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Monday, July 30, 2007

When Good Science and Bad Reporting Collide

The University of Virginia and Harvard recently released the results of a study comparing student science achievement in high school and college. My news feed-reader has been full of articles, in which reporters skilled in selling newspapers take a crack at scientific reasoning. This recent one from the Washington Post is particularly irritating to me, as it suggests that debates over secondary science curricula are now superfluous.

I love math. I believe mathematical education is absolutely imperative for all students at all levels. But I've got to give some props to science, too. The study simply found that students' experience in a particular science (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) was not a strong predictor of success in another of those sciences, whereas math excellence was a predictor for success in all science fields. Excluding the fact that science is little more than applied math, let's look at the logic of this finding. The sciences have always been taught separately from one another. The distinction is somewhat arbitrarily related to scale. These smaller chunks are easier to teach and to learn, but all of them are necessary for a complete understanding of nature. Mathematical thinking is necessary to all three, but then so is reading comprehension, so these findings seem somewhat immature to me. While the results may prove useful to college admittions departments, I don't think they ought to be used to determine high school science curricula.

As of 2005, the percentage of high school graduates who enrolled in post-secondary the Fall after graduation had risen to 70%. That's high compared to our parents' generation, but it still leaves 30% who don't attend. Of course, there is some fuzziness in the numbers. Some students will take time off in between and some of those who attend will drop out after only a semester. But the point stands. Not all kids go to college. I would really like those people to have enough science reasoning to make their way in the world. They need to have enough bio to make sound health decisions, or to pass judgment on stem cell research and the like. They need the chemistry to understand the harmful effects of pollution. They need the physics to understand why to keep a safe following distance and not to drive too fast.

Both science and math are all around us. Our public education system is supposed to give kids all that they will need to be good citizens, and that has to include a healthy dose of math and all sciences. Excluding the latter in favor of the former may help out college professors, but it does our students and our nation a great disservice.

2 comments:

afm said...

"because that subject best prepares students to do well in all the sciences once they get to college,"....so we teach the subject of science from K through 8th grade and then just "drop" it for the next four years of their academic lives? I would think that part of academic/career growth is being surrounded by the subject continuously.

Tony said...

I would agree. It makes no sense to drop the subject of science in high school. Nor do I think it matters in which order the science is taken, as long as the necessary math prerequisites are mastered. I am, however, tired of colleges making demands of K-12 education, since post-secondary is an entirely different animal with different goals and constraints.