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Save Our Science Teachers

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I’ve been quiet here, because this is not the best venue for me. However, I will occasionally adapt articles from my Science Blog for this site.

In a brilliant commentary entitled, “I’m a Public School Dropout” in my hometown paper, Esther Mellinger Stief describes why at age 35, she has quit her teaching job in the public schools. According to the sub-headline, Ms. Stief “loves to teach, to guide the growth of young minds[, but] she doesn’t love training students to take the latest mandated standards test.”

Real education, i.e. the process of learning to think critically, suffers from the increasing trend toward teaching to the test, and no subject suffers more than science. Ms. Stief’s comments are a clear indication that we are not only losing our next generation of students, but we are also losing the teachers who really care about critical thinking in all areas.

In our eagerness to create “competence,” we are emphasizing sameness and mediocrity. We are damaging the best of our public schools. I am a proud product of a public school education, and I benefited from the post-Sputnik reforms in science education that are now disappearing. We are leaving every child behind — especially in science. It is time to act!

Please spread the word about Ms. Stief’s important article. Let’s get her on talk shows across the country now!

For my personal contributions to science education, please visit “Dr. Fred’s Place” for children’s science and The Science Shelf site of book reviews and columns.

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About Fred Bortz

  • ss

    Critical thinking should be the main goal, though there are questions of motivating those students who try not to learn anything.

    I’m curious, what reforms did Sputnik
    lead to?

  • For me, the most direct impact was through the PSSC Physics course, which I took in 1960-62, my last two years of high school, and a National Science Foundation Fellowship that paid me to go to graduate school. I googled PSSC Physics and found this interesting link about post-Sputnik education.

    Here’s the text of a review I wrote of a 2001 book you might like to borrow or buy:

    SPUTNIK: THE SHOCK OF THE CENTURY by Paul Dickson (Walker, $28.00, Oct. 2001)

    The event signalled, according to nuclear weapons expert Edward Teller, “a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor.” A Washington Post reporter wrote of “a sense of foreboding that the city had not known since” December 1941. Life magazine, writes Paul Dickson, “compared it to the first shot at Lexington and Concord, urging Americans to respond like the Minutemen.”

    It was accompanied not by explosions and death like the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001, but by a steady “beep-beep-beep” from a one-watt radio transmitter circling the globe; yet the launching of Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, as Mr. Dickson calls it, just as surely prompted a concerted and urgent national response. Forty-four years later, October 4, 1957, continues to reverberate in our national policies on science, technology, education, and military preparedness.

    In these first months of responding to the recent terrorism, books like this one are particularly valuable, helping us to place the present event in the context of history and to make decisions that future historians will regard as necessary, courageous, and resulting in an enduring positive impact on civilization.

    If the events surrounding the launch of Sputnik are a guide, it won’t happen without stumbles. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, though beloved as a national hero, was derided for permitting the Soviet Union to beat the U.S. into space. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, having also successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and long-range ballistic missiles in the same year, touted Communism’s greatness and the technical prowess of the U.S.S.R. Yet declassified Cold War documents reveal both the limitations and failures of Soviet technology and Eisenhower’s plan to let the Soviets to launch first, thereby establishing the principle that national sovereignty does not extend beyond the atmosphere. Sputnik paved the way for the U.S. to orbit spy satellites, which Ike saw as vital to our national security.

    Readers who are familiar with the history and politics of the space program may grow impatient with this book, looking for a more detailed presentation than Mr. Dickson has elected to present. They will chafe at his abbreviated history of manned space flights from Mercury through Apollo. They will ache for a whole book devoted to Mr. Dickson’s final chapter on Sputnik’s legacy. They will crave more insight into the prickly and controversial Wernher von Braun and his high-profile activities. They will want to know more about the inter-service and inter-agency rivalries that both promoted and threatened progress in space and military technology.

    This book is not for them but for readers looking for 250 pages of solid overview and extensive backmatter to guide them to more detail. When their emotional response to September 11 gives way to useful action, a look back on the shock of and response to Sputnik’s launch will serve them well.

    Fred Bortz, author of science books for young readers, was an eighth grader as he watched Sputnik cross the heavens. Nine years later, he was the beneficiary of a Sputnik-inspired government fellowship program that enabled him to earn a Ph.D. in physics.

  • I read the essay to which you linked, but I missed the part where she explains how to solve the problem. What’s the short version?

    Standardized tests are in use because we don’t trust our teachers to teach well. Idealism and optimism aren’t enough.

    How do we ensure that millions of kids all receive a real education, irregardless of race or gender or economic position?

    I don’t think it can be done — I think it is up to parents to insist on a proper education for their children, but that doesn’t solve the problem for children with less-involved parents.

  • Phil, I think her suggested steps toward a solution come at the end of the article, which follows (emphasis mine).

    “We cannot be content with our current public school system, nor should we feel confident allowing our children’s education to be driven by national, state and local politics rather than by the parents, students and teachers themselves.

    In order for NCLB or any other educational reform initiative to create meaningful improvements in our public school system, the change needs to be cultivated and driven by the community, not by punitive, rigid legislative measures.

