I saw the writing on the wall back in 1998. I was teaching a course for an urban school district's intern program entitled, "Science for Elementary School Teachers". First night of class and 26 first-year teachers blankly stared at me while I dazzled them with a science demonstration. An emboldened young woman raises her hand and says, "I don't know why I am in this class, my principal told me I am not allowed to teach science?" Head nods all around. Another young woman adds, "My principal told me the superintendent says we can't teach science -- none of us -- math and English only." This district was under state receivership and their answer to improving student learning was to teach only what was tested -- math and English.
Here we stood, three years before the passage of NCLB and already, science had been eliminated from elementary schools in this medium-sized urban district. Apoplectic, I forged on by re-titling and re-formatting the course: "How to Teach Math and English through Science for Elementary School Teachers." And to be honest with myself, it became much better.
Each class session was based on the premise, "What 8-year-old doesn't love science?" Science served as the hook, the way to engage students in a lesson, get them excited about reading (for instance) why it rained, measuring rainfall in centimeters, computing totals and averages and graphing the data longitudinally, and then writing and speaking about what they discovered. Science taught students that reading conveyed purposeful and meaningful information, mathematics was a useful and relevant tool, and that by writing and speaking well one could clearly communicate important information to a wide audience. All standards based. All rigorous.
These new teachers thought they caught lightning in a bottle as their students were engaged (and learning) like never before; however, their principals did not agree. These lessons were not part of the district mandated scripted curriculum and they could not stand. As over a dozen years have passed, this district's test scores are exactly where they were back in 1998 -- at the bottom -- so exclusively teaching math and English obviously do not work to raise test scores. Yet, this practice is commonplace in Program Improvement schools and districts across the country.
How about we try something different? Bring science back to elementary school classrooms and bring it back with a vengeance. I'm not talking about 30 minutes a week, but 30-60 minutes a day, integrating it with math, English, history, music, art, PE, etc. Bring them all back. This may fly in the face of those reformers trying to take the guesswork out of teaching through overly scripted reading and math programs, but in trying to minimize the art of teaching by over-emphasizing the science of instruction, the subject of science has all but disappeared.
We sit in shock at our generation's "Sputnik Moment" with the recent release of PISA data showing how poorly we are doing as a country in science (and math) and blame our high schools that 15 year olds cannot read and interpret scientific data, analyze and evaluate scientific writing, nor solve complex problems logically. And our answer in this country? Bubble tests in English and math -- early and often. The shame of the whole thing, as I've seen in some of the highest performing urban schools and districts -- integrating science into the rest of the curriculum produces higher test scores. More science, not more math and English. Now, with the even more recent release of NAEP, our Nation's Report Card, student performance in science, particularly for African- American and Latino students, is predictably appalling.
We are at the midway point of most school years which now marks a time-honored tradition -- even more math and English, this time in the form of test prep. Teachers all over America will be devoting hours of instruction a week to give students the opportunity to become better bubblers, teaching the tricks of the test as much as the content. Eager to please second graders lap it up and bubble with abandon, losing their love for science because their schools did nothing to foster their passion and expand on their excitement. By the time these students reach a science teacher in sixth or seventh grade, they know nothing of science except maybe that they don't like it because it's just worksheets and more meaningless reading from their scripted English program. After all, what 8-year-old doesn't love worksheets?
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