In the midst of the hype about STEM, what happened to science in public schools?
Two recent reports in Education Week bemoan the stunning loss of both chemistry and physics in high schools across the country.
Three out of five secondary schools don’t offer chemistry! When they do, there’s disparity. Poor African Americans and Hispanic students don’t get the classes.
Two in 5 schools don’t offer physics! In both Alaska and Oklahoma, about 70 percent of high schools don’t offer the course. Florida and Utah are close behind, with nearly 60 percent of high schools lacking physics. Iowa, New Hampshire, and Maine do much better, with only about 15 percent of schools not offering the subject.
Small schools are hurt worse, raising questions about the quality of science instruction in charter schools.
Ninety percent of America’s kids attend public schools, so dwindling science instruction is troubling. But it’s not surprising. Defunding public education is intentional, meant to transform schools into technology hubs—charters for the poor.
A National Science Teacher Association report in 2007, showed teachers concerned about the awful school conditions they faced when teaching science. Overcrowded classes were pervasive—lab work often missing.
Here is one of the many statements by a public school teacher from that report.
In my urban inner city school, I teach a lab science in an old business room. There are no tables, benches, water or gas service, sinks, fire extinguisher, eye wash stations, fire blankets, or other equipment. In addition, while there is a high rate of attrition towards the end of the year, each September starts with 50 students in each class.
Here is the rest of the report.
Despite what appears to be the dismantling of science in public schools, STEM is a hot topic. We’re told corporations are concerned. But what are they really up to?
Here’s are the programs Verizon supports:
- Change the Equation: A hodgepodge of programs but none that directly address science in public schools. There’s no shortage of pushing technology and data collection. They tell what’s wrong with science in public schools, but won’t really help. One program, Math Counts, emphasizes students being “empowered to be teachers,” and they encourage those in science careers to volunteer to teach. West Ed. and an organization called Education Commission of the States funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other corporations, are partners.
- My StemKits.com: Involves 3D Printable Kits, Standards-Driven Curriculum (their standards), Printer Management Platform, and Professional Development. They have professional development for teachers but it’s costly. There’s a Single User Plan, Enterprise Plan, and Custom Quotes.
- Venture Lab: Is about entrepreneurial learning and much of their emphasis is on girls. Venture Lab is their own curriculum. They work in schools and outside of school, like with the Girl Scouts. It doesn’t appear to do anything to address the needs of students in public schools.
Some of these programs have ties to universities. A student is lucky if they live near one. They are not lucky if their school has no chemistry or physics classes, has shoddy labs and few teachers with science backgrounds, and the ability to teach.
The reliance on technology is unproven but driving the changes.
What about future learning gaps? If this country doesn’t invest in real science instruction, the kind we have relied on in the past, only better, then what hope will we have in the future for scientific breakthroughs?
What should students do?
Cristal Glangchai, PhD, is showcased on the Verizon website. She is founder and CEO of VentureLab and director the Blackstone LaunchPad, an entrepreneurship program at University of Texas and colleges around the country and world. Unfortunately, they make little mention of public schools. It’s mostly about online learning.
Glangchai says students should:
- Explore nature.
- Take things apart and analyze how they work.
- Build things out of recycled materials.
- Take advantage of free admissions days at children’s museums.
- Teach the phenomenon of science in the kitchen – it’s all chemistry, after all.
- And, check out free resources like Code.org and Khan Academy.
Thus, if your child is one of the 90% of students in public schools seeking great science instruction, it might be hard to find real science classes. That’s too bad for your child, and scary for the rest of us.
Public school science teachers and parents, feel free to comment.
Stephen Sawchuk. “Chemistry Absent Fom 3 in 5 Secondary Schools, Analysis Finds.” Education Week. December 27, 2017.
Liana Heitin. “2 in 5 High Schools Don’t Offer Physics, Analysis Finds.” Education Week. August 23, 2016.
I have a chapter “Students, Jobs, and the Global Economy” with a “STEM” subsection in my book.
Roger Titcombe says
Once again, there are strong parallels between the US and English systems. in respect of the negative consequences of marketisation. In the case of science, the English schools regulator wrote this.
