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Why City Students Don’t Learn Science

by Cecilia Marie Dobbs, Nov 23, 2004
 

When I first taught science at M.S. 302 in the South Bronx, my tiny classroom did not have sinks, running water or even enough space for experiments. The school did not provide many science supplies, so I had to purchase these myself. Several months into the year I finally received four microscopes, three of which worked and were shared by more than 30 students in each class.

My problems were not unique. A shortage of teachers and materials, as well as a general lack of support has shoved science for grades 6 through 8 onto the back burner. This month, the City Council Education Committee issued a report assailing the lack of good science education in New York City public schools. The Department of Education recently surveyed more than 200 middle schools and found that only 80 of them have science labs.

“We face a shortage of qualified science teachers, a system that trivializes science, and inadequate facilities. The result? Our kids don’t learn science,” education committee chair Eva Moskowitz wrote.

Experts say that science plays a vital part in a sound, basic education. “Good science education does not just fill your head with equations, and facts, and long words,” said John Rennie, the editor-in-chief of Scientific American magazine, earlier this year. “It teaches you how to think critically, how to solve problems by framing a hypothesis, how to argue logically, how to evaluate evidence objectively, how to question your own biases. . . . These are the skills that smart people use every day of their lives, in every aspect of their lives.”

There is no official citywide science curriculum for middle schools. Despite that, at the end of eighth grade, all city students take the State Intermediate Assessment in Science. It includes a two-hour written test and a one-hour lab exam that tests students on the use of equipment such as microscopes and triple beam balances. But many students may never even have used a microscope before. Not surprisingly, only around 50 percent of city students pass this exam.

With literacy and math instruction widely believed to be more important, science gets little support from the school administration, such as basic material and sample lesson plans.

But many observers believe the biggest problem in middle school science is the lack of qualified teachers. Science is classified as a “shortage area” in New York City, though no precise numbers are provided. At a City Council hearing, Elizabeth Arons of the Department of Education said that even if all 466 science teachers who graduated in 2004 from New York State college and universities were to teach in New York City, the system still would not have enough science teachers.

The teacher shortage is so severe that in some schools, such as I.S. 172 in Harlem, students had no science teacher for a full year and still received passing grades on their report cards. “If there wasn’t a science teacher for a particular class, they would have other teachers go in and cover the period, and the students would be automatically passed for the class, even though they were never taught the material,” explains Natasha Frederick, a former seventh grade science teacher at the school.

Retaining teachers is as difficult, if not more difficult, than attracting them in the first place. Frederick has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Colgate University. She was initially very excited to teach science, but ultimately left because of the lack of support from her administration. “Mentally, I just could not deal,” she says.

“Lost in Space: Science Education in New York City” released by the City Council Education Committee earlier this month, makes a number of recommendations to improve science education in the schools:

  • hiring “science coaches” to help teachers develop methods to teach science. These coaches would be similar to the math and literacy coaches that already exist in the school system.
  • increasing the spending on professional development for science education
  • instituting a uniform science curriculum.

But the report emphasizes the number one priority as attracting better teachers to the system. “A very good teacher can deal with a bad curriculum," Moskowitz says, " but a good curriculum won’t help a bad teacher."

People trained in the sciences generally have a number of higher-paying job options available to them. For this reason, the report suggests the city pay people with science degrees $15,000 more a year than other teachers, a policy that the teachers union would probably oppose.

Advocates of science education are hopeful that change is imminent. Councilmember Moskowitz clearly has made science education one of her top priorities. Last spring, Chancellor Joel Klein promised to focus on science education in the coming year. Since then, Klein has appointed a director of science, Dr. Julia Rankin, as well as several instructional specialists. Moskowitz intends to press him to do more. 

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