Friday, March 31, 2006

Schools Cutting Back on Science Education

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has, for the past three years, put the focus of public education squarely on reading and mathematics testing. Schools are under intense pressure to shoot for high test scores, or face being put on watch lists and lose funding over time. One of the consequences, which comes as no surprise at all to educators, has been the lost time all other subject areas have encountered, especially in the primary and middle school grades. For instance, here is an excerpt from a recent NSTA email bulletin:

"A March 26 New York Times article reports that a survey to be released later this week on narrowing the curriculum finds that since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, 71% of the nation’s 15,000 school districts have reduced the hours of instructional time in history, science, music, and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. “The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art,” writes reporter Sam Dillon.

A New York Times editorial by Thomas Friedman titled “Worried About India's and China's Booms? So Are They” finds that one of the most frequent debates in most countries focuses on education and the common premise that they are falling behind. From the U.S. and Great Britain to India and China, every country is struggling with its own set of challenges. Friedman points to a “global convergence in education” that will spur growth and innovation. The challenge, he states, is for countries to find the right balance between creativity and rigor."

It is this last sentence that has worried me over the years since NCLB became law. High standards and rigor are essentials in any class and every grade level. But as I have written about in the past, the power of the American education system has been the variety of courses schools commonly offer, which span over all disciplines. In many schools there is some level of opportunity for students to explore creative subjects in the arts, physical education of all types, physical lab opportunities in science classes (unlike in other countries that focus on fact-based curricula, which works well for testing), community service and leadership opportunities, and so on. Students have had some chance to figure out through experience what they enjoy and where their strengths are, and then from that moment on can pursue them; it is their choice. In my opinion this is a fundamentally important educational structure and system that needs to be maintained at all costs, and, even with all the problems and challenges that face public education, it has largely been a major part in the U.S. position in the world as the only superpower.

Friedman is correct that we must not tilt things too far away from enjoying some amount of creativity in our education system, for that is where we begin to encourage younger generations to develop new ideas and inspire them to have some dreams that can still be realized. Any chance at equilibrium between rigor and creativity has clearly been lost the past few years as nearly 3 out of 4 districts have cut back on the topics where creativity is important for progress in those fields. I am convinced this is not where we want to continue to go. Especially those who believe there is some relevance to Gardner's multiple intelligences, we are seeing further erosion of important sections of our public education system at a time of growing pressure from global competition.

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