Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sorry State Of Science Education

Over at Instapundit, Jenn Oates, a science teacher, writes (emphasis added):
Many of my students—entirely too many—come into my 9th grade classroom woefully unprepared for even the most basic rigors of high school science. They do not study. They do not do homework. They do not get the direct connection between how much effort you put into something and the quality of the results. They do not know the difference between an inch and a centimeter. They have trouble with the simplest algebraic calculations (like f=ma).
Still, I am expected to turn every student into a science genius-in-the-making. Right. I can do that. Give me better prepared students and perhaps I could.. But it isn’t a Science or Math problem, it’s an attitude problem on the part of the students—their education is excellent, as our district has very high standards. What they make of it is, sadly, too often…not.
You'd think that if the district's standards were all that high, they could produce high schoolers who know the difference between an inch and a centimeter and are capable of doing multiplication. Sadly, you'd be wrong.

I believe the underpreparation problem is real, having seen it in my own classroom. But I suspect that the problem Ms. Oates is seeing is not so much a lack of preparation in skills, but a lack of discipline. Ms. Oates correctly notes that her students don't know how to study. In my opinion, this is because students are actually taught not to study by our public school system. All the high standards in the world will never be sufficient if students are actively taught to be lazy.

I can get up in front of a classroom of fresh-off-the-bus college freshmen and write on the board at the front:
and ask them for the answer, and they will all just sit there and stare at me. I've actually done this. Inevitably there's a kid in the first or second row silently mouthing "four... four..." and as the silence edges on, one girl (it's always a girl) will tentatively raise her hand to about the level of her upper arm, until she feels the eyes of the other students on her and drops the hand back into her lap.

They obviously know the answer to this, but they don't respond. Why not? Because they've been trained not to respond. It's "us vs. them" and I'm one of them. They've never had any negative consequences for not responding; in fact, quite the opposite. If they don't give the answer, the teacher will think the class hasn't learned and reteach the topic, make their test easier, and give them work that they already know they can do. Then they get a good grade! They don't care if the teacher then sits in the faculty lounge bitching about how her class is proving so difficult to teach. So they sit there in pretend stupidity, using dirty looks to enforce their social order on the few kids interested in learning, because if even one student seems to be "getting it", the teacher will suspect that she's doing something right.

I do this little exercise to break the ice. I just sit there and say we're all going to wait until someone volunteers the answer, then we'll go on with the lecture, and by the way you'll still be responsible for doing tonight's homework with or without the benefit of the lecture. After that the class usually becomes more interactive, and I find that the students actually know a good deal.

If only their high school teachers had been able to reinforce the idea that work= success, though, they wouldn't have to struggle so hard to succeed in college. But when you teach at a school where the principal is checking everyone's lesson plans like they were student teachers, and where any kid you send to the office for discipline is right back in class 10 minutes later, it's a bit hard to do.