possible outcomes to science illiteracy,” says James Trefil, a physics professor at George Madison University and author of “Why Science?” “The decisions get made by an elite or they get made by a demagogue.”

He blames some science educators for shutting students out. “There’s this idea that if you’re not going to be a physicist, if you can’t do the math, we don’t want to talk to you,” he says. “That sends the message that science is something for only a small elite. It’s not. It’s something everybody can understand.”

Presidential priorities

In 2009, President Barack Obama launched a new campaign to boost science education, called “Educate to Innovate.

“Yes, improving education in math and science is about producing engineers and researchers and scientists and innovators who are going to help transform our economy and our lives for the better. But it’s also about something more,” he said. “It’s about an informed citizenry in an era where many of the problems we face as a nation are, at root, scientific problems.”

Educate to Innovate has assembled a group of companies and nonprofits that will use private sector dollars to develop television programming, public service announcements and Web sites to drum up interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities.

Other signs that the Obama administration has science education on its radar: In the Education Department’s Race to the Top competition for $4.35 billion in education grants, states got bonus points for strategies to improve science learning; the winners of the first round, Delaware and Tennessee, both earned the maximum number of points. The president has asked for $1 billion in the government’s fiscal year 2011 budget to improve K-12 STEM education, an increase of 40 percent over the previous year. The request includes $300 million for professional development and evaluating what programs work.

The administration has also taken a stab at making science seem cool by hosting events like “Astronomy Night” for middle school students on the White House lawn.

Science educators say they need every scrap of support the Obama administration can throw their way to make up for time lost during the George W. Bush era. President Bush’s signature education law, No Child Left Behind, threatened to withhold funding from schools that failed to make progress on reading and math tests, so many elementary schools replaced science with extra reading and math prep.

science education reform

“There was more damage done to science education in this country than was ever thought possible because No Child Left Behind did not talk about science,” says Jan Morrison, executive director of the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that designs STEM education programs for schools. “For years we’re going to suffer from that.”

Many also believe positions that Bush administration officials took, including questioning theories that are not controversial among scientists like climate change and evolution, misled the public on what science tells us about the natural world. In contrast, Obama’s advisors have been lauded by the scientific community for their discoveries. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science who’s studied the causes of climate change; Eric Lander, co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project; and Harold Varmus, the other co-chair, is a former head of the National Institutes of Health who won a Nobel Prize for identifying genes that can lead to cancer.

The Obama administration’s focus on reforming the American school system as a whole—the four changes it’s pushing are higher common standards, new ways of paying and retaining teachers, using data to inform decisions and turning around low-performing schools—may do as much to improve science education as the STEM-boosting initiatives the government is funding, says Michael Lach, a special assistant for STEM issues at the Education Department.

“A lot of the work in the past has thought that we can reform STEM education without really tackling the existing education system,” he says. “You can’t.”

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Letters to the Editor

40 Letters

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  1. The always-entertaining Neil deGrasse Tyson (he hosts NOVA scienceNow) was a 6th grader in the Bronx when he got a chance to take an astronomy course at Hayden Planetarium. He’s paid it forward by offering free after-school courses in topics like astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. The kind of hands-on science that excites kids and gets them thinking about doing science for life is not a great fit with 50-minute school periods. Don’t underestimate the power of the movement led by organizations like the Noyce Foundation & many others to get kids turned on to science by offering them opportunities outside of school hours to do science that doesn’t feel like obligatory course work. It feels like fun. For more kids to take up challenging science majors in college, they have to be better prepared academically. But they also have to want to do it.

  2. Once No Child Left Behind came out, science was pushed to the back while mathematics and reading were pushed to the front. We will be paying for that mistake for awhile until they link math and reading with science while incorporating good inquiry investigations that are relevant to the student.

  3. The most damage to science initiatives was done by CNN. Their production values pale in comparison to FOX NASCAR events. How is it that more people are excited by a car going only 200 mph than a shuttle piercing thin atmosphere at 17,000 mph!!! Yet when CNN and NASA cover the event, you have a still shot of the shuttle above earth, floating, quiet, boring, … zzzzzzzz.

