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Widen Science Education Opportunities

December 15, 2010 By Kari J. Dombrovski-Dresow, Guest Commentary

Minnesota 2020 invited educators to submit guest commentary in an effort to highlight issues and challenges they face as we head into a new legislative session. Today, we’ll look at why primary schools should be given more time and resources for science education.
Kari J. Dombrovski-Dresow is an elementary
teacher and science specialist in the St. Cloud School District.

I am passionate about science education--passionate on a personal level and passionate on a professional level. Science can be fascinating, frustrating and fundamentally changing.

A passionate educator doesn’t sit back and become complacent or give up when the learning is daunting. The educator steps forward to share this passionate knowledge with others. As a passionate educator, I strive to perpetuate science learning for Minnesota’s youth and their educators, yet I feel at times that there is little collaboration in the “village” to adequately educate our youth in the sciences.

In my opinion and that of science teachers nationwide, we need to “Cut to the Chase” and say with firmness and auditory intensity: “Our youth need quality science education!”

Science is a core subject all students should learn and for which all schools should be held accountable.

To improve science education there are some critical initiatives that must take place.

Science needs to be included in the nation’s accountability system for each state. The revised Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), known now as No Child Left Behind, should contain a provision that would include science scores as a required part of the states accountability system.

However, the performance measure should not be based on a test score alone. The bill’s language should encourage states to be flexible when assessing student performance, skill, and knowledge by utilizing written assessments, performance based testing, project-based work and portfolio projects.

Furthermore, if we are going to include science as part of the national standards, all schools must be provided adequate funding and resources, so that all students have equitable access to learning about science. The trend toward competitive science education grants is troubling.

Currently only reading and math data are used in schools’ adequate yearly progress. With this provision, science would have just as much importance in the development of the whole child and his or his ability to be a competent adult.

Many may argue the current expectations for reading and math are challenging, many schools are not making adequate yearly progress, and to add another core subject to be evaluated would be an extremely arduous task.

If science doesn’t take precedence with reading and math, then why is the federal government funneling so much money to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education programs?

Funding for Science Education

With STEM, the administration is seeking to set aside $300 million for competitive state grants under the ESEA’s fiscal year 2011 budget. The money would help fund grants in 15-25 states, supporting high quality STEM instruction and support.

The budget also dedicates $150 million of the $500 million from the Investing in Innovation Fund for competitive grants to school districts, nonprofits, and other organizations to test, validate and scale promising strategies to improve teaching and accelerate student learning in STEM subjects.

While many of us strongly support efforts to promote the highest quality reform, this competitive path is troubling for many science educators. Such action would result in the loss of dedicated funding to each state for math and science education programs.

The administration and Congress should ensure that federal STEM education initiatives continue to support efforts in each of the states and not be a “contest” to see which organization “wins.”

Minnesota’s Opportunity

“Minnesota is one of eight states selected by the U.S. Department of Education to participate in a state-level administration of the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS),” according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

“Minnesota’s participation is part of an effort to link national and international assessments so states can compare students’ performance against international benchmarks.”

My first reaction to this announcement was concern. A concern that some Minnesota schools may not demonstrate adequate proficiency compared to the other eight states. This concern is based on the inequity of time schools have for teaching science.

Science Teaching Time

The reinforcement of standards, the MCA II testing, professional development opportunities, and the passionate teachers of science have assisted in the education of science for our youth, yet the across the state there is still a measure of inequity for elementary science education. Alice Seagren states, “By participating in the TIMSS 2011, we will have important data to consider when evaluating our efforts to increase academic rigor of students and improve professional development for educators in math and science.”

Upon analysis of this data, the hope is that the state of Minnesota will have funding to provide for curriculum improvement and professional development.

But, will we have to compete for the funding?

Inclusion of Science Scores

If the scores from Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments for science were included in the accountability system, then minimum class time should be mandatory in each of our classrooms. Dedicated science instruction in the elementary classrooms with quality content and highly engaging hands on materials would yield improved student learning and increased test scores.

I recently heard two colleagues talking, “Wow! Your science scores from last year went up significantly compared to other buildings in the district.” The response was, “That’s because we teach science to our students.”

In Review

I believe the following are critical to improving young Minnesotan’s knowledge and experience in science:
• The revised ESEA (No Child Left Behind) should contain a provision that would include science scores for a state's accountability system.
• Mandatory time in the school day devoted to content and hands-on science education.
• Fewer competitive grants and more funding for all. These grants are lessening the dedicated funding that each state should receive for the science education.    • Dedicate funding for teacher Professional Development is critical. The revised education law should provide increased resources for professional development for all educators as well as language stating that districts must spend a designated portion of their Teacher Quality State Grant funds specifically on professional development of math and science education.

In addition to what has been previously stated:

• Authorize K-8 science and math coaches to provide sufficient content knowledge to elementary educators. These coaches would provide mentoring to other teachers, develop model lessons or co-teach lessons, assist with hands on materials, and offer in service professional development or provide avenues for elementary teachers to obtain professional development.
• Provide funding to districts to improve science curriculum, hands on materials, off-site experiences, school and community initiatives.

To improve science education for Minnesota students, to compete and be compared with other states and nations, it will take an entire “village” of passionate people working collaboratively, not competitively to assist our youth to be the best they can be in their science education.

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