Friday, March 30, 2012

America gets poor marks for science.

Quick! What's the easiest way to identify what elements are likely to chemically react with chlorine?

Right. Google it. OR you could consider the electron configuration of chlorine and the number of valence electrons necessary to complete its valence shell and then determine what elements are likely to give up that number of electrons to drop down to a full valence level.

If you didn't understand all that, don't worry. You are not alone.

A majority of US states' standards of science education remains, "mediocre to awful" according to a new comprehensive study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Needless to say by Fordham's standards we didn't pass the science standard pop-quiz.

The institute analyzed the science standards of all 50 states and the District of Columbia for grades K-12 and gave each state a grade based on "Content & Rigor," "Scientific Inquiry & Methodology," "Physics" and "Chemistry." The average grade allotted was a very low C. More than half of the states went home with a D or lower and were promptly scolded by their parents even though only six states total got a smiley sticker for earning an A.

Thomas B. Fordham Institute

The authors of the study may have learned their periodic table but they did not learn their manners. They were not kind to those they were assessing. On Hawaii's report card they wrote, "The Hawaii science standards are a case study in half-loaves and inconsistencies. At times the K-8 standards are reasonably rigorous and thorough. But the high school material in the Aloha State is woefully inadequate, including only rare islands of content floating in a sea of omission, confusion and plan inaccuracy."

It seems that eighth graders in the US rank 11th out of their class of 48 nations when it comes to math and science and Fordham has no sympathy. If in the future Americans find themselves being bullied by the higher scoring students of Eastern Europe, the researchers say that we only have ourselves to blame. "Every state has the resources to produce excellent K-12 science standards." They wrote ominously in the final lines of their introduction as if to say, "what we're about to show you sucks and it's all your fault."

There are four areas where the authors currently feel we don't make the grade. First is an undermining of evolutionary theory (in some states learning about natural selection remains voluntary). Next is a pertinent vagueness in the goals education standards set out to achieve. Third, mathematics education is just flat-out lacking. And finally teachers don't have sufficient guidance when constructing lesson plans.

What is poor (and apparently dumb) America to do? The researchers claim that more states and communities must take, "concrete action to build world-class science programs into their K-12 schools." Maybe the states who aren't doing so well should steal their answers from California, who received the highest grade. If that were the case would it still be our fault if America fell behind?

There is always a lot of conversation going on about science education, scientific literacy, the public understanding of science, scientific citizenship and what all of it means. Unfortunately, studies like Fordham's as well as the numerous papers published by organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Council on Science and Technology Education and others all have been saying the same thing since the scientific heyday when the entire nation was paying attention to science via Sputnik. Rather than coming to any sort of conclusion or plan of action, which they all seem to be screaming for, the debate continues to spur scruples over useless formalities such as the definition of the word "understanding."

If I had an action plan I would not be in a position to implement it whereas groups like those mentioned throughout this post who have some sort of clout and position to implement the structural change they're begging for choose to spend their funding on debates instead or on publishing another list of the same benefits of increase scientific understanding.

Granted, I'm being harsh. I'm sure the collection of essays and conferences discussing the topic have resulted in some action but as we're constantly reminded it's apparently not enough. I'd like to say that in my book everyone fails but that would be counter productive so I'm giving everyone an incomplete until further notice, myself included.

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