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TWENTY-THREE SKIDOO! A study suggests that we teach science hard—to kids at one end of the scale: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 14, 2005

MORE FINE WINERIP: In today’s Times, Michael Winerip visits the Shaker Heights schools. More notes on this topic tomorrow.

TWENTY-THREE SKIDOO: Here’s the headline on Michael Janofsky’s news story: “Report Says States Aim Low in Science Classes.” As we noted last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/8/05), the report in question was issued by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an org which studies public education. And according to the Fordham folk, many states are big slackers on science:

JANOFSKY (12/8/05): ''Many states are not yet serious about teaching science,'' said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy of the institute, a group that supports education reform. ''The first step is to set higher expectations, and too many states have low or a lack of expectations to respond to the new global competitiveness.''

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings...said she was not surprised by the findings.

Janofsky summarized the Fordham group’s findings. “Nearly half the states are doing a poor job of setting high academic standards for science in public schools, according to a new report,” he writes. How tough were the Fordham Institute’s judgments? “The authors of the report analyzed each state and awarded a numerical score that translated to a grade,” Janofsky writes. “Only seven states, including New York and California, got an A.” By contrast, fifteen states got an F. That would be the lowest possible grade, for those of you who never received one.

Should public schools toughen the teaching of science? Should the states “set higher expectations?” (It’s the god to which these reports always bow.) We would massively favor tough teaching. But as we read the Janofsky report, we wondered how its ideas relate to those students described in another report—that recent report by the Center for American Progress, the report which mentioned a group of children who are often ignored at these junctures:

CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
How is science taught to kids who are years below grade level in reading by the time they reach fourth grade? This question is rarely asked or answered. For that reason, we’ll suggest ways to include those kids in this worthwhile new science crusade.

First, how is science often taught to kids who are far behind in reading? That’s one of the question we’ll seek to answer when we start our new site about low-income ed. But we observed this problem first-hand when we taught in Baltimore’s schools (long ago), and we even conducted a lengthy study of the nagging matter. In general, it was very difficult, in those days, to teach science or social studies to below-level kids; there were simply no textbooks designed for such kids, and local school systems (like Baltimore’s) paid little attention to the problem. How absurd was the situation in Baltimore? Here’s part of a piece we wrote in the Baltimore Evening Sun (in this passage, we discuss social studies):

SOMERBY (2/9/82): [I]n grade after grade, for topic after topic, [Baltimore teaching] guides recommend textbooks which are clearly too difficult for most city students to work from—books which are completely inappropriate for children who may be several years below traditional grade level in reading.

In the first semester of fourth grade, for example, the two most commonly cited textbooks are Daniel Chu’s “A Glorious Age in Africa”—a textbook with a measured eighth-grade reading level—and Frederick King’s “The Social Studies and Our Country”—Laidlaw’s sixth-grade textbook.

Few fourth graders anywhere will be able to profit from textbooks as difficult as these. In an urban system like Baltimore’s, this selection is particularly surprising—and dooms any attempt to teach the social studies curriculum in a rigorous, systematic way.

If a teacher wanted to teach his kids science, the same situation obtained. Incomparably, we drew this conclusion:
SOMERBY: The results of this situation are all too predictable. Baltimore teachers find it difficult—indeed, impossible—to find readable textbooks with which social studies and science can be taught to their numerous below-level readers. The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.
Let’s repeat that: “The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.” And understand: In being cheated out of science and social studies instruction, these kids were routinely being cheated out of reading experience too. Children learn to read by reading, as highly literate parents all know. But in those days, it was very hard to provide reading experiences in science and social studies to the kids described in that CAP report. Those kids were being short-changed in every way. But uh-oh! The particular needs of these particular kids aren’t mentioned in Janofsky’s report. They’re missing in action, as always.

Is it hard today, as it was then, to provide appropriate reading materials to the kids described in that CAP report? Last month, we spoke with Daria Rigney, the superlative New York City principal featured in the PBS show Making Schools Work; Rigney told us it’s still very hard to find appropriate reading materials in these subject areas. If she’s right, then twenty-three years after our op-ed appeared, these kids are still being short-changed—left for dead. And exalted figures—like the web’s own Lord Drum—insist that we shouldn’t discuss them!

At our new site, we’ll be examining topics like this—and asking for teacher input. But note: Much of the Fordham study—much of Janofsky’s report—seems to be aimed at the upper end of the student scale. Why should Americans be concerned about the teaching of science? Here are paragraphs 3 and 4 of Janofsky’s fine news story:

JANOFKSY (12/8/05): The [Fordham Institute] report also appears to support concerns raised by a growing number of university officials and corporate executives, who say that the failure to produce students well-prepared in science is undermining the country's production of scientists and engineers and putting the nation's economic future in jeopardy.

Dozens of academic, corporate and Congressional leaders emerged from a meeting on competitiveness here on Tuesday to warn that the nation needs to expand its talent pool in science to stay ahead of countries like China and India that put vast resources into science education.

Will the U.S. produce enough scientists and engineers? Will our economic future be bright? Those are both important concerns. But those are concerns from above the median, and we’re asking about kids who fall below that line. Those kids deserve to be challenged too—but as a teacher, you can’t challenge kids if you can’t give them textbooks (and other appropriate reading materials). Yes, we realize how “creepy” it is when people like us dare to think about children like these, but they deserve to be challenged (and catered to) too. Twenty-three years after that year-long study, we’ll suggest that a problem still exists—and that our lords and ladies may be unwisely focused on just one end of the scale.

RIGNEY ADVANCES: Daria Rigney is now in charge of instruction at eleven New York City public schools. She invited us to come see what’s transpiring. In the new year, we’ll be doing just that—and we’ll be asking other teachers and administrators to explain what transpires in their schools.

LINKS FOR ALL: For an earlier discussion of that 1982 op-ed, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/1/05.

To read the Fordham report for yourself, you know what to do—just click here.

To read that full report from CAP, you’ll just have to click one more time.