America is losing another generation to science illiteracy

By Margaret Honey
August 23, 2011

By Margaret Honey
The opinions expressed are her own.

Steven Brill has it exactly right when he says that “our nation’s economy, security, and core values depend on [the] success” of our public schools.

That’s what President George W. Bush had in mind when he signed “No Child Left Behind” into law in 2001. Signaling his strong concerns about that legislation’s shortcomings, it is also why Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced earlier this month that he would override the requirement under No Child Left Behind that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Mr. Duncan said he is waiving the law’s proficiency requirements for states that have adopted their own testing and accountability programs and are making other strides toward better schools. Without the waivers, he said, 80 percent of American schools would get failing grades under the law.

But No Child Left Behind has an even more pernicious effect – it is discouraging the teaching of science courses, particularly at the elementary level, at a time when America needs them the most. What is more central to our current economy, security and core values than science? Where would we be without Google and Apple, stealth technology, gene-based therapy, and high-tech prosthetics?

Recent national studies show that at the elementary level, science is barely being taught. More than eight hours of instructional time are devoted each week to teaching “English Language Arts” (“ELA” is a story in and of itself) and over five hours per week to math. By comparison, science is taught for less than three hours.

The situation is worse in schools that have been identified as “in need of improvement”:  Science is entirely eclipsed by subjects that students will be tested on, and these are the very same schools that are likely to have higher levels of poor children and children of color.

A growing body of evidence indicates grade-level, high stakes testing has heavily biased schools toward teaching tested subjects and away from less frequently tested subjects like science. Further, when science is taught, students are more likely to be memorizing information and answering chapter-end questions. Students should be engaging in the kind of real-world problem-solving that employers say they want most.

We need to be wary of what might seem to be the obvious solution:  ensuring that science is tested the way math and English are. Adding more science tests will not remedy this problem anymore than testing in math and English have helped. Testing does not motivate engagement, passion, creativity and innovative thinking.

A quick look at the countries where children outperform the U.S. on the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that none of them do anywhere near the amount of testing that is done in the United States. Some of the top-performing countries do national testing, but at “gateways” only – e.g., upon leaving elementary school or entering high school. None have grade-by-grade national tests.

It is time to acknowledge that there has been an unprecedented and precipitous decline in science teaching and learning as a consequence of the focus and implementation of No Child Left Behind. We do not need any more commissions or studies to tell us what is strikingly evident — children of the NCLB era, who entered Kindergarten in 2003 and had little or no science education for the next seven years, are not going to do well in science in middle school or beyond. We are losing an entire generation to science illiteracy.

Yet science literacy is essential in the 21st century. President Obama and others have highlighted the need for improved national science education: “All American citizens need high quality STEM education that inspires them to know more about the world around them, engages them in exploring challenging questions, and involves them in high quality intellectual work.” STEM is a common abbreviation for science, technology, engineering and math.

According to a report from the Center on Education and the Workforce, there will be eight million job openings in STEM-related fields by 2018, yet the U.S. continues to lag behind in student achievement in these areas.

In 2009, PISA found that 15-year-old U.S. students ranked 17th of 34 developed countries in science and 25th of 34 in math. The same study revealed that the U.S. has among the most unequal performance in the world, with achievement levels highly dependent on socio-economic status. Low-income and minority communities are especially hard-hit by lack of access to high-quality science resources. The results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress drive home the severity of the problem – only 18 percent of New York City’s 4th graders and 13 percent of 8th graders performed at or above the proficient level in science.

Over the next six years, as “Generation NCLB” goes through high school, we can expect banner headlines about further drops in science learning and fewer students taking advanced level courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. That will be a precursor to the hue-and-cry from colleges, four years later, about the need for more remedial science and the falling number of American students majoring in sciences of all types, and then a renewed clamor from employers who need appropriately educated workers but cannot find them.

This is where our heavy-handed emphasis on grade-level high stakes testing has taken us. Unfortunately, we have successfully built a system nationwide that has led to a sustained level of decline in science learning at a time when we need it the most.

The endpoint of our current trajectory is clear, but the future could be – must be – different.


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This nation was founded by an elite group of individuals seeking to further their own personal interests. The notion that socio-economic back round influences test scores should come as no surprise to anyone. The real question should be, are our students making gains in reading comprehension and critical thinking in regards to all subjects.

I for one would like to see a follow up piece examining in depth the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts. And also how property taxes as a vehicle for paying for education is at the center of the problem.

I am curious Margaret as to why you did not report on the Bush administration’s funding “No Child Left Behind” at twenty five cents on the dollar and what effect that had on less affluent and poor school districts. I for one would like to know if the Obama administration has restored funding to the schools.