“On 21 November 2013 OfSTED published a report entitled, Maintaining curiosity: a survey into science education in schools. They found that dull teaching – accompanied by a lack of practical work in the subject – was putting pupils off the science subjects. In some schools, not enough time had been set aside in the timetable for pupils to do practical work. Girls, in particular, were likely to ditch physics – with only 11,390 going on to do it in the sixth-form in 2011 despite 159,745 getting two good GCSE passes in science. In addition, a minority of secondary schools were ‘pre-occupied with tests and examination results as ends in themselves’ rather than aiming to improve pupils’ deeper knowledge of the subject. The report points out that getting good grades in science is not necessarily the same as “getting” science”
I wrote about the decline in the quality of science education in English schools here.
Nancy Bailey says
Your report is interesting, Roger. Thank you for sharing. One of the links also indicates that personalized learning is a big deal there like here. Interesting connection. Good to hear from you and Happy New Year!
I Tweeted this and will also put on FB.
Marcia Edwards-Sealey says
I work in a school, and I have a keen interest in learning, and from time to time from my layman’s platform, I try to analyse why students do not like science. I am not a teacher; I am an Education Assistant.
The focus on activity-It is not that activity is bad, but most times theory must precede successful activity. Students like hands-on, but they do not like learning the theory. They have become accustomed to working on projects, and they think that reviewing theory before they move to activity is boring. Science can never be learned only from doing alone, knowledge begats activity. The idea of leaving students to rediscover what other scientists have already discovered is foolishness. Einstein received the Nobel prize for the discovery of the photoelectric effect, but he relied on the work of many others to develop his theory. He did not reinvent the wheel. He studied what they did and he found a way to improve it. Most thought is modeled on what is already known or the interpretation of existing or similar knowledge. I recently read about the birth of the idea for the drug tamoxifen. It arose from a conversation overheard from some sheep farmers, which may have had no scientific meaning to the farmers, but it did for the doctors who overheard it. There must be some basis of thought that leads to activity, and that is why students need established scientific theory. It is necessary for guiding their thoughts.
I recently realized, that knowing math is useful in science, after I did a course in chemistry, and I did some stoichiometry. which involves measurements. Students who do not have an affinity for figures when they encounter the mathematical part of science become discouraged. Math is a part of STEM because science relies on math, and when students are not numerate, they become stuck with science, particularly if they do not know and understand algebra. Science is one of the areas that proves that math is useful. Students get stuck in science because of poor math skills.
Most modern students cannot do immersive reading, and science involves immersive reading. I live in Canada, and most of the schools have moved away from the use of textbooks and now rely on the internet for content. The internet has excellent content especially if you go to the websites of universities, but care is not exercised in selecting the content. No attention is paid to the quality of the content. And the idea that students will learn if you present them with the opportunity is faulty. Modern students are tech savvy, but do you really think they search the web to learn chemistry and physics; I do not think so. I do online courses, and most times before I study my modules, I would pre-study several internet videos, and I always think about the vast resources available for students, and how they never use them. If they are so willing to learn why don’t they get obsessed with the academic content available on the web? Or maybe it is like Andrew Nikifurok asks in his book by the same name “if Learning is so Easy Why go to School”
I can see no reason why a school would disband the teaching of physics and chemistry; maybe they cannot get good teachers, or they think that the students can learn from the internet. If it is the latter I will still ask-why don’t they go chasing the content that is available on the internet, without having to be told?
Nancy Bailey says
Marcia, You have written much here. There is a lot of wisdom in your words. I love your points about guidance. Also, love what you wrote about distinguishing the good and the junk on the Internet. I think students can also obtain information so easily that it often doesn’t mean much. I hope others read your comment. Thank you for taking the time to write it.
Roger Titcombe says
Hello Marcia, I am a retired headteacher in the English education system. I taught science throughout my career including my headship years and never found our students to dislike science. Indeed for many it was their favourite subject. I was fortunate to teach in strong science departments, that were well equipped for practical work, as were all UK schools until the recent Academisation (your Charter Schools) and increasing marketisation of our education system on the US model.
You are right that school students cannot be expected to ‘discover’ the principles of science through practical experimentation. That is not its purpose. But neither can students be expected to understand science by being ‘told’ stuff. If your students do not like science it is most likely because they do not understand what they are being told no matter how hard they try, or however clear the explanation. Telling is not teaching and listening is not learning. See
The cognition of individual students needs to be developed to a level at which the scientific concept in question can be assimilated by the learners onto their existing personal cognitive models (Piaget). This is assisted within a school culture of peer/peer debate in which learning is socialised (Vygotsky). If cannot do this then the result is likely to be rejection (dislike) of the subject. The key to the development of cognitive ability lies in the exploitation of the universal human curiosity instinct.and this is the role of practical experimentation in science lessons. This is how scientific theories can make sense to indiviual learners. See
This article also explores the fallacy that students can understand anything if they concentrate hard enough and the school exerts sufficient disciplinary control over them.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks again, Roger.
