Science

We Don't Need No (Science) Education

Hey America, it’s report card time!

A nationwide science assessment has returned results for 4th, 8th, and 12th grades (non-Americans: that’s about 9 years old, 13 years old, and 17 years old, respectively) in 2005, and I’m no statistician but overall it looks like we’re DOOMED.

I kid, of course. The results aren’t fantastic, and they do suggest that we need to get our asses in gear to keep kids interested in science; however, I find it a little misleading for the New York Times to run a piece about the report under the headline Test Shows Drop in Science Achievement for 12th Graders. The report does indicate that (and even stresses it), but let’s look at the facts: this test was given in 2000 and 1996. The 2005 scores for 12th graders have dropped since 1996, but they’ve actually risen a bit since 2000. So, it’s not as if the kids are getting dumber. They’re just as dumb as they were five years ago, which is pretty dumb. Take that as you will.

The full report (available from the first link in PDF form) gives a breakdown of scores by state. They’re all fairly even, but that’s most likely because Kansas noticeably didn’t participate this year.

Zing!

The scariest thing for me came from the above NY Times article, which quoted Michael J. Padilla, president of the National Science Teachers Association, as saying:

…the problem was not that universities were failing to train sufficient numbers of science majors or that too few were opting for classroom careers, but that about a third of those who accepted teaching jobs abandoned the profession within five years.

A third! Someone in the Skepchick forum recently pointed out John Stossel’s (from 20/20, an American news show) argument that teachers are not underpaid, as is the general belief. Stossel criticized teachers who picket for more money and benefits when he feels they already make a just amount of money. One has to wonder, then, why a third of our science teachers with applicable majors are dropping out after just five years.

While I don’t have personal experience teaching in a school, I do have a few friends who are currently fighting the good fight — and a fight, it is. They’re dealing with the religious and pseudoscientific beliefs of parents, the children that such parents spawn, and the administrators who may not always be focused on what’s best for the kids. The math teachers don’t need to worry about long PTA meetings debating algebraic “theory,” and to date the Holocaust revisionists haven’t organized to the point of bothering the history teachers. Science and those who teach it, though, are continually under attack by the ignorant. Maybe for some would-be teachers, it’s just too damn depressing.

On the bright side, that’s a pretty funny picture of a monster saying “Wah!”

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Thanks to everyone who has emailed and/or commented here in the past week or so — I’m working through a backlog, but I swear I read them all. Some of the recent comments have been so great I’m thinking of running a “comment o’ the week” contest just so I can give kudos.

Tomorrow I’ll try to get to some of the great news items you guys have been sending in.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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6 Comments

  1. I used to teach in the inner city in Philadelphia. I taught English and Science, and I lasted only a year.

    While I have no tales of the wack-o's and woo-woo's coming out to get me, I can say that education in general is of extremely low importance in our urban cultures.

    The pay was low; But more than that, there was no interest in anything relating to science (or reading, for that matter). Of course, there were few props and supplies (like books, paper, chalk, &tc.) to try to make anything atractive.

    And it was clear to the students that the teachers had no real power or authority to affect anything meaningful to them. Yet we had to pretend that we did, and both the children and the teachers knew it.

    Since returning to the States, I have come to the conclusion that this is a violently anti-intellectual society.

    (I know there are big gaps in this missive, but I keep pausing to gnash my teeth quietly and choke back bile)

    Anyway, I work at a bank, these days. At a commercial services call center for a bank.

    Drek mit sibilis! what a waste.

  2. There are many problems with the primary education system in the US. Certainly I have to agree with Ray's above comment. If you put people in a position of responsibility but give them little or no authority over their responsibilty you are asking for disaster.

    There are exceptions, but most teachers want to teach youngsters. If the teachers aren't given authority and support for that authority then you are tying their hands behind their backs.

  3. Learing is fun! But I didn't realize that until after high school.

    Most teachers just don't have what it takes to stimulate interest in education. And parents aren't doing enough to encourage critical thinking and cognitive development. At least that's how I interpret my own experience…

  4. It's a drop in the ocean but I'm cheered by programmes like Mythbusters. I think they have the potential to engage people and improve the way they view science. I think there is a tendency for people to look on anything academic as 'them and us'. While shows like Mythbusters have occasionally dubious science, it's offset by their commendable attitude towards re-testing when they've got it wrong. They've hit the right balance between entertainment and science. Some kids from homes that are otherwise anti-academic may realise that science is interesting.

    I had a very good science teacher at school. We had lots of bangs, fun practical experiments, and he managed to make science relevent to us. We felt like the Mythbusters, years before the show. I think enforcing overly defined curriculums on some teachers leads to them being unable to teach in the way they like, and coupled with poor funding must make good teachers jobs very difficult and mediocre teachers jobs impossible.

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