With our nation crumbling from neglect I am aghast that we always find money for wars but not for health care, education, infrastructure(water, electric grid, renewable energy, etc…) and the environment.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

A part of the problem is that we need people who are qualified to teach science. Another part of the problem is that administrators should be well-informed about the state policies regarding science education including their Core Standards and assessments. Many teachers and administrators are misinformed, uncertain, or do not understand their states curricula, or what a curriculum is, what the Core Curriculum and Learning Standards are, or what teaching methodologies should be used by teachers because they work. Knowing the teaching objectives clearly is important for all; assessment indicates a faculty’s clarity of knowledge about what is to be taught and how it should be taught.

Assessment does not necessarily result in the neglect of science education and science thinking. Exit exams are often objected to on the basis of their validity – what is the purpose? Assessment has the purpose of focusing and aligning objectives not as a penalty process but as corrective feedback. Testing is often responded to negatively. Assessment as per NCLB, in NYS, the 4th grade, the 8th grade, and the High School Regents Exams, should be a process of corrective feedback. Teachers and administrators should tailor their knowledge of curricular objectives and teaching methods on the basis of assessment from year to year. During the year, assessment should address the Core Curriculum as corrective feedback for reteaching. Too often, the process of assessment is felt as a penalty process. It is not properly implemented and avoided. Students often complain about testing because they also feel it as a penalty process.

Many teachers and administrators do not understand that English and Math problems on exit exams involve problems from the content areas, Science and Social Studies. There should be a blending or interdisciplinary sensitivity within the various subject areas. It is important that everyone understands that the development of thinking and knowledge proceeds by the acquisition of scientific problem-solving methods and content. Institutionally, this problem of not teaching to objectives involves the situation that many teachers do not teach a class during the year that ends with an exit exam. Consider the many teachers in High School who do not teach a Regents course, or a 6th grade teacher, for example, whose students will not be tested at the end of the year. There is a gap of necessary rigor between teachers.

In NYS this year, we will see the incorporation of Common Core Learning Standards along with the Core Curriculum and Learning Standards that are already in place. New assessments will be forthcoming. It is important that all teachers address STEM, Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, curricula and use teaching methods that are informed by assessment.

Posted by FredWelfare | Report as abusive

The author seems to presume, first, that we have educators that are literate enough in science to teach the subject and, second, that science education is being crowded out by efforts to teach english and math. Neither is really very plausible.

Since 1970 we have increased inflation adjusted spending on K-12 education fourfold. We have doubled the number of people employed in the education system and the number of students has barely changed. For all of that effort, no one seriously believes that student achievement, measured any way you please, reflects those expenditures. Certainly there are issues with regard to testing crowding out other education, but can anyone really attribute our emphasis on testing to the fact that most of our children (and likely their teachers) can’t even get past saying “me and Bob………”? The bar which is set for the testing that is required is clearly a very, very low bar.

Perhaps it is not only science education which is being crowded out but, when realistically measured, it would appear that the time attributed to teaching english and math is obviously not being accounted for honestly. Perhaps the real distractions are not related to testing, but to the time intentionally devoted to a myriad of peripheral issues du jour (like bullying and mainstreaming students with severe learning disabilities) and unintentionally devoted dealing with the unacceptable distractions wrought by students who are not and cannot be motivated to participate in the education process.

As to the qualifications of teachers to actually teach science, the methods of science teaching that seem to prevail now go straight to “relevant” science issues without first touching base with basic science. As a person educated in science I am ceaselessly amazed at the extent to which science education education texts hone in on the “political sciences” i.e. subjects like ecology and environment and their dearth of furnishing the basic science which is necessary to put those things into context. Many science educators are amazingly unqualified to teach science. And many who might be qualified are not allowed to teach. My father was a PhD chemist. In his retirement he lamented that he could teach chemistry at any university in the world, but could not teach basic freshman chemistry at any public high school in the state where he lived.

I don’t much care what we do about testing in schools. Although I do recall that in my youth I took annual multi-day achievement tests which did not seem to greatly interfere with the rest of my education. What is unacceptable is the trope among educators what, somehow, the failure of our system to produce literate and educated students can be laid mostly at the doorstep of “testing” — especially when the bar set by those tests is set so low.

Posted by mrdon | Report as abusive

I don’t care if other perople can think critically. Don’t expect that of others tg and I’m not even sure WTF the phrase means. Democracy’s virtue is it’s relative reliance on law not on violence and its relative stability, not the fairness, inclusiveness, or occaisional wisdom of its decisions.

We’d have more qualified teachers if the alternative types were fired. Perhaps vouchers are the way to go.

What ever else the US does in education we ought to maintain or rebuild our lead in what CHINA does well: elite education for those with elite capabilities. And a set of skills to cope for the rest. That’s where the social payoffs are: leaders and followers not an “informned public” that’s an oxymoron anyway.

Posted by johnwerneken | Report as abusive

Teachers with degrees in math and the hard sciences that teach in their major should be paid more than regular teachers.

Posted by eezy | Report as abusive