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Duncan Calls for Better Science Tests—and More Science in the Curriculum


Arne Duncan spoke before a top White House advisory panel on science today, hammering home a couple points. The nation will need many more, and more talented math and science teachers in the years ahead, the secretary said. He also echoed worries that too many schools have pushed science out of the curriculum in the No Child Left Behind era, and said the administration wants to find ways to end that erosion, as part of efforts to reauthorize the law.

On these and other points, Duncan was speaking to a receptive audience: the President's Council of Advisors on Science in Technology, a part of the White House executive office. The panel heard the secretary's thoughts on the state of 'STEM' education, and threw some questions his way afterward.

One of Duncan's points was that, given an anticipated wave of teacher retirements in the years ahead, policymakers will have to work harder to lure aspiring math and science educators into the profession—through pay incentives, by loosening certification requirements to allow career-changers, and so on.

"Our ability to attract and retain great talent over the next four, five, six years is going to shape education over the next 30," Duncan told the council.

The secretary has plugged differential pay for teachers of math, science, and other high-need subjects before. He told the science council he wasn't sure of what dollar amounts are necessary, but argued that there needs to be more of a market in which schools can bid more for outside talent and recruit it. "It's not the solution," he said of math-science teacher shortages, "but it's a piece of the solution."

Council members also voiced worries about what they saw as the poor quality of many state science tests, which in their view, place far too much emphasis on multiple-choice and rote memorization, and have the effect of killing many students' love of the subject. Duncan predicted that the $350 million pool of federal funding the administration is putting toward supporting common standards and tests would have an impact, and said he, too, wants to support "less fill-in-the-bubble, more critical thinking," on science exams.

The secretary also voiced concerns about science getting ignored, as districts scramble to raise math and reading scores. He recounted a recent meeting with a school superintendent who told Duncan that he'd recently visited 100 schools and didn't see science being taught in any of them. Duncan said he and his staff are looking at ways to encourage schools to cover a broad range of subjects, as the administration considers ways to revamp No Child Left Behind.

"I worry tremendously about the loss of science and engineering," Duncan said at one point. The main question, he added is: "How do we create the incentives so that students have a well-rounded curriculum?...We're thinking these things though."


If Mr. Duncan thinks that science has been abandoned in the classrooms because of 'NCLB,' he ought to examine the state of Social Studies in the elementary classroom.
Early in my 20-year career, I did way too much substitute work and because of sheer numbers and wanting to make a living, I went into many classrooms where social studies was not even on the schedule. I asked one class on which continent the Nile River was located and the response, in general that they don't do geography so they didn't know. When I finally 'graduated' to my own classroom, and began teaching 9th grade geography, I was getting some of the same type of response: They'd spent little time at middle school, some were clueless to the location of the Nile River.
Every teacher argues that their own subject is the most important. I argue that all of the basic subjects, plus more, can be integrated into the social studies. I've had kids in the past calculating percentages of growth or decline in population. That is strictly a Math skill. or is it?

If a school district knows a competent math or science teacher they'd like to hire but are held back by state standards, rules or Praxis testing, they should still be able to hire that person and grant them a license without any additional requirements.

State and federal policies should screen out the bad teachers, not the good ones.

How does a district determine who is competent to teach and who is not? I don't think that how a person performs in undergrad school in the area of education, or how they perform on the praxis is a good indicator of how passionate they are to educate children. There are far too many teachers who are skilled in subject areas, but does that knowledge of the curriculum areas make them a good teacher? I think not. Good teachers are those that are able to connect with their students, and have the passion and determination to guide their students into unique and life-long learning experiences.

Commenting on what Mr. Duncan had to say, how is loosening certification requirements and pay incentives going to guarantee qualified, talented, passionate teachers? It seems to me that this is a sure way to encourage those less passionate to take up teaching. As it is, we already have too many teachers who are only in the profession for a paycheck and summers off.

I agree that Science and Social Studies are being left on the back burner. At my elementary school, we are told to teach these content areas through literature, which is great on one hand, but on the other hand the fun is being taken away because of the lack of experiments and authentic learning experiences.

The California state history/social studies organization began calling for the inclusion of history/social studies in NCLB accountability immediately in 2002, and also for the use of science in NCLB as science is listed as a core area but testing in same is not part of NCLB accountability. We believed then (I was the chair of the government relations committee for the state organization) that exclusion from NCLB would produce exclusion from the curriculum. Unfortunately we were right.
That Mr Duncan wants better tests that measure critical thinking is wonderful; in the meantime, if these subjects are not added to NCLB accountability requirements, they will be history themselves.
We cannot afford to wait on the possibility of different testing mechanisms to get these subjects inserted into NCLB. Bluntly, if it ain't tested, it ain't taught. And that is most true in schools and districts with the lower test scores and hence the greater pressure to raise math and reading achievement. The children with the least background knowledge are the most shortchanged as schools and districts respond to the demands of accountability.
Immediately add science and history to NCLB accountability requirements, and then start working on different testing mechanisms.

If Science and Social Studies are added to NCLB, then that is more subject matter that teachers will teach students for the sake of testing. I disagree with saying that if the content is not part of testing, then if will not be taught. Science and Social Studies are the "fun" subjects to teach. They are not being taught because of NCLB, and because teachers are too busy teaching to the test. We are teaching our students to be test takers, not learners of valuable information.

The solution for USA Education system for K12 is
National Curriculum. Particularly for science.
Yes Federal Law does not allow it.
Then change it.
I see this fact as an OUTSIDER.
You may not see it easily.
I was educated by Caltech and Stanford in the past. I feel greatly indebted to USA,and American people, because I learned so much there and plus some portion was financed by HP.

[email protected] from Turkey.

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