    Oh, and the landings, how riveting… NOT! Miles O’Brien holding a mini-model of the space shuttle on a stick showing angle of entry. and the camera angles showing the shuttle, floating down to earth. Oooo, touch down.

    NASA is not media savvy. Their billion dollar rockets got beat by million dollar stock cars.

    Stop looking for a “Sputnik” event. Find the NASCAR event that gets kids and people excited, involved, engaged and feeling the speed and danger.

  4. As science and math move front and center in the political arena, please remember that without the arts in education and our daily lives scientists, engineers, and mathematicians will not have the necessary imagination and inspiration to create and innovate. Please continue support for the Arts in Education and for the National Endowment for the Arts.

  5. NASA video game? And watch, NASA is making the same mistake with their new MMO video game. Boring, slow, grey moon environment, no speed, no action, no fantasy that gets you really wondering and thinking. They want to base it on real data and real missions. SNOOZER!, at least that’s the way it plays. Don’t take my word for it, play the demo on Steam and see what you think.

    It’s nothing like Unreal or Halo which are the gold standards that have caught the imagination of all kinds of boys, not just science and math geeks.

    NASA is media illiterate. This generation is NASCAR not NASA.

  6. Science is important and fascinating, but without mathematics it is meaningless. So there is a need to improve mathematics education and connect it to science. Both departments should work together in improving math and science education.

  7. The average high school student does not care to wonder. They just want to know what they need to know in order to pass the test. As a high school science teacher, how many times have I heard: “Can’t you just tell me the answer?”. I *feel* like saying: “Can’t you be curious enough to stretch your brain and put the pieces together so that you understand why your answer is the right answer?”. The average student is missing some critical experience–some connection with the world –that will make their education relevant. PARENTS: take your children outside, explore the world, teach them to ask meaningful questions…about anything, and then search for the answers with them. It can’t all be up to the schools. Curiosity and wonder can be taught at home, too; then our school’s will have something to work with.

  8. In some sense. I was a rocket scientist but it doesn’t take one to address science learning; a few suggestions:

    1. ALL youngsters are curious and very much into inquiry. Educators have to tap into that instead of ignoring or fighting it.

    2. Any college graduate with general education courses can facilitate elementary science inquiry; don’t hide behind the excuse of poor preparation.

    3. All high school and “common sense” science is more than enough to allow parents / families / communities to work with young science learners.

    4. Don’t be afraid to learn WITH young science learners; research shows learners do best when working with adults believed to be learning with them.

    5. Consistent with especially #4, if it happens (as has for me with young learners including grandchildren) that the young learners are ahead of you, for sure let them take the lead; everyone gains!

    6. As this piece had done, be aware of the type of standardized assessment being reported. Beyond the core knowledge (my definition: knowledge that allows one to find new information and be able to understand / evaluate usefulness of / use it and/or talk with experts and learn from the conversation), tests of content are worthless while tests of skills using information are valuable.

    7. Because of the Internet and open-source digital materials, traditional textbooks should be valued for any attention given to effective learning, effective problem solving, and any book topic related skills only.

    8. The engagement of companies, laboratories, museums, communities, individuals, non-profits, entrepreneurs, and public entities (including but not limited to libraries, parks, nature preserves, and wildlife sanctuaries) is absolutely critical – BUT this must be done in cooperation with more formal education efforts.

    9. Don’t look for the heroes or stars and expect them to do the heavy work; rather recruit a broad coalition of parties to spread the heavy work, expecting (knowing) that the heroes and starts will for sure engage WITH the coalition.

    10. Finally, with the coalitions of #9, work to brainstorm, analyze options, plan, implement, continuously assess, and continuously refine solutions to any problem in general – larger numbers choosing STEM careers (here) in particular. ONE PROVISO: every party must accept that there will be an outcome that is better that the solution championed presently by any party involved. The effort must be a search for a better alternative – NOT a defense of or vote on the best of current options. As I believe as as Stephen Covey writes, such a better alternative almost certainly exists and will emerge because of the positive and cooperative efforts made.

  9. “1. ALL youngsters are curious and very much into inquiry. ”

    > True; at birth.

    2. “…don’t hide behind the excuse of poor preparation.”