Marcia Edwards-Sealey says
Thanks for introducing me to those interesting articles an most of all your book which is on my must read list for 2018.
I was educated under that old British system, now maligned by modern educators. I do not know if you are aware that the North American education system is very different than that old English system which you may have known. They focus on function. The current chaos in the British education system arose from envy of American progress in medicine and science. Since the North American system was loose, and they fared so well, the authorities thought that a little simulation would improve British progress. However, the envisaged successes have not yet materialized and probably never will. But the experiment has left the legacy of a failed system. It resulted almost total destruction of the grammar school system in an attempt to be more equitable in education, and these oversized senior comprehensive schools populated with students who seem to have no interest in academic achievement-my ex British colony has senior comprehensives too, but they still have the elite secondary schools which are mostly denominational. Senior comprehensives were an addition copied from the British with the intention of providing some diversity outside of the traditional grammar school system. So what Britain is now trying to do with the academies is to surreptitiously repair their catastrophic experiment.
My problem with active learning is that students are not interested in immersive reading to learn and understand, they are always demanding hands-on learning which they believe will spare them the trouble to indulge in scholarly activities like reading and reviewing what was learned or studying to keep up to date with their material. And there is no way that one can learn from just hands-on; you may learn to ride a bicycle, and similar events that will become automatic once lodged in the striatum, but academic matter sometimes needs to be studied to be understood. For instance you see all these manipulatives in the chemistry class meant to simulate the construction of a Bohr diagrams with orbitals. For me, it is easier to understand if I know how the atoms are arranged in the energy levels, and how the atomic number determines the number of orbitals, and how the number of orbitals determine the atomic radius and how all these features tie in to chemical bonding. So you tell, and students study, and they assemble their Bohr diagrams, and the knowledge becomes cemented in their minds. A colleague I worked with described it thusly-you listen, then you read to understand, and you read until you understand, you commit to memory, and then you do applications or activity which demonstrates the practical value of what you have learned. I will do my hands-on Bohr diagram after I have the background knowledge to enable me to understand when I create my model. I do not think that hands-on is a substitute for replacing the need to learn theory, and this clamouring for hands-on as a way to engage students, is a way of catering to students who feel that real learning is too effortful. I would agree that neither telling nor memorising is learning, but they are a starting point of learning especially in the stem field.
I will give you an example that shows why neglecting theory might restrict real learning. My daughter studied for a diploma in accounting, but because of the use of computers for accounting, the mechanics of manual accounting has been discounted, and to generalize the knowledge to different accounting situations is difficult. So short cuts in learning hinders understanding. I was trained as an accountant, and we had to master manual accounting, and because I understand why procedures are done generalizing is easy for me. She works with an insurance company, and she finds it difficult to understand their system, because the theory was deemed unnecessary in her course because the computer will automate, but it does not automate understanding, hence my scepticism of promoting activity based learning above understanding theory.
Roger Titcombe says
Hello Marcia – Sorry, but I think you have got this completely wrong. I think I should know something about the English education system, not just as a child who entered primary school in 1953, but also as a teacher for 32 years in excellent comprehensive schools and also a prestigious selective grammar school.
The selective education system you praise was hopelessly unfit for purpose. Children were separated at 11 from their neighbourhood friends on the basis of a crude IQ-type test. Only 20-25 percent of children passed, to go to an academic Grammar School. The rest received a non-academic education designed for manual workers (boys) and mothers (girls). The boys were taught mainly reading, writing, arithmetic and woodwork, with a smattering of history and geography, while the girls were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, needlework and cooking. My wife went to such a school, but gained a place at University in later life after doing years of part-time study.
The selective system has been completely abandoned in Scotland and Wales, but persists in a few Conservative outpost Local Authorities in England. Unsurprisingly the aggregated exam results of selective schools are usually better than all-ability comprehensives, but when the success of all students of all abilities is taken into account the comprehensive system is far more educationally effective.
