Literacy and Science

Published December 1, 2000

Unless immediate action is taken to improve the quality of science and mathematics teaching in America’s schools, the nation’s continued economic growth is at serious risk, former senator and ex-astronaut John Glenn recently warned.

Moreover, said Glenn in late September, as he released the Final Report of the National Commission on Science and Mathematics Teaching for the 21st Century, the very future of scientific discovery is threatened by the poor quality of science and math teaching in the U.S.

Out-of-field teaching is rife in K-12 mathematics and science education in the U.S., where more than one in four high school math teachers and nearly one in five science teachers do not have even a minor in their main teaching field. More than half of high school students taking physical science are taught by out-of-field teachers, as are more than a quarter of those taking math.

The recommendations made in the Glenn Commission report–titled “Before It’s Too Late”–are based on three goals that focus on teaching and teachers:

  • establishing an ongoing system to improve the quality of K-12 mathematics and science teaching–with additional resources, facilitators, and a new Coordinating Council;
  • getting significantly more math and science teachers, and improving the quality of their preparation–including 15 new Mathematics and Science Teaching Academies for alternative teacher certification; and
  • improving working conditions and making the teaching profession more attractive for K-12 mathematics and science teachers–essentially by increasing salaries for all teachers, who the commission said are “scandalously underpaid” in this country.

The cost of implementing the commission’s recommendations, which were detailed in a 48-page report released on September 27, is estimated at $5 billion a year.

“Here we have a workable, balanced strategy that builds on what has been learned in the last decade, improves teaching, and thereby improves student achievement,” said Glenn, who chaired the blue-ribbon committee of chief executives, educators, and legislators. The commission’s aim was to “set the stage for advancement in mathematics and science of the next 30 years.”

While Glenn noted the commission’s report “makes only a few straightforward points, but makes them urgently and insistently,” barely a month had passed before it became clear there were other serious issues in mathematics and science education that the commission had not addressed. That’s when David McClintock exposed “The Great American Textbook Scandal” in Forbes.

Error-Ridden Textbooks

McClintock described how middle-aged physics Ph.D. Leonard Tramiel had found dozens of errors while reading Prentice Hall’s Exploring the Universe eighth-grade textbook: factual errors, conceptual errors, and errors of interpretation. When he checked his older son’s Science Explorer Astronomy textbook, he found errors in that, too. McClintock noted a reference to a “history book from 800 BC,” when books did not exist, and another reference to the Earth “rotating” around the sun rather than revolving.

While science textbooks haven’t become any slimmer over the past 30 years, the material in them has been watered down, according to high school chemistry teacher Richard Schwartz of Torrance, California, who is a member of that state’s Curriculum Commission. He told McClintock that while a 1970s textbook had 14 pages on pH–the measure of acidity–the current textbook he was using had only four pages on pH.

The problem isn’t new. In 1994, violinist and music teacher Howard Lyon of Millcreek, Pennsylvania tried to help his daughter with a middle school science assignment and found the textbook was wrong. Checking further, he found more than 100 errors in Prentice Hall’s Exploring Physical Science–errors in the text, in problems, in diagrams, and in suggested experiments for students.

Good-at-Nothing Students

According to the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than one- third of all U.S. students in grades 4, 8, and 12 performed at or above the “Proficient” achievement level in mathematics or science, where “Proficient” means solid academic performance. As the Glenn Commission report notes–as a prelude to calling for improved math and science teaching–“our students’ performance in science and mathematics has remained at disappointing levels for nearly 30 years.”

What the Glenn Commission failed to note is that this lack of proficiency is not just in mathematics and science, but in reading and writing as well.

Only one-third of U.S. students at grades 4 and 8 performed at or above the “Proficient” achievement level in reading, topping out at 40 percent in 12th grade. In the 1998 NAEP writing test, only 22 percent of 12th-graders performed at or above “Proficient.”

Raising the level of mathematics and science achievement among U.S. students first requires raising their achievement levels in reading and writing. That leads to a question the Commission did not explore: What does science tell us about the best way to young teach children so they are literate and achieve high levels of proficiency in reading, writing, mathematics, and science?

Producing Literate Students

If a doctor had five drug treatments available for a particular disease and was presented with solid research evidence that four drugs were ineffective while one was highly effective, it would be considered unethical for the doctor to withhold the effective drug and prescribe the four ineffective ones. Yet that’s what educators are doing with teaching methods, according to University of Oregon professor Douglas Carnine.

In a recent study for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, “Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices,” Carnine describes the results from Project Follow Through, a study of more than 20 different approaches to teaching economically disadvantaged K-3 students. The study was carried out between 1967 and 1976 with more than 70,000 students enrolled in more than 180 schools. Essentially, the experiment was to compare the efficacy of two basic teaching methods: Teacher-directed instruction of knowledge and skills (“the sage on the stage”) versus child-directed construction of meaning and knowledge (“the guide on the side”).

While there was just one model for teacher-directed education, the Direct Instruction program developed by Siegfried Engelmann and Wes Becker, there were four models for child-directed education:

  • Constructivism/Discovery Learning, where the child’s interests determine when and where work is done;
  • Whole Language, where the child’s experiences and interests are used to teach intellectual processes;
  • Developmentally Appropriate Practices, where children are encouraged to learn on their own; and
  • Open Education Model, where child-directed choices govern even the teaching of reading and writing.

Project Follow Through showed that Direct Instruction brought the average achievement of disadvantaged children up to national norms in language, spelling, and math, and near the norm in reading. While Whole Language and Constructivism/Discovery Learning produced minor gains in spelling and reading, Open Education and Developmentally Appropriate Practices actually showed students performing worse than the control group in some subjects.

Who Needs Science?

Ignoring the differences in effectiveness of the programs tested in Project Follow Through, the U.S. Department of Education recommended all programs–successful and harmful alike–to school districts. Despite having been president of the American Educational Research Association, educator Gene Glass said teachers don’t need “statistical findings or experiments to decide how best to teach children.” Tufts University professor of child development David Elkind even argued that Direct Instruction actually harms rather than helps children.

“This is a classic case of an immature profession,” says Carnine, “one that lacks a solid scientific base and has less respect for evidence than for opinion and ideology.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.