    > Years of poor preparation (neglect? ignorance?) takes a heavy toll on a youngster’s innate curiosity.

  10. I have taught science for the last 25 years. Have taught kindergarten and college students. Ran a successful NSF funded Science education program (till the monies were taken for Reading and Math, hence the end of the program). Through all of these experiences there was one common denominator; to have a successful science education program you must begin instruction at kindergarten, remove the fear that many teachers in elementary school have about science education and promote true hands-on science inquiry supported by content and the art of questioning.

  11. I’ve been in the education business for about 50 years. Started in the High Schools then to the Elementary Schools then on to the College level. Math, Science and Technolog Education are my backgrounds. Although, Business Educaation and Administration is a close 4th. Math can be irrelevant to most students because most Math teachers can’t connect it to “the real world” of Science and Technology. Science can be fun and interesting as long as we don’t get the kids bogged-down in the math. Teach much of the science first and the need for the math will become obvious. Teach Technology to all of them and they will really see a need for it all!

  12. The historically unprecedented search for improvements in education has been escalating ever since 1830 when we unscientifically assimilated the historic educational intellectual elimination process and tried to make it serve the natural intellectual development of all children. Another reason for the educational search is a consequence of the scientific and resulting technologies that are changing the human physical survival needs to intellectual. This is a human evolutionary change that needs to be understood. The science that is used today is about the students response to the systems externally projected learning goals of the historic elimination process. Scientifically the natural basic intellectual development process for all life is survival and it is internally motivated at the individual’s level that becomes a beginning conscious experience in the age span of 2 1/2 to 3. It is at that point in the natural conscious intellectual begins to take place. At that point the scientific need is to understand how to, as positive as possible, provide a natural intellectual development that facillatates the natural internal development process. When the child’s educational experience is based upon their physical to abstract experience their educational experience becomes scientific and not just from external curriculum.

  13. The word I’m seeing the least here . . . is the “E” word! When Sputnik was launched, the average “man about the house” needed to be a “Mr. Fixit.” A housewife needed to jam a mixer back together with a screwdriver — always ready in the kitchen drawer. The kids? Think “Little House on the Prairie.”

    In short, we had to use ingenuity — every day!

    When NASA was formed, all we heard on the news was “NASA engineers today . . . ” It was so inspiring that when I entered college I found tons of guys (why is it a ‘guy’ thing?) whose parents had directed them away from their family roots in medicine and law and into engineering where the new future lay.

    Naturally we figured kids all knew what engineering was — literally, the exercise of ingenuity. So naturally, we instituted “Science” classes to supplement “The Three Rs.” Little did we suspect that engineering would become so effective that it disappeared inside of excellent, convenient products like microwave ovens and cell phones and iPads.

    Engineering is invisible! But when we tell the kids that it comes from “ingens” and “er” . . . a person who practices ingenuity . . . all their bells begin to ring! What kid can’t relate to ingenuity? What kid doesn’t use ingenuity? As Susan Brenna says “hands-on science . . . feels like fun!” As Robert Clegg says “NASCAR … involved, engaged and feeling the speed and danger!” and RICHARD: “The average student is missing some critical experience — some connection with the world that will make their education relevant.”

    John Bennett says, “ALL youngsters are curious and very much into inquiry.” RICHARD adds “at birth!” Does anyone here know a child who didn’t engineer a way to turn over in her crib, alone and without instruction? To crawl across the floor, without prompting?

    This is engineering! Building a bird’s nest is engineering. Engineering, and the technology that it develops, from shelter (Maslow’s highest need) to language to text to creating a recipe to making a battery . . . This is not science. This is engineering. Engineering makes science relevant — who would want to engineer something using broken facts? Engineering demands mathematics — who could engineer something without an understanding of quantities? Engineering is art — “mankind’s ability to make things.”

    Were it not for the innate practice of ingenuity, we would never have imagined the questions that science answers, nor been able to measure and predict the needs and results that only math can do.

    When I give a two year old a battery and a motor, she figures out on her own that it runs in two directions depending on the way she hooks up the wires. Talk about inspiration! About inquiry!

    We need to talk about engineering, folks!

    All the rest follows.