Our ideologically imposed Academisation on your Charter School model, has been a catastrophe. The marketisation of the school system has favoured gaming, cheating and all manner of behaviourist shallow learning as schools have pursued exam result driven local league tables at all costs. If after reading this reply, you still read my book you find all this described with masses of detailed evidence.
As for ‘active learning’, this does not replace ‘theory’, but enriches it. If it were possible to successfully teach ,say, Newtons Laws of Motion to school students at all stages of cognitive development through ‘telling and listening’, then in the US and the UK we would have a scientifically literate population, when the truth is the exact opposite.
The main role of ‘active’ experimentation is the promotion of the cognitive growth that makes seep understanding of hard stuff possible. This stimulates and exploits the innate curiosity of the human animal, especially in the childhood and adolescent years.
Of course older students, who have already reached what Piaget called, ‘Formal Operational Thinking’ can learn by the methods you describe. The main role of schools is to develop the cognition of the highest possible proportion of the population so they too can experience what Feynman called, ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’.
Thomas Ultican says
There never was a shortage of STEM trained graduates or workers in the US. In retrospect we see a glut of STEM degrees and no jobs for newly minted math and science people.
However, you don’t need to worry about the lack of physics in high school. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) makes the impossible possible. 5th graders will master Newton’s Laws. By the time they get to high school, they will be doing fundamental research. Between NGSS and CCSS, high school will be the new college.
Or another possibility could raise its ugly head. Maybe, NGSS and CCSS won’t be able reform the progress of human development to match their ill-conceived standards.. It could be that school reform led by politicians and billionaires is creating a disaster which is being led by reformy groups like TFA, TNTP, AP, etc. who have no authentic understanding of pedagogy.
I think it is this latter outcome that is based on reality. The former is a sales pitch to get at those sweet education dollars.
Nancy Bailey says
Always correct! Thank you, Thomas!
Roy Turrentine says
Moreover, NGSS ignores natural science. If it works, we will soon have a generation that does not care whether it kills the last titmouse.
Nancy Bailey says
Yikes! Roy, what you said sounded familiar. I wrote about NGSS and had some push back that it wasn’t Common Core. It is.
I went back and realized I read somewhere that NGSS neglects chemistry and physics too! What do you know!
I can’t take this article seriously.
Nancy Bailey says
It’s based on 2 reports from Education Week, Don. It was difficult for me to believe as well, even though I recognize that there are a lot of schools with rundown science labs as noted in the link I provided above. But strange things are happening to schools.
Lisa M says
I have a HSer (10th grade) in Chemistry in a very wealthy county (Howard Co ,MD). Her big experiment this year in GT chemistry is burning sugar….that’s it! Burning sugar. They have been suiting up in aprons and goggles since October to drop lead weights in water to do displacement and other kinds of non “chemistry experiments” of similar content. No chemicals involved in chemistry anymore. No chemical equations, no learning the elements on the chart…nothing! I’m disgusted. Meanwhile, I have an 8th grader in GT science who is learning Newton’s Laws but none of the kids have the math skills needed to help them with the experiments. The kids are given no background or theory and don’t have a clue about what they are doing. The NGSS have just started this year. For my MS son they are in full swing, but my HS daughter is grandfathered in under the old system…..so the chemistry (and physics) class is being phased out. Nobody getting any good science in Howard Co, MD. GARBAGE! The MSer will be going off to private school next year…..they have great science labs and a hefty price tag for that kind of education. I’m glad and sad at the same time.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your situation. I am sorry your son and daughter are not getting the classes in science they deserve. And I’m sorry you have to pay a lot for a good school. So many program changes that are unproven and few well-prepared teachers want to work in such a climate.
NY Science Teacher says
The Common Core/Race to the Top/NCLB waiver program that linked bogus standardized testing (Pearson, RARCC, SBAC) in math and ELA with teacher evaluations (VAM) forced the majority of school districts to put science and social studies on the back burner at the K to 8 level.. The threaten-test-an-punish movement perpetrated by the Gates, Coleman, and Duncan cartel also came on the heels of the Great Recession which had already forced many districts to defund programs and cut staff. In cash starved schools obsessed with math and ELA scores, science was barely an after-thought. Combine all this with the recent return to the failed and debunked discovery/constructivism methodologies of the NGSS and is any wonder that science instruction is now in a downward spiral?
Nancy Bailey says
Agree! Thank you for stating it so eloquently. Sadly so.