Saturday, January 29, 2011

Most kids do not understand science

NAEP recently released science results. Most kids do not understand science. Only 34% of 4th graders, 30% or 8th graders, and 21% of 12th graders are proficient or above in science. Science education is just as bad as math education. Dr. Mark A. McDaniel says that before engaging students in inquiry-based problem-solving in science or mathematics, they should have a sound knowledge base (background knowledge). In short, background knowledge of fundamentals in long-term memory is key to problem-solving in math, science, and other academic disciplines. Furthermore, background knowledge should be domain-specific. (Note. The idea that math or science always has to be fun or a game to play is nonsense. There is nothing wrong with rigor or struggle. To learn math or science well takes plenty of effort and hard work.) 

Unfortunately, elementary teachers are told to focus on math and reading (NCLB) at the expense of science and other subjects. Even so, achievement in math and reading falls short of NAEP proficiency levels for most students. Furthermore, very little science is taught in elementary school; K-8 science textbooks tend to avoid math. In contrast, Science--A Process Approach (1967), from the Sputnik era, focused four of the six processes taught in first grade on mathematics: Using Numbers, Using Time/Space Relationships, Using Communicating (graphing relationships), and Measuring. The math was ahead of the normal 1st-grade math curriculum. 

To improve science achievement at the high school level, students should take more than biology. They should take both chemistry and physics and avoid integrated coursesThe coursework taken in high school makes a big difference in science learning. Chemistry and physics also require a good background in algebra and solving word problems. (FYI: No calculators are permitted on AP Chem or AP Physics exams.) 

Systemic Approach, Not Bits & Pieces
The lack of adequate math and science achievement in the United States is partly a result of system failureOne cannot fix one part, such as standards, in isolation from other parts, yet this fragmented approach seems routine in education. Better standards will not fix a system failure without concurrently addressing teacher education and schools of education, instruction and curriculum, textbooks and assessments, policies and teacher support, learning attitudes, and so on, as all are interconnected. In short, a complete system overhaul is needed, not bits and pieces now and then.