  14. I’ve been a professional scientist (B.S. Caltech in chemistry, PhD Columbia in chemistry, chemistry professor, industrial research scientist), a professional technologist, and an educator. For the last ten years, I’ve focused entirely on science education and what to do about it. Many of the previous comments are quite accurate but don’t point to a scalable and sustainable means to get students exposed to real science repeatedly throughout their education. It’s not just about making new scientists; it’s about improving science literacy.

    The measures of science literacy in the article are misleading. Why should anyone know what percentage of the Earth is covered with water?

    Go read “America’s Lab Report” (ALR). The science lab is where the rubber meets the road in science education. It’s where students should, but rarely do, come to understand the nature of science, to develop scientific thinking skills, and begin to appreciate the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.

    The remainder of what happens in a science class is useful but not critical in the same sense as the above are. Yet, ALR comments that the typical American high school science lab experience is “poor.”

    The endless litany of fixes for science education; higher pay, more PD, better education for teachers, new curricula, better textbooks, more community involvement, and so on; will not fix our problems in a manner that can scale and be sustained at low cost.

    Our K-12 science classes face daunting challenges with less money, less time, more safety regulations, more standardized testing, more emphasis on literacy and math, lack of science experience in current teachers, and more. How can we possibly overcome these obstacles.

    The programs mentioned in the article will only nibble at the edges. We must have something more transforming, and it must take place at the point where the most good will occur: in scientific investigations by students.

    Once students realize what science is really all about, the ancillary material (words, formulas, procedures, etc.) will make more sense and be learned better. As it is now, most students can see no purpose to studying science except for getting another grade.

    Were science education truly as stimulating as science really is, then literacy and mathematics would follow naturally. Yes, you *can* teach science to those with limited math and literacy.

    Lest you all think that I’m too much of a science chauvinist, I claim that history can also transform students into stronger thinkers and better citizens. And adding in creative arts will strengthen the entire activity of learning. The emphasis on math and literacy is exactly backward. It puts the cart before the horse.

    Back to science labs.

    We have the means today to provide students with a virtually unlimited scope for real, meaningful science investigations. We also can stumble badly by making the wrong choices. I’ll take the latter first.

    Lots of effort has been put into a series of relatively passive activities such as videos and animated simulations. Yes, these both can help students to visualize difficult concepts, but that’s as far as they go. The former are completely passive. The latter misrepresent science horribly and should be accompanied by a warning that they’re just models and should not be mistaken for the real world, which is much more complex.

    Teachers absolutely must not tell students what to expect as the outcome of their investigations. The investigations must be guided, not directed or open. Science labs that simply verify what a student already has been told (verification labs) are a complete waste of time and money and should be completely eliminated from all curricula. Science labs that do nothing but check that students learn how to manipulate some piece of equipment are also useless for well over 90% of students and should also be scrapped.

    Investigations can be any of the following as long as they don’t violate the rules above.

    1. Hands-on classroom labs.
    2. Field investigations.
    3. Prerecorded real experiments (as explained below).

    All of these require students to collect their own data point by point. Note that the popular probeware violates this concept. They all should require students to make predictions and check them against actual results. They all should require students to analyze and present their data. In every case, a class discussion (sort of a mini scientific conference) should ensue because, for many, that’s where the real learning will take place.

    Most of you probably have never considered prerecorded real experiments. If combined with software that requires students to take their own individual data point by point and to exercise their care and judgment in so doing, then they can add significantly to learning.

    When compared to 1 and 2 above, number 3 has some significant advantages and some minor disadvantages that strongly suggest that all three be used. The advantages include lower cost, ability to do more investigations in the same time — even at home, as well as safety and space considerations.

    Prerecorded real experiments can be put to use in K-13 classrooms across the nation today. By removing existing useless hands-on activities and replacing them with this alternative, large amounts of money will be saved while improving science education. Students will do more science for less money.

    Prerecorded real experiments can also be used to augment hands-on activities both in and out of the classroom. They can even be used to prepare for hands-on activities in some instances. Because they are real and don’t look like cartoons, they’re more engaging. They’re truly interactive, unlike simulations, and so add more to student engagement.

