News flash: Dallas 5th graders not ready for college? How about middle school?

October 23, 2009

It’s not so much of a “Duh!” moment as you might think.

Studies by the Dallas Independent School District indicate that about half of all Dallas fifth grades students are not on the development arc they need to be on to be ready for college upon graduation seven years later.  Half of fifth graders are not even ready for middle school.

As Dallas schools focus on getting all students ready for college, they face a daunting challenge uncovered by a new district tracking system: Almost half of fifth-graders are not even ready for middle school.

Roughly 52 percent of the fifth-graders were considered “on track for middle school” at the end of their elementary years in 2008-09, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of data recently released by the school district.

That seriously impinges on my ability to teach them what they need to know when I get them.

Here’s the newspaper article from the Dallas Morning News.  Here’s school-by-school data.

I predict DISD will take hits for “failing” instead of getting plaudits for finding a root source of a much bigger problem that manifests later.  Stay tuned.

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If science facts won’t improve reasoning, don’t study science, creationists say

February 8, 2009

If you saw the notice on the original study, you knew this one was coming.

A team of researchers checked two things in college freshman:  First, how much science they knew, sort of a trivia catalog; and second, how well they could use their reasoning powers.

The study showed Chinese students way ahead of U.S. students on simple knowledge of science facts.  But the study showed little difference in powers of reasoning of the two groups.

Wait, don’t jump to conclusions.  That’s what the creationists did.  Check out Ed Yong’s post and