The widespread teaching of science was one of the last major subjects introduced into the American classroom in the early years of the twentieth century. Previously, science as a subject was reserved for colleges, universities, and the elite high schools that prepared the small percentage of nineteenth century American students entering post-secondary education. The teaching of science, like most subjects in the US public school system, varies widely from region to region and district to district. Much of the conversation on public school science education has been on the falling standardized test scores in math and science. The concern has been that, while the rest of the world emphasizes the teaching of these subjects, American schools, students, and teachers have fallen behind in them.
Keywords Creationism; Evolution; Inquiry-based Learning; National Defense Education Act; National Research Council of the National Academies; National Science Education Standards; No Child Left Behind; Pedagogy; Scientific Inquiry; Scopes Trial; Smith-Hughes Act; Theory of Evolution
Public School Education: Teaching Science in U.S. Public Schools
The teaching of science, like most subjects in the US public school system, varies widely from region to region and district to district. It is the responsibility of the individual state boards of education to develop and issue the subject matter requirements, proficiency levels, and curriculum guidelines to be used by each of the school districts located in that state. The individual districts then develop curriculum and specify the teaching method to be utilized in meeting the state requirements for that subject. Science is one of the core subjects taught in American schools and is now one of the educational components covered by the No Child Left behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which sets federal proficiency standards for the nation's schools ("Executive Summary," 2002). Science proficiency assessments are required for all public schools and have been since the 2007–2008 school year.
There has been a great deal of attention paid to the state of America's public schools in recent years. Much of that focus has been on the dropping test scores in math and science on standardized tests. The concern has been that, while the rest of the world emphasizes the teaching of these hard subjects, American schools, students, and teachers have fallen behind in them. Teicher (2005) reported that, "93 percent of public school students in Grades 5 through 8 learn physical science from teachers who do not have a college major or certification in the subject (based on data from the year 2000), for math students, that figure is 69 percent." Data collected by the World Policy Analysis Center and published in 2013 confirmed that the United States is lagging behind the majority of countries in its requirements for teachers of upper secondary-level courses (Brady, 2013). Also, "most K through 6 classrooms have science education for about 16 minutes a day" (Teicher, 2005, par 5). A 2009 study found that fifteen-year-olds in the United States placed twenty-third in science and thirty-first in math out of sixty-five countries polled (Scientific American, 2012). Of even more concern, the more diverse and economically behind a school's student population is, the more likely they will be taught science by teachers who do not have a major in the subject or who are not at least certified to teach it. Secondary students who attend schools that are high in poverty and minorities are often more likely to have an instructor who is inexperienced and not certified in the subject they are teaching (Taber, 2006).
In addition to these concerns about national standards, there is the issue of how to teach students such complex subjects as science. A pedagogical method in which science is taught level by level (elementary, middle, and secondary schools) is not specified by the federal government. In most public schools, the teaching model is likely to follow the method already in use in the district.
During the nineteenth century, the vast majority of schools taught a very basic curriculum consisting of reading, writing, and limited arithmetic. Science was not a subject generally taught in elementary schools. The teaching of science in school was basically limited to the few high schools in each state (most of which were not public) that served as college preparatory conduits for the fewer than ten percent of students that went on to college. This system was tailored to the requirements of the nation's population that was overwhelmingly rural and the agriculturally based economy that was extant during this period. Science was simply not one of the very basic skills required by most Americans of the time.
After the turn of the twentieth century and with the advent of the industrial revolution, it became apparent that the traditional public school curriculum was not preparing students for the requirements of the new paradigm. With the establishment of public high schools in all states, and the subsequent increase in high school enrollment, steps were taken to expand the curriculum of high schools to include not only a college preparatory tract, but a separate vocational tract for the majority of students who would not be going on to college. Change, however, came slowly and the teaching of science—particularly evolutionary science—was slow to enter the main stream of public school instruction. The 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" held in Dayton, Tennessee, is an example of how a variety of obstacles such as the lack of qualified teachers, religious objections, and other limiting factors served the old ways of teachings well into the 1930s. It was then that the Great Depression began to force changes in school curriculum, the subject matter taught, and the teaching methods used.
The Second World War served as the catalyst for modernizing America's school system, as the demands of the war effort were paramount. Huge technological advances were made during the war that required the population to be educated and skilled in ways never previously imagined by the nation's educators. The Cold War that followed and the subsequent missile and space race with the Soviet Union resulted in the passage in 1958 by the US Congress of the National Defense Education Act. This was legislation aimed at improving the teaching of math and sciences in the public schools, while the space race of the 1960s continued the focus on science education.
As the pace of scientific discovery has raced ahead, schools have struggled to keep pace with these changes. Many different methods and approaches were developed, but it is apparent that there has been a marked decline in the last forty years in our student's abilities in the subject. With this apparent to almost all segments of the population, economy, and government, there have been increasingly pointed questions about our educational system's ability to meet the challenge of producing students well versed in science subjects. With the passage of the NCLB, a widening national spotlight has been shone on the deficiencies of science in many of our schools, even though the legislation itself has been the subject of wide debate on its overall effect on the quality of education as a whole.
Science teachers in the public school system must meet basic qualification requirements, as do teachers of all other subject areas. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistic's occupational handbook, high school teachers must hold a bachelors degree, have attended an approved teachers educational program, and they must hold a teaching license from the state in which they teach (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010). Elementary school teachers (usually grades K–5 or 6) typically teach several different subjects either singly or in conjunction with one or more other instructors to either one class, or a defined grouping of pupils. Science may be within their teaching purview. However, some districts may have a single teacher instructing one specialized subject, such as English, science, math, or art to several groups of students, while multi-level teaching is another method used by schools in which one teacher may teach to several different grades of students.
Science in the Schools
Elementary school science programs focus on introducing students to the subject with hands-on techniques and a basic awareness of the subject in kindergarten, then graduating to more complex, academically focused instruction as they progress in grade level.
Teaching aids and materials such as computers, books, games, modular kits, and audiovisual materials as well as primary source experiences may all be used to enhance the learning experience. It is during the elementary school years that students receive a basic introduction to scientific subjects and concepts such chemistry, natural sciences, and physics that are designed to prepare students for more in-depth study as they progress through middle or junior high school and on to college or university.
Upon entry into middle and secondary school, students are usually taught by teachers specializing in a single subject. Here, they receive more in-depth instruction in the various scientific disciplines and are introduced to more complex subject matter within each subject through academic instruction, field trips, and extracurricular activities. It is here that students begin to be placed in differentiated programs focusing on each student's abilities and educational aspirations ranging from remedial to advanced placement classes.
National Science Education Standards (NSES)
As with other core subjects, there is no single, nationally accepted means of teaching science. All districts and states have differing guidelines and "best practices" in regard to curriculum development and teaching methodologies. However, in 1996, the National Science Education Standards (NSES) were developed by the National Research Council as guidelines for teaching science in grades K–12. Although not every state in the nation adopted the standards, they did influence most states in developing a set of science learning standards and standardized tests in science.
The rationale behind the introduction of national teaching principles for the sciences is that all students will be taught to the same standard no matter where they attend school or in what part of the country, which then allows for the establishment of a national baseline by which to assess the progress of all US students and ensure they are receiving adequate instruction in the sciences.
The 1996 standards included:
• Establishment of long- and short-term goals for the school year that meet the requirements of local, state, and federal standards.
• Selection of subject matter, curricula, and materials tailored to the abilities, interests, and the previous knowledge of the students.
• Adoption of proper teaching and assessment strategies to facilitate effective learning and...
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