    The right mixture of hands-on and prerecorded real experiments will revolutionize science education and make it possible for science teachers with less preparation to have better student outcomes while taking less effort on the part of both teacher and student. Everyone wins.

    Some may believe that prerecorded real experiments are limited to just a few topics. However, experience has demonstrated in an unqualified fashion that any experiment with measurements that can be done in a classroom or even outdoors will also succeed in this new mode. Those include semi-quantitative and qualitative experiments too.

    Only awareness separates the brave new future of science education from becoming actuality.

  15. A lot of you are commenting that “inquiry based” education is the answer. Sorry. Inquiry is only one ingredient. You also need facts, content, context, and logical sequence. Otherwise, what you get is like that you see at places like the Exploratorium–a lot of kids pushing buttons and turning knobs but no learning.

    They’ve tried inquiry based learning in math. It’s a disaster. Let’s not let science become the same fiasco. In the post-sputnik era of the 60’s the science texts that came out were fairly decent, and although they had an inquiry approach, they also had many facts that were explicitly stated.

  16. Elementary classroom teachers are unprepared to teach science. Until pre service standards are raised and builidng level administrators move hands-on minds-on science to the front burners nothing will happen.

  17. Great points, Harry Keller. Particularly about more hands-on activities. There are plenty of hands-on activities in books, online, and at conferences. There’s even a book with physics experiments that can be done at home (google “Take-Home Physics”). I’ve heard that the chemistry version will be coming soon. We need more resources like this that even an elementary teacher who took one biology class in college can use without much background knowledge.
    The lack of science knowledge amongst elementary teachers is a huge part of the problem, but a problem without an easy answer.

  18. We have a unique master’s program for math/science teachers (middle and high school) where they work in paid summer industry internships while being simultaneously enrolled in specially designed graduate courses to help them take what they experience with ‘real world’ skills and their STEM content area back to the classroom. We are seeing measurable changes in how teachers think about teaching and how they implement this in their classrooms.

  19. We would like a slight adjustment to the STEM Program. What America could benefit from right now is an Enhanced STEM Program.
    You could call it STEM PLUS. The Super School University K-12 teacher researchers are working hard to integrate science, technology, engineering, mathematics, music, and the visual and performing arts. If you are going to race to the top, you better bring more tools.

  20. Maybe if Obama spends his time on education reform instead of calling to congratulate emotionally/morally challenged people like Michael Vick, more might be accomplished

  21. “Ten percent of American eighth-graders hit the advanced benchmark on TIMSS 2007, compared with 32 percent of students in Singapore and 13 percent of students in Hungary.”

    This is where the RAW numbers give a better indication of what is really behind the data than a percentages do.

    In 2008-09 there were 3.7million 8th graders in the US. Singapore has a TOTAL population of 4.7million with those aged 0-14 totaling only 367K. So, our 10% of 8th graders = 370K which is a number SIGNIFICANTLY HIGHER than the 32% of their 8th graders. 32% of their ages 0-14 (couldn’t find a figure for their 8th graders only) is just 117K. SO OUR 10% is much MORE than 3 times their 8th graders.

    The report should have read that the USA has more than 300% the 8th graders scoring Advanced than Singapore.

    SO, which country has the better chance of having a greater number of innovators? Like, DUH.

    These stats, as presented, intentionally portray a BOGUS situation in the USA. This is done purposefully to justify the demand for ever MORE money for the Education Establishment.

  22. If there is one bright light in the grim news on science education, at least here in California, it is in the public’s interest in and support for better science education. New public opinion research conducted for the as part of the Strengthening Science Education in California initiative finds that Californians believe that science education should be a priority for the state’s schools and want it to be taught early and more often. To improve science education the public wants schools to have the labs and equipment they need, strongly supports providing teachers with specialized training, and wants schools to spend more time teaching science. You can see the findings at

  23. i’m not seeking to discredit TIMMs, however methodology varies between countries.

    random populations in random schools here in Australia, is not the same as random schools from select populations as universal schooling does not exist in all countries.

    in several private schools,in victoria, australia, students are chosen to sit the TIMMs

    our local state testing has very high absenteeism on testing day for low literacy/numeracy students….often advised to ‘be away’ on test day.

