Science + New Tests = Longer Day?
The reporter. rips off this phrase: as the number of science-related jobs surges, but offers no evidence of just what these jobs might be. Not that we should accept the job market as the primary reason for student a subject in elementary school.
New tests required by the federal government are forcing school districts across North Carolina to emphasize science instruction and fueling support for lengthening the elementary school day.
The State Board of Education has decided to test fifth- and eighth-graders in science starting in spring 2008, to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. While many complain there are already too many standardized tests, others argue that what gets tested gets taught.
"It's putting science back on the plate of the public school system," said Brenda Evans, director of N.C. Infrastructure for Science Education. "When you have high-stakes testing, it's just logical that the leadership of the (school district) is going to put more time, energy, money and professional development into the areas that are going to be tested."
North Carolina does not currently give science tests in elementary or middle school; South Carolina does.
Science has continued to be taught, of course. But with schools struggling to find enough time in busy days, top priority often goes to reading and math. Test results in those crucial subjects help establish a school's reputation and determine teacher bonuses.
A Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board committee is scheduled to discuss Tuesday whether to lengthen its six-hour and 15-minute elementary school days, which are shorter than in many other N.C. districts. The extra push on science is helping spur the idea, which some board members and district officials have already endorsed.
"These schools are trying to deal with what is being tested, but the day does not change," said Associate Superintendent Frances Haithcock. "How they are going to deal with it all, I don't know. Something has got to give."
Even if the school day doesn't change, the tests might have other effects.
In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, for example, eighth-graders will no longer be able to take earth and environmental sciences, which now allow them to get a jump on high school requirements in those subjects. Teachers will cover only the material on the test, Haithcock said. Pushing that class back to high school means many students will have less room in their schedules for more advanced classes.
More jobs, fewer candidates
A growing number of business and education leaders fear U.S. science students can't compete globally. A national study in 2003 shows one-fourth of the current science and engineering work force is older than 50, said Sara Collins, a volunteer with the Raleigh-based N.C. Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center.
But as the number of science-related jobs surges, the number of science and engineering majors has dropped, Collins told a Charlotte Chamber crowd last week, urging business and community leaders to help promote science education. Only a quarter of North Carolina's high school students took chemistry, physics or other advanced sciences in 2002.
"North Carolina is not producing the thinkers, the researchers, the scientists and the computer folks," Collins said.
Some fear tests will prompt school districts to rely solely on textbooks instead of also including the experiments that help science come alive.
But state and local education leaders say they must do more hands-on learning.
"If they are actually manipulating the materials, they are going to understand the concept better, instead of just memorizing a definition," said Marty McGinn, Fort Mill, S.C.'s testing coordinator.
In South Carolina, teachers combine science with reading and math to save time and help students learn, McGinn said. One Fort Mill class, for example, read about earthquakes, then worked with partners to write books about them.
That kind of so-called integrated instruction helps kids truly grasp what's taught, said Colleen Sain, Cabarrus County's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
"We have to decide what we're about as far as education," Sain said. "Do we have a list of 100 facts that we want every child to memorize and spit out by the end of high school? Or do we want them do see the connectiveness?"
Combining science with math and reading also helps teachers fit more into overloaded days. At Hickory's Jenkins Elementary School, for example, a fourth-grade teacher has 6.5 hours each day. Between math, reading, language arts, lunch, recess, and either art, music or gym, there's only 40 minutes left for both science and social studies.
"There is nowhere else I can get more time for our teachers," said Jenkins Principal Ann Stalnaker. "We're not just camping out and putting our feet up."
Which is part of the reason some say students need more time in classes.
"We can't keep expecting more and more to happen within a fixed period of time," said Margaret Carnes of the Charlotte Advocates for Education. "Extending the day may be part of it. Extending the year may be part of it. We've got to get really creative."
Not Enough Time?
New science tests in elementary and middle schools are forcing teachers to emphasize science lessons. But finding time to do that is a struggle. Here's the breakdown of how a fourth-grade class spends time at Hickory's Jenkins Elementary School:
• 8:15 to 8:30 -- morning work as kids arrive.
• 8:30 to 8:35 -- Pledge of Allegiance, morning announcements.
• 8:35 to 9:35 -- math.
• 9:35 to 9:45 -- bathroom break, change materials.
• 9:45 to 10:45 -- reading.
• 10:45 to 11:10 -- language arts.
• 11:10 to 11:15 -- bathroom break.
• 11:15 to 11:45 -- lunch.
• 11:45 to 11:50 -- walk back to class, change materials.
• 11:50 to 12:30 -- science or social studies.
• 12:30 to 1:20 -- accelerated math.
• 1:20 to 1:30 -- bathroom break, pack up.
• 1:30 to 2 -- recess* (required by law).
• 2 to 2:05 -- walk back to class.
• 2:05 to 2:45 -- special class (art, music, gym, computer lab or library).
• 2:45 to 3 -- close planners, announcements and dismissal.
* recess gets shortened on the day when students have gym, and they spend extra time on writing.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES