News: News Archives
AAAS, NSBA Discuss Cutting-Edge Science Education with School Board Members
Watch the opening video presentation for the workshop
As the importance of science, mathematics and technology emerges as a national issue, local school board members often find themselves in a challenging position: They probably are not scientists or mathematicians, and they probably aren't even experts in those fields. But they need to lead their communities toward science-related educational standards that will prepare students for the 21st century economy.
Nearly 100 elected school board members from Kansas and Missouri met for a day of dialogue with education experts in a meeting organized under an ambitious project of AAAS and the National School Boards Association (NSBA). The presentations and discussion were rich in information on the latest standards and practices for teaching science, technology and mathematics (STM), with a strong practical orientation to bringing the best educational practices to schools in the Kansas City area and nationwide.
"As a school board member and a parent, I've said we need to teach things practically—we need to teach our students things that they can apply to the real world," said Lisa Spragg, now in her fifth year on the Logan-Rogersville R8 School District in Rogersville, Mo., just outside of Springfield. "That's what I got out of the meeting... It was such a great workshop. Everything really hit home. I think this is going to create a movement—I hope nationwide—that we've got to change the way we're teaching kids."
The day-long workshop was "highly productive," agreed Bill Wagnon, chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education. "I particularly thought the presentation on the importance of science literacy and that which reported on local attitudes about math and science to be informative... Certainly a full-scale conversation with the people of Kansas about what they want their schools to accomplish in these areas is called for."
The Kansas City seminar was the latest phase in an historic three-year national project that is assembling plans and materials to help school boards nationwide develop policies and public support for state-of-the-art STM curricula. The project is co-sponsored by NSBA and AAAS's Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), and is underwritten by a $739,000 grant from the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
The NSBA/AAAS project, begun early this year, has focused on the Kansas City metropolitan area in the belief that findings about STM education challenges faced by school boards there are the same as those confronting many U.S. school boards. Public Agenda, the non-partisan opinion research and civic engagement organization, has conducted interviews, focus groups and surveys of elected school board members, along with superintendents, parents, teachers, and students, in the region. Those findings, combined with presentations and discussions from the 23 June seminar, will shape the training materials and a Web site that will be delivered in February 2008 to state school board associations in all 50 states.
The need for the resources is likely to intensify in the months ahead as schools for the first time begin testing students' science proficiency under the U.S. No Child Left Behind laws, said DoSER Director Connie Bertka, who spoke at the seminar.
"Many school board members have heard the stories about the United States falling behind in science, math and engineering, and what this may mean for the future," Bertka said after the meeting. "But it's not clear to them what to do about it, or what kinds of questions they should be asking their teachers, or their administrators. When the testing starts, though, and the results come in, people will really be looking for resources like these.
"School board members will have tremendous power over how we respond to this issue," she added. "Even if you had all the good science teachers you wanted, you still would have to have school board officials behind you."
"This is a serious program change," said Joseph S. Villani, NSBA's deputy executive director. "You've got to coach people, and give them resources and the policy basis, for going after this and making it happen. It can be done. It's very doable."
"Our challenge going forward is to design resources that will be useful across the huge range of school boards throughout the United States," added Peyton West, a senior program associate at AAAS who oversees the project. "That means taking into account variables such as district size and urbanicity."
The Kansas City seminar also was co-hosted by the Kansas Association of School Boards and the Missouri School Boards Association.
The seminar opened with a new 12-minute AAAS video on science-related education that emphasized the role of school boards. "We want to produce lovers of science, not just doers of science," George Wolfe, director of the Loudon County (Va.) Public Schools Academy of Science, says in the film. "They could become lawyers who are lovers of science, they could become teachers who are lovers of science, they could become scientists who are lovers of science. But we need a scientifically literate public."
Much of the seminar's focus arose from a surprising insight that emerged in Public Agenda's research: While attacks on evolution education have made headlines in Kansas and Missouri—and nationwide—most Kansas City-area school board officials are more concerned with learning what schools must do to prepare students for the 21st century economy, in which growth and opportunity will be concentrated in science and technology fields.
But in seminar session on effective public engagement strategies, the non-partisan research organization concluded that school leaders are separated from students and their parents by a troubling "urgency gap" on math, science and technology studies.
"Across the board, leaders and experts we spoke with in the Kansas City region say that [science, mathematics and technology are] more important than ever before for success in the new economy, and that too few students are graduating from high school with the [science, mathematics and technology] they need for success," Public Agenda wrote in Bridging Gaps and Balancing Acts: The Role of Local School Boards in Math, Science & Technology Education, which was distributed at the seminar.
"But parents and students are not on the same page... .In effect, while parents are aware that technology is rapidly changing the world, they have yet to appreciate the scale of these changes and their implications with respect to the economic demands and opportunities awaiting their children. Moreover, they tend to assume that the fact that their children are taking more [math, science and technology] than they did means that they are being adequately prepared, an assumption that most experts would dispute strongly."
Meanwhile, many students told interviewers that they found such courses "utterly irrelevant."
When elected officials and science leaders talk about the need for improved education, they often frame it as essential for U.S. strength in an increasingly competitive world. But that carries little influence with parents and students, Public Agenda found. More important, the authors said, is that students and parents need to be persuaded that better colleges and have better economic opportunities await those who are fluent in science and math.
Many experts at the Kansas City seminar said school boards will have to take the lead in closing the "urgency gap," backed by business leaders and others.
One session in the day-long event was devoted to exploring the frontiers of knowledge about effective educational methods. Joan Abdallah, director of K-12 programs for AAAS Education and Human Resources, discussed current issues and challenges in science education. Rita Barger, an assistant professor in the Curriculum and Instructional Leadership Department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, focused on math education. Barry Burke, director of the Center to Advance the Teaching of Technology & Science at the International Technology Education Association, discussed technology-related education.
Burke offered a number of recommendations for schools, including the development partnerships with business and industry; the implementation of a cost-effective, standards-based model for K-12 curriculum, instruction and assessment that would encourage "technological literacy"; and involvement in online learning communities that support the implementation of technology education programs.
Jo Ellen Roseman, director of AAAS's pioneering Project 2061 science literacy initiative, guided the board members on a survey of some of the things students should know about science, mathematics and technology, and when they should know them.
Roseman cautioned that U.S. science textbooks generally fall short of the demands required for educating students to be science literate. Generally, she said, they "do not present the set of key ideas coherently"; nor do they "engage students with natural phenomena to make the key science ideas real." And, she said, they "do not help students interpret their experiences with the natural world and relate them to the scientific ideas."
Villani, NSBA's deputy executive director, called Benchmarks for Science Literacy one of the cutting-edge tools available to educators to help structure SMT curricula.
In the closing session, Villani led the school board members in an exercise based on the Key Works of School Boards, a practical guide for school board policy-making. The process begins with a vision and standards for student performance. School boards must help assure that curriculum, staffing, training, textbooks and the climate for learning are all aligned to help achieve the vision.
"What I would hope happens next is that the school board members will go home, talk to other board members, and create a dialogue in their communities about their math and science programs," he said after the seminar. "'Here's where we are, here's where you are, and here's how we can work together as partners to make this happen.'"
With what they learned at the seminar, and with the training and support resources that will be released in February, "they're going to have tools that they've never head before," Villani said. "And thanks to the Internet, those tools are free and accessible. I really believe that this can make a difference."
Edward W. Lempinen
12 July 2007