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Astronomy Education in the United States

 

5. K-12 Education

In many ways, the school system in America reminds one of Saturn's rings: from far away, it looks ordered and beautiful, a testament to the organizational powers at work in the system. But the minute you get inside, what you see is the chaos of countless individual pieces, some colliding, some moving together, some all knotted up. And what are all the pieces doing ultimately - going in circles of course!

I've already mentioned some of the serious problems in science education in our schools -- those problems are, of course, only a tiny subset, of the much larger problems confronting the entire educational system. One legacy of our frontier past is that the US education scene consists of many fiercely independent empires. Fifty states have different rules and requirements; and there are 16,000 school districts in the country, in many of which local school boards maintain their own priorities and regulations with a grim determination.

This means that innovation and improvement in one place often has little chance of spreading. Even on the national level, there is little push for consistent, progressive change. And - as can be seen from the abysmally bland and ineffective K-12 textbooks - the system strongly favors the lowest common denominator.

Our Society expects our schools to do much more than merely teach our students basic liberal knowledge. Today, we expect our schools to fulfil many of the functions that were the province of the extended family, of religious institutions, and of the community at large just a few decades ago. As Peter Schrag wrote recently in The New Republic, (Dec. 16, 1991, p. 20): "No country has ever done, or even tried, what this country is now trying: To take such a diverse population of children -- 20% of them from below the poverty level, many of them speaking little English, many from one parent or no-parent families -- and educate each child at least through the 12th grade... [Now add to this] what we've learned about the school's external problems -- poverty, broken families, teenage pregnancies, drugs, lack of health care, lack of child care..."

In 1990, Bruce Alberts, now the head of the National Academy, wrote poignantly about high school science teachers in California: Such a teacher might typically teach five classes a day, with three different preparations with a total of more than 160 students. A dedicated teacher, with labs, setup, preparation, grading, student conferences, and all the paperwork schools require, will work something like 70 hours a week, and have an average starting salary of $22,500 per year. Who would want this job? Or who, once having this job, would not be tempted to cut corners, give lots of rote assignments, skimp on hands-on lab experience, and just try to survive? ["Agenda for Excellence" in the Journal of NIH Research, Apr. 1990, p. 19.]

During the school year 1993-94, (at the same time that the starting salary for teachers was $22,500 on average) the average overall teachers' salary in the U.S. was $35,958 [NEA: Estimates of School Statistics (1994).] If we really felt that education is important in the U.S., would we pay teachers so much less compared to lawyers, accountants, business leaders? Why, in a culture that glorifies money, are we surprised when students (especially students from low-income families) get the message early on -- teaching and learning must not be so important to adults, or film stars and basketball players would not earn outrageously more than a mentor teacher.

And, despite our expectations of them, schools in our country cannot by themselves solve all the problems that threaten the education of young people. If we really want to make changes in the ways our children are educated, we must be prepared to examine the other influences on their lives as well. For some children, these include poverty, violence, drugs, neglect, ill health, and lack of proper housing. But even for children growing up in economically and emotionally stable environments, there is a pernicious influence that was much discussed as a problem when I was growing up, but today seems to be treated mainly with resignation television .

A typical student in the US spends about 900 hours a year in school and between 1200 and 1800 hours in front of a television set. In 1993, the average US household had a television set on for about 8 hours per day. And what does a youngster learn from commercial television? More often than not, they gather the exact opposite of what we try to teach them in school:

  • That the only thing that matters is the instant gratification of every urge ("just do it," as the popular slogan says).

  • That what counts in America is money, celebrity, and fun.

  • That anything can be true and can happen (and that anecdotal evidence is enough to prove any assertion.)

Think of how teachers are shown on most television programs on the commercial services: mostly as objects of derision. And how are scientists usually portrayed (when they are shown at all)? Mostly as evil villains, or naive agents of serious catastrophe that result from their experiments getting out of control. These "lessons" of television viewing are rarely lost on our students!

Before leaving the disquieting arena of K-12 education, let me turn just briefly to the places where so many of our teachers are trained - our schools of education. In the 20th century, the US has evolved a whole slew of specialized schools and departments for preparing our teachers. In many of these programs, you do not need to take any science (and certainly any physical science) to become an elementary level teacher. It is one of the few majors that do not have such a requirement, which means it actually selects out those people who are afraid of science. This is one reason why so many elementary teachers transmit a fear, a hostility, a shudder at the very mention of science to their young students, at just the time when kids' minds are seeking not just information but values.

Estimates are that more than 2/3 of math and science teachers in the US today do not meet the recommended proficiency standards of their own professional associations (Beardsley, T. "Teaching Real Science" in Scientific American, Oct. 1992, p. 98.) But, especially in the higher grades, the problem is not that teachers do not know enough science. The problem is more often that the schools of education, despite their many courses on teaching technique, rarely prepare teachers to present science the way it should be taught -- in ways the students, at their own stages of reasoning, are ready to understand. So science teachers often model their teaching of science on how they learned science, in big college lecture courses, from textbooks full of facts to be memorized. No wonder 11-year olds get turned off when science is presented to them in this way!

Now some schools of education in this country do make a valuable effort to train teachers in the value of science and its most effective presentation. But as long as schools of education remain separate "fiefdoms" from the departments of science at our universities, and as long as these programs continue to allow teachers to graduate without proper grounding in the method and teaching of science, our children will continue to have role models whose own attitudes toward science would be charitably described as luke-warm.

In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk, a report that decried state of education in the U.S. It called the "rising tide of mediocrity" a "peril to our very future as a nation and a people." It compared what was happening in our schools to an act of war, except it was an act we had declared on ourselves. The report (and others like it) made many recommendations, but so far there have been few effective follow-ups and few additional resources for waging this hidden war.

No amount of teacher training in science will address the fundamental problems of low pay, low morale, and student overwhelmed by life that confronts teachers in so many schools. We as a country must confront those issues, and yet I am very pessimistic about the will or the ability of our elected leaders to do so. This is why many leaders in both science and education are now saying that the hope of the future is for scientists (and other educated citizens) to get personally involved in local and national efforts to reform science education.

In astronomy, such efforts include the A.S.P.'s Project ASTRO, and its "Universe in the Classroom" program with workshops and materials for teachers in grades 3-12; the A.A.S.' A-ASTRA project training mentor teachers in astronomy around the country; several innovative programs in the Education Division at the Center for Astrophysics, led by Phil Sadler; and others listed in my Catalog of National Education Projects. But far more remains to be done and there are not enough astronomers in the country to have much of an effect on their own. Only by joining with other scientific disciplines, and encouraging some meaningful changes in the cultures of our universities, colleges, and research institutions, could we even hope to make any headway in this area.

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