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Science Teachers: Education Quality Plummets as Class Sizes Rise

December 12, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

While state leaders tout recent science test scores, Minnesota teachers in the trenches say their class sizes have gone up 20 percent in the last five years, which has caused the quality of science education to go down and has raised safety fears.

More than 57 percent of science teachers who took an on-line poll conducted by Minnesota 2020 and the Minnesota Science Teachers Association said their class sizes have gone from an average of 25 students per class in 2003-04 to an average of 30 students per class this year. They said science classes should have no more than 24 students.

The consequence is easy to predict: More than 67 percent of the teachers said the quality of science education in Minnesota has become worse between 2003-04 and 2008-09.

"We are all like gerbils on a treadmill trying to run faster with fewer resources, more kids, more testing, fewer computers per student for test prep and a huge change in community expectation over what schools should do about their children's education," one teacher wrote. Respondents were allowed to comment anonymously.

On Tuesday, The Minnesota Department of Education released the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in which Minnesota students performed well against international students in eighth-grade science and held their own against fourth-grade students. Officials were quick to acknowledge that the state has increased science graduation requirements and is in the process of updating science education standards.

But the news isn't all good. The results come after the August release of the MCA test results which showed that 60.9 percent of fifth graders 61.9 percent of eighth-graders and 57.3 percent of high-schoolers couldn't achieve a "proficient" rating on the state science test.

Teachers recognize the trend is going downward.

"I find that students are less prepared for science learning that they were 10 years ago," one teacher wrote. "Poorer math skills, inability to follow simple directions and problem behaviors have made increasing class sizes even more of a challenge than they might have been if students come to class ready to learn."

"My biggest science class is 41 eighth graders and it is very difficult to get through all of the material necessary in order to prepare them for the MCAs," another wrote.

Teachers indicated a strong concern about the quality of education offered in laboratory classes. Most teachers said science lab classes should have no more than 24 students. When more students are added to the class, fewer students can participate in hands-on experiments, which are the key to quality science education, said MnSTA president and Marshall Senior High science teacher Holly Knudson. Adding

students means making four-student lab groups into six or seven person lab groups.

"Doing hands-on labs and inquiries is essential, but you can't do labs with just one pair of eyes. The quality and level of science education drops dramatically (with too many students in the class,)" she said.

Too many students means safety is a concern as well, Knudson said. The National Science Teachers Association recommends four students in a group, and Knudson says that adding more is a recipe for trouble when working with Bunsen burners, glassware, dissecting scalpels and needles.

Other teachers agreed. "My problem is breakage from students bumping into each other in crowded spaces. I have larger groups but still have the same amount of equipment so I have two to three students per group who are simply observers. It is much harder to supervise for safety as there are so many more bodies to see through."

"Safety in the science classroom should be a top priority in all districts and in all classrooms. Any classroom with more than 24 students, in my opinion, has a safety issue."

Respondents were given several choices to pinpoint the fault for the drop in quality. More than 72 percent blamed underfunding by the state government. Since 2003-04, state aid has dropped an inflation-adjusted

14 percent, forcing schools to go to voter-approved levies to provide basic education.

"It's because of these cuts that we see the increase in student-to-teacher ratio," Knudson said. "It's a trickle-down effect"  - schools  need the money, the state cuts back so they go to the voters and if voters don't approve, districts make cuts that result in a poorer education for its students.

One teacher wrote that in the last 10 years, his class sizes have jumped from 24 to 36 students, his supply budget has been slashed and his school's lab aide has been laid off.

"Needless to say, these students are not getting anything near the education students received then. I would not send my own children through this science program," the teacher wrote.

Minnesota's economic advantage has long been a well-educated workforce.  By underinvesting in critical areas like science education, we're sacrificing long-term prosperity for the sake of a narrow ideology.

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