Ignoring Science: It’s Not Just The Schools5 min read

Anyone looking for big news in the just released report on the teaching of science in California elementary schools may well file it under dog bites man.

In a word,  elementary school science teaching is lame – an average of a little over an hour a week – by teachers most of whom say they’re not well prepared to teach it and have few resources to work with. Some 77 percent of elementary principals say teaching science is essential but only 44 percent say “that a student would receive high-quality science instruction in his/her school.” Is anyone surprised?

More pertinent, perhaps, is what the report, commissioned by the Center on the Future of Teaching and Learning, doesn’t discuss, and that’s the national environment of willful ignorance and proud denial of all intellectual discipline, science and economics particularly. Even the ablest teachers have a steep hill to climb.

We are witnessing a presidential campaign in which the leading candidates of one major party say that the theory of evolution hasn’t been verified and that they don’t believe there’s a link between human activity and global warming. Fewer than half of us believe in evolution; 40 percent are creationists. In some states the teaching of evolution even in high school is under constant attack.

Some thirty years ago, in “A Nation at Risk,” a presidential commission warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” If that wasn’t all hyperbole, the miseducated graduates of those mediocre schools are now our voters and political leaders. They sit on school boards, in state legislatures, even, as in Texas, in the governor’s office.

The new report, High Hopes – Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California, was produced by researchers at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley and SRI International. They found that teachers and principals at many schools put part of the onus for skimpy science teaching on the pressure of time, particularly the heavy emphasis in state and federal accountability programs in reading and math.

Though that, too, is hardly news, it’s undoubtedly correct, as the same thing would be correct, perhaps even more correct, for the teaching of art or music, and maybe even history or good literature. But was science ever taught well, or given much time, even before the test-based accountability systems in reading and math were instituted in the past decade or two?

Consistent with their other findings, the researchers also found, in the words of a press announcement, that “the infrastructure support and resources needed for quality science education are scarce. Just one-fifth of school districts provide science related professional development for elementary teachers, and few school districts have science specialists or coordinators.

“More than 60 percent of all school districts have no district staff dedicated to science. Two-thirds of elementary teachers cite limited funds for equipment and supplies as a challenge to teaching science. More than half of teachers say they lack access to needed facilities.” And, as ever, it’d the schools serving poor and minority students that are most severely lacking. How often do we hear this?

But with the possible exception of a small number of classrooms, was it ever different? In 1957, when the Soviet Union beat us into space with Sputnik, there was a loud outcry about the nation’s inadequacies in the teaching of math, science and engineering. If we didn’t shape up, the Russians would win the Cold War. Similar warnings came in “Nation at Risk.” Only in 1983, it was the Germans and the Japanese who were going to beat our economic brains out.

Neither happened in the way it was predicted, not yet anyway. But this is a different world and the dangers are far greater. We no longer dominate the world’s economy as we did after Word War II. More and more nations are overtaking us in the percentage of their young men and women who complete college. In the countries that are beating our brains out in education, creationism is not an issue and energy efficiency and the control of global warming are high priorities.

Our historic anti-intellectualism and the ideologies, beliefs and prejudices that mask it are as powerful as ever. Presumably smart men and women running for president pretend to be morons. In California, as in a many other states,  as growing numbers of Latinos, Asians and other immigrants and their children reach school and college age, we seem to become increasingly unwilling to generously fund education at every level. Is that only coincidence?

As always, in such surveys, people say teaching of science should be a high priority in the schools, and that better resources and teacher training would help. So what else is new? Everything the new survey says is correct, but it’s not new and it’s only a fraction of the story.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.