    like is not like with these stats/
    however, that said, broadly there are several groupings that student stacking would not disguise.

    here in australia we have the distinction that data is known for states as well as the country overall…so some are more smug than others.

    though as money goes with the poor performance there is actually incentive to not score so well…

    another dimension is the test does not measure what the student s are learning…

    have a look at some of the test questions….the only reason to learn some of this stuff is for the test, or for historical stamp collecting.
    just in case you may need a bunch of content.

    we strongly prefer just in time teaching and learning…so process is far more important
    as wireless is ubiquitious, any ‘fact’ can be found in’s what you do with the information which generates knowledge..
    TIMMs does not begin to test that…nor do any of the other examinations..point in time testing is great for memory(low order) but not so well developed for higher order processes.
    that more to the point is the ‘problem’ with science…too much content which is not relevant nor useful, far too little process…ethics, environment, social good…that’s the way to make science relevant to all lives..provide some solutions to the perception that industrialisation (science!) has caused…then there is climate change..well supported by science diss’d on every opportunity by the Tories/conservatives

  24. It’s not that we’ve lost the momentum and connection with students and made science “uncool” for them, its that we, long ago, lost support for the science educators and made going into general education “uncool” for THEM! Out of the $4.35B of funding only $3M is for supporting professional development? That’s only 6%! What a shame! And what do they call “professional development”?

    My hat goes off to the dedicated and knowledgable few who were enticed by the lure of prestige and money, but chose to enter general education.


  25. @Harry Keller:
    Thank you for your post, I am a physics teacher in a high performing school in large urban district (yes they do exist…) and found your post inspiring and daunting. I have a few questions I’d like more information from you, if you have the time. (indicated by***)

    To those skimming these posts, please read Dr. Keller’s post (January 27, 2011 at 6:42 pm)

    I had some trepidation from your intro, I have been to too many ivory tower lectures on how lecturing is not an effective teaching method (though I suppose a two hour lecture actually does accomplish that lesson–by negative example…)

    RE: Hands onLabs. Yes, I feel this is the only way that a student can understand what science is and gain an appreciation for science reasoning (Observation/Measurement, model development, prediction, scientific discussion. ) We have based our class on Modeling (from ASU) and as a result, I feel our students have a strong sense of the science process and reasoning.

    RE: Confirmation labs (verification labs). Agreed, they are useless. Though you can get a sense of who understands the concept by who falsifies their data to fit perfectly… and who is on their way to be the next Bernie Madoff.

    RE: “America’s Lab Report” (ALR). I will have to read this, thank you for the resource. (Sadly, it will likely be summer before I have the time…)

    RE: the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. Agree, but this is the most daunting problem. (not just for my students and me, for society.) This is not a focus in the standard Modeling curriculum (in my opinion) so we have added more with uncertainty. I do not feel I have been very successful with this. I feel it is an extremely difficult concept (most of the general populace cannot grasp this) ***Interested to know of successful programs/approaches you have seen that address uncertainty/ambiguity vs the students desire for absolutes?***

    RE: Probeware. Partly Agree. At the start of the year we use stop watches and metersticks. Every data point must be collected by the students. They take multiple trials and determine the uncertainty (and we relate this to the uncertainty of the process or the instrument) But after that we do use photogates and computers, the accuracy of stop watches is not good enough to develop a model for acceleration or Newton’s 2nd law. Possibly you have issue with chemistry probeware that is too far removed from the phenomena?

    RE: Prerecorded Labs: Interesting. I do fear my students do not get a feeling for what an accomplished scientist does. They certainly improve their lab skills throughout the year, but observing a professional in action would serve as good role model. And there are some labs where the data are terrible at the high school level (circular motion measurements…) ***Do you have more information on prerecorded labs as an instructional method?***

    As a last comment/fear: I am certain that in your work you see the inherent conflict between standardized tests and the goal of learning science reasoning at a deep level. (we get push back for concentrating on less material as the expense of developing that material through hands on labs)*** Do you have materials that can be used to support teachers that are pressured to cover everything (not leaving enough time to have hands on labs?)***

    Again, thanks for your post.