    Perhaps it is time to turn a more critical eye to the problems and supposed solutions in our schools. Maybe the answers we are being given do not address our most pressing questions. Or maybe for too long we’ve been satisfied not to question at all.”

    In other words, the old Conservative mindset that emphasized local control of education has been abandoned. And the old Liberal approach of striving to give all students equal opportunity has been distorted.

    It’s no longer equal opportunity to excel but rather equal opportunity to be minimally proficient, with punitive laws applied against the schools that fail to produce that minimal level for the vast majority of students.

    We need and have always used some degree of standardized testing to evaluate how well students are doing. The fallacy of NCLB seems to be that the tests are being used as paddles rather than as measuring rods. The potential loss of funding is a serious disincentive to the risk-taking and innovation that has been the traditional hallmark of American excellence in every field, education included.

    In the past, when liberals and conservatives found ways to compromise, policies were more sensible. The current ideological climate seems to have replaced the sensible middle ground with a hodgepodge of extreme ideas.

  • In the past, things were always better. It’s the myth of the Golden Age. 🙂

    I’m sorry, I’m still not seeing anything other than what I saw at first: a lament that things have gotten worse without any real proscription for making them better.

    Local communities need to tell the federal government to take a hike: agreed. Of course, the inevitable result is that the rich kids in the suburbs have much better schools than the poor kids in the urban schools. Which wouldn’t be so bad in the urban schools were good and the suburban school great, but it doesn’t work that way.

    I still don’t see it — what does a system that educates millions of children well look like?

    Sorry, I guess I’m missing the point.

  • Phil, I’m confused here.

    Are you saying that NCLB has had a positive effect? From where I sit, it is driving public schools in all areas toward mediocrity.

    Now mediocrity might be an improvement in some inner city schools, but celebrating that is distasteful and elitist. Besides, no one has shown that improved performance on standardized tests represents better learning. We are turning the kids into test-taking robots without creativity. Brave New World, indeed!

    The solution begins by admitting that the way NCLB has been implemented is destroying public education.

    By the way, I got an excellent education in an urban public school system, which has been badly damaged by the attention of liberal ideologues in the 1960s-1970s, then made even worse by the meddling of the current conservative ideologues. And both sides are so busy throwing bombs at each other that they have forgotten the problems they set out to solve.

  • chris l

    Fred… I agree with this, “.. both sides are so busy throwing bombs at each other that they have forgotten the problems they set out to solve.” The more this has become a political football the worse it has become for schools. I sigh also everytime I hear a parent saying something like “Well, that’s an A school!” This grading of schools is as manipulative & detrimental as standardized testing has become – it just adds another layer on to it.

  • Esther Mellinger Stief

    Hi – Just read your discussion here and I wanted to address Phil’s question about my “solution” to the problems I’ve outlined in my article. Sorry, Phil, I don’t have the solution! The only hope I see for the future of public schooling is for people to care about the education our children receive and, as a result of that concern, become actively engaged in what happens in their local districts. I wrote the article in the hopes that it would generate discussion – and maybe even make some people angry. Frankly, most people are apathetic and/or uninformed about educational policy. Until that changes, we can’t expect meaningful change in our schools. My intent was never to offer the solution; my intent was to begin a conversation.

  • Thanks, Esther, for chiming in.

    I’m going to try to e-mail Phil to get him to respond here.

    He called my response “the myth of the Golden Age,” but I’m afraid too many people are taken in by the myth of multiple choice testing.

  • Fred, you’ve completely mis-read every one one of my comments, but Esther Stieg “gets it.” I’ve never advocated standardized testing as a solution to anything, only explained why it is in use now. You’ve offered nothing to explain how to accomplish the same goals absent the testing, only suggested that eliminating such testing would (magically?) result in solutions.

    Esther Stief honestly states that she doesn’t offer a solution, and doesn’t have one. Neither do I. Clearly, neither do you.

    I’m afraid too many people are taken in by the myth that undoing a mistake is as simple as stopping doing what we’ve started doing. (grin)

    It usually doesn’t work that way.

  • Phil, I never said you were advocating standardized testing, just asking if you realized that your post left that interpretation open. Nor was I saying that there was a magical solution.

    We’re actually on the same side here, but you seem to be unwilling to accept this as a step toward solving the problem. You’re the one who asked for a solution, when all I was offering was a first step.

    That step is recognizing that the implementation of No Child Left Behind is turning out to be counterproductive, and acting on that recognition.

    The loss of Esther Steif and people like her in the classroom is a powerful piece of evidence that we are going in the wrong direction. Her article is a datum, not a conclusion or a solution.

    So I propose, as do many others, that it is time to turn back the emphasis on standardized testing and look at past successes to see if they apply.

    There will be no one simple solution (which is what NCLB advocates claimed to have found), but the place to start is like the old joke.

    PATIENT: Doctor, my head hurts when I do this.

    DOCTOR: Then stop doing it.

    That’s the first step, and when our heads stop aching, maybe we can see our way clear to the next one.