Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Report: Science instruction disappearing in elementary school, but not science grades

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA — The Kansas State Board of Education heard a report Tuesday that as many as one in five elementary teachers in Kansas and surrounding states are reporting science grades on student report cards, despite the fact that they don't spend any time teaching the subject or testing pupils' knowledge in it.

George Griffith, superintendent of the Trego school district in western Kansas and a member of a Kansas committee helping craft new national science standards, said he conducted a survey of more than 900 elementary teachers in Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska. The survey was conducted as part of Griffith's doctoral dissertation.

Griffith said teachers responding to the survey said they reported grades in science because there was a spot on the grade card for it. But the teachers felt so pressured to increase performance in the high-stakes reading and math tests that they have cut back or eliminated class time for science.

"I identified that a little over 55 percent of our K-6 teachers have decreased science education," Griffith said. "The average was between 30 minutes to an hour per week that they have cut it, with the main reason that they want to focus on reading and math assessments."

"I can understand their concern," he said. "Those are the key things we want to focus on, and that's important. Some of it was top-down from administration; some of it was the teachers' belief system, that they felt they needed to put that much time in."

Griffith said he has presented his findings to national organizations of science teachers, and he said few people are surprised to learn what he found.

"This seems to be an ongoing theme around the country," he said. "It's not just in Kansas."

Since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law in 2001, federal funding for Title I schools — those that serve high concentrations of low-income families — has been tied to student achievement on reading and math tests.

States were required to adopt standards for reading and math, and all schools were required to meet increasingly higher benchmarks each year for the number of students who scored proficient or better on standardized tests in those two subjects.

Kansas recently received a waiver from No Child Left Behind, meaning schools here no longer need to meet those benchmarks. But they will still be held accountable for student performance in reading and math, only by different measurements that look at more than just the raw number of students who score above a certain level.

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education is also in the process of updating state standards for science by taking part in a multistate project known as the Next Generation Science Standards.

That project is being led by the National Research Council. Griffith is part of a committee appointed by the state board that is reviewing and offering feedback on drafts of those standards.

Board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, said he wanted more details about teachers who still give grades in science without offering instruction.

"That is unconscionable. It reflects a lack of integrity and it is not appropriate for Kansas students," he said.

Evolution debate

In recent years, debate over science standards in Kansas has ignited heated debate over the teaching of evolution, with groups representing religious conservatives pressuring the state to downplay the importance of evolution by allowing the teaching of creationism and intelligent design.

But it now appears unlikely that the evolution debate will get much attention in the current process.

Matt Krehbiel, the state's science program consultant who is heading the Kansas review team, told the board Tuesday that there is little interest in challenging the new standards' treatment of evolution as one of the key, unifying principles of science.

"The committee, by consensus, told me that the way evolution is handled on these standards is appropriate," Krehbiel said.

Krehbiel added, however, that the standards themselves will have little impact on how science is actually taught in classrooms.

"At the risk of being potentially misquoted, they don't make any difference at all because standards don't teach students," he said. "It's our teachers that teach students. And so certainly how we implement these standards could make a difference. But the standards themselves won't make that difference. it's the teachers in the classroom that make the difference. The curriculum that surrounds the standards is always a local decision."

Krehbiel said the next public draft of the new standards will be available for review and public comment in mid-December. Earlier, it was expected the draft would be available in mid-November, but Krehbiel said the schedule was pushed back, in part because of delays caused by Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast.

Anti-bullying policies

The Kansas Association of School Boards issued a sharp response Tuesday to a report by a Kansas University professor who said most school districts in the state are not complying with state or federal law requiring them to adopt policies to combat bullying in public schools.

Robert Harrington, a professor of psychology and research at KU, reported to the State Board of Education in October that fewer than half of the school districts in Kansas meet those legal requirements.

Harrington has written extensively on the subject of bullying and has developed a certificate program to help schools address the problem.

His report last month prompted the state board to ask the school boards association for more detailed information.

In a four-page memo written by a staff attorney for the association, KASB said Harrington's findings "flabbergasted the KASB staff and individual school district staff members in attendance at the meeting and have created a wave of consternation and disagreement with such findings ..."

KASB noted that Harrington's findings were based on a survey he sent to public school districts. If a district did not respond, KASB said, he counted the district as not having a policy in place.

KASB also surveyed its own members about their bullying policies. "All districts responding have expressed disagreement with the results of Dr. Harrington's study, have provided that they are currently in full compliance, and are often doing significantly more than the statutory requirements dictate in hopes of eliminating bullying behaviors in their districts," the memo stated.

When reached for comment, Harrington referenced the U.S. Department of Education's anti-bullying website, which summarizes state laws on the subject.

The page summarizing Kansas suggests that Kansas laws fall short of meeting federal standards in several key areas.