  26. YES! Dr. Keller and Bill L.

    Hands-on learning sticks the lessons. Critical thinking skills, learning the methodology for setting up and solving open-ended problems (i.e. here’s the problem, we don’t know what the solution is), all these have fallen by the wayside in the quest to “teach” students to regurgitate memorized facts on a standardized test.

    I’m a 20+ year veteran mechanical engineer who is starting to see the products of our ‘standardized testing trumps all’ system coming into the workforce. Given an open-ended problem that doesn’t have a set of 4 or 5 possible answers to choose from, many of these kids just throw up their hands in defeat.

    Innovation. Ingenuity. Engineering. It all requires the blend of science facts with the creative application of the facts to the situation at hand. And while it’s great that Johnny FreshDiploma can regurgitate the formula for finding the neutral plane in a cantilever beam, unless he can make the creative (and cognitive) connection that the most practical solution to Problem X set before him is to suspend the load from a cantilever beam mounted to a Scotch Yoke mechanism driven by a hamster wheel (I just made that up… but hopefully some of you are picturing that mechanism in your heads, like I am), he’s toast in the workplace.

    Everything in public schools these days is about the test score. Nothing is about whether the kids have picked up skills that will help them in the real world. Critical thinking, open-ended problem solving, and related skills don’t only apply to the sciences but to any number of career paths.

    Learning by doing — the old technique of listen, watch, do — has long been proven effective in improving retention of the lesson. No amount of videos and worksheets will ever surpass actually doing the task, solving the problems.

    Sure, some of these labs have a predictable outcome — we’re not turning 5th graders loose with the LHC to find the Higgs Bosun, after all — but if the teacher leaves the results as a mystery to the students until after they’ve done the experiments themselves, the students get not only the “doing” aspect, but also a taste of that thrill of discovery.

    As far as making science sensational — there are shows on TV now that do a fair job of it. Say what you will about “Mythbusters”, they go to pains to get the science right — including revisiting previously done work if new evidence comes to light — and do a fine job of keeping the viewers engaged (lots of things going BOOM).

    Once the kids get into doing the science, once it’s shown to be fun, that’s when they will become self-motivated science learners.

  27. For the past twenty years my passion revolved around teaching Language Arts. When The No Child Left Behind act was passed North Carolina joined other states in a mad rush to retain funding. Mindsets tranformed from a balanced literacy to a sheer “Canned follow the teacher’s manual formula” developed around phonics. Currently experienced teachers have little autonomy in instructional delivery decisions: high dollar “research based programs” are purchased without teacher representation in making decisions based on experiences and professional judgements. Superintendents and curriculum “leaders”, who are not on the front lines – classrooms with real students, channel money. Federal grant money trained “No Child Left Behind” coaches who became schooled in one frame of mind – follow the one fits all program.

    Numerous comments address tunneling money into reading, yet few seem to be fully aware of how damaging Reading First has been. Language Arts, described previously with strands of Reading, Writing, Viewing, Listening, and Speaking, declined to simply applying phonics for decoding words. Data is acquired by assessing each student in an individual setting using a controlled word list and/or set of books sold by companies. Students are tested three or more times each year with data charted to determine learning progression. Fluency and answering lower level scripted comprehension questions presented verbally by the teacher determines growth. During the last decade early reading (K – 2) set cornerstones for reading by using skills; by third grade and through fifth strategies and application for understanding and applying written information using critical thinking was at center stage. However, what started as a K – 2 early intervention program quickly leaped to the K – 5 levels by companies streaching materials across additional grade levels. Wow! Again, money taken from subject areas, students and classrooms to grow wealthy companies.

    Speaking about research, one has only to reach back in history to review how many times this phonics approach has failed to reach the needs of children. Lead by the words of President Bush supporters of the No Child Left Behind program likely lacked what most educators know; an essential element of reading is using a well balanced literacy program. What about making meaning during reading? That pattern of thinking was sufficent when information was limited. Creating an educational system revelant to essential functional needs to survive in a global society does not require rote skill learning; rather time and money devoted to challenging our youth to think and develop problem solving strategies is the key to keeping American’s future stable.

