December 21, 2009

I agree with Paul Cottle: set a date for science

In response to Florida Commissioner Eric Smith's weekend op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat (responding to the December 13 op-ed by FSU physics professor Paul Cottle), Cottle says, roughly, okay, maybe not this year, but set a firm date for setting up EOC exams in all central science areas. I'll go further: Florida needs to set a firm date for increasing the lab-based courses required for a standard diploma, including chemistry, physics, and an earth/space science as well as biology. Even if it's for the class of 2015 or 2016, we need a deadline.

There are several reasons to do so:

  • The challenges of this century require a citizenry that has a much better understanding of science. I don't care if you don't work in a field related to science; if you vote, I want you to understand some basics of science. So do my children. So should you.
  • Minimum requirements can reduce the inequalities of course enrollments. Gender differences in high school math and science enrollments shrank dramatically between the early 1980s and this decade. Part of the change was the fact that many states, especially larger states such as California and Texas, increased their core-academic graduation requirements. Right now, there are dramatic inequalities in who takes advanced science courses. My 17-year-old daughter and most of her friends who are seniors are taking a second year of some science (in her case, physics), partly because of their interests but also because her school offers those courses. Set the requirements higher, and school districts will have to figure out how to make more seats available in science classes.
  • Minimum requirements set the floor for what the next generation of elementary teachers knows. About a century ago, W.E.B. DuBois argued that African American activists had to care about the academic training of future teachers, and he is still right, and his point is correct for teachers of all students. Except that while DuBois talked about the "Talented Tenth" in the early 20th century because he knew that teaching was the most attractive profession for college-educated African Americans, we can't assume that any more. We no longer have a world where teaching is the best professional opportunity for women or for all members of marginalized cultures and races. That's a tremendous advance for the basic fairness of our society, and that means that the realistic pool of teachers is comprised of all adults with baccalaureate degrees. So we need to think about the pool of elementary teachers coming from the Talented Third or the Talented Half (which is a statement of relative attainment, not inherent ability). Want to attract new teachers from elite colleges? Go right ahead, but that still won't get you more than a fraction of the likely set of teachers in the future. Want to increase the content expertise of teachers? Great, but for the most part those requirements will focus on subject specialists in secondary schools, not elementary-school teachers. The majority of elementary-school teachers will still come from public university graduates, and many of them will have had their second-to-last lab science course in high school. (In many universities, students can satisfy the general-education requirements in science with one class.) The central question here is how much lab science do you think elementary-school teachers should have experienced? 
  • Technological breakthroughs 10-25 years from today will be crafted by the hands of those in high school now and in the near future. The real work of science and engineering research stands on the shoulders of senior researchers in any field and also relatively new graduates from college (whether grad students at a university or new employees in the private sector). Much of bench sciences these days is a team enterprise, not the work of a brilliant faculty member working alone. While this is not as persuasive an argument for me as the ones above, because only a limited number of high school graduates become members of such laboratories, it's a good thing to have a larger pool of people who are qualified to think about this work.

So I agree with Paul Cottle: the state legislature should look at its dance card and put down science for the near future. It doesn't have to be the first dance coming up, but it should be listed there somewhere.

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Posted in Education policy on December 21, 2009 9:48 AM |