What's happening with science?
by Len Rieser on Mar 11 2009 Posted in Education law corner
The Daily News reports that the District’s first public meeting on its new strategic plan was lightly attended. And the conversation seemed to focus mainly on whether to bring in outside partners to manage schools.
Who manages our schools is an important question. But so is the issue of what will actually change in the day-to-day life of students. In some ways, in fact, that’s a more urgent, and more interesting, discussion.
Let’s talk about science. A photo from Critical Exposure, a student photography project of a couple of years ago, sticks in my mind. (Many of the photos can be seen here [look under “Photos and Video”], though this particular picture is not included.)
Taken by a student at a large Philly high school, the picture shows students in a physics class, sitting and looking at a blank screen. The caption reads: “[T]he screen was blank because we didn’t have an assignment. We talked all period about movies with the teacher. That happens a lot.”
I’m guessing the teacher that day was a substitute. And I’m also assuming, from the looks of it, that those students were trying to learn physics in a classroom that didn’t have much, if any, physics equipment.
So what’s it like to be a science student, or a science teacher, in a Philadelphia school? And what can we commit to doing, starting next year, to make it better? I’m hoping to get some responses from those on the (scientific) front lines.
There are several reasons why we need to have this sort of conversation. First, there are those omnipresent statistics – which show, for example, that only 13.2% of Philly’s high school students test at the level of “proficient” or above on the PSSA. Second, there’s the fact that this sad situation doesn’t have to exist – and, in fact, it’s absurd that we allow it, given our society’s (and planet’s) need for people with scientific understanding. And third, there’s this year’s somewhat expected, somewhat fortuitous school funding increase, resulting in part from the stimulus money – some of which could be used to boost science education in significant ways. (Labs?)
Also, no one else is going to deal with this if we don’t. In typically breezy fashion, state law sets out a list of science standards (e.g., “Analyze the principles of translational motion, velocity and acceleration as they relate to free fall and projectile motion”), and then decrees that schools will “enable students to attain” them. But on the question of how to do that, the law says nothing at all.
Ditto, pretty much, for the District’s strategic plan. It’s written in broad strokes, and does not mention physics, chemistry, or biology – or for that matter, history or languages. (The plan does say – and it’s an important point -- that more will be done to recruit qualified science teachers. But that’s about it.)
That’s not a criticism. It’s just another reminder that we need a public conversation about, among other things, the specifics of teaching and learning science – and not a year or two from now.
Incidentally, the Science Leadership Academy, a small high school created several years ago by the District in conjunction with the Franklin Institute, may offer some answers. SLA offers “a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized,” as well as “longer class periods to allow for more laboratory work in science classes and performance-based learning in all classes.” That sounds like a good approach – but many other schools are struggling with less favorable conditions.
If you have some thoughts on science education in Philly, or (better yet) some personal experience, I hope you’ll share your comments.