    After twenty years as an educator, two graduate degrees (one as a Reading Specialist), and National Board Certification in English Language Arts I was transfered from a Reading Teacher to Science because of not following a strict “Teacher Say…” manual as was used thirty years ago. What at the time seemed as a demotion has become a blessing. A rude awaking occured with the realization of how the lack of teaching Science has hampered student learning. It is a joy to hear the eagerness and excitement in student’s voices as they engage in reading, inquiry learning and problem solving centered around the world we live. What could be more motavitional than learning about the enviromnet we live in? Frustration sets in when simple topics come up and students stare with blank looks from lack of background knowledge.

    From day one as a teacher it has been my belief an essential element of reading is not pronouncing every word correctly. This stand has grown stronger by having an opportunity to witness learners who have trouble with skills, yet are becoming critical thinkers and speakers using science vocabulary.

    Many states are in full in full swing implementing “No Child Left Behind” centered around “Only Reading and Math really count, continue skills based reading approaches, spend the majority of each day on those subjects and the rest – hopefully students will pick up somewhere.” Student centered? No – purchased pattered programs for instruction. Research based? Yes. Research – only numbers used to support opinion. If one searches long enough adequate research data can be found to support any program or opinion. If not, conduct your own; numbers change based on variables needed to prove a point.

    In conclussion, from a Language Arts/ Reading teacher, thank you President Obama for you wisdom and insight on recognizing our children’s need for learning Science. And for those of you I join in support of mending this whole in our educational system my questions now has become “When will these thoughts turn into true reforms evident by actions changing the way we do bussiness in schools? When will we start the rebuilding process?”. Our President is in his second half of office. Change take time: our children are not suspended in time waiting for us to make corrections to a scared education. Generations have gone through our system over since the words of President Bush and others who lapsed back to three basic R’s while other nations passed us.
    Let us remember, skills are taught for basic learning: strategies are developed through thinking, discovery, and engaging in problem solving.

    Some subjects take one to teach – Science takes a team of inquiring minds.

    We talk the talk of critical thinking

  28. Maybe someone can teach me how to think about nothing. Since critical thinking is a skill, I believe it involves some content you should be thinking about. No content no skill.

    Though some skills can be taught without content, cutting paper for example, I think that those skills that I could be taught without knowledge could simply make me a robot.

    What are we raising? Children? Robots?

  29. Is PISA “a Sputnik wake-up” or are international comparisons invalid. Rather than wade into that debate, I’d rather look more closely at the questions in the PISA test and what student responses tell us about American education. You can put international comparisons aside for that analysis.

    Are American students able to analyze, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life? Have schools been forced to sacrifice creative problem solving for “adequate yearly progress” on state tests?

    I focus on a sample PISA question that offers insights into what American students can (and cannot do) in my post “Stop Worrying About Shanghai, What PISA Test Really Tells Us About American Students”

  30. The afore have all forgotten some vital affectors and effectors to science and all public education. The interest in pursuing science or any other career that requires technical skill beyond high school has to have parental involvement. I have taught in other countries and lived around the world. The missing factor form US education is parents. They complain when their children fail and do nothing more. They themselves have been inadequately prepared and have not pursued and education so why should their child beyond high school? Additionally the focus on things that are temporary has produced a generation of consumers not producers. There was a time in American history where we were a nation of producers and innovators. In a sense some of our parents have allowed their children and children’s children to rest on the laurels of what was instead of what is. The fact is that the average high school graduate in America can text more than 100 messages an hour. However that same child could not tell you the basic fundamentals of how the instrument used works. In Haiti, the poorest nation in the world, the average high school student can pull apart the equipment and build a new one with the leftover parts, without a teacher or professor present.
    There are also other issues that have become a harbinger to the success of American students in science. Behavior, legislative mandates, issues of fairness and equity, Robin Hood practices, poverty, and violence just to name a few.

  31. Great article. Its a very interesting question what the relative degree of emphasis of math vs. science education should be in elementary school. I can appreciate the author’s viewpoint that science has been overly deemphasized due to No Child Left Behind; however, basic math skills also lay the foundation for more substantial study of science topics encountered in latter grades. It would be interesting to see some studies correlating early math scores with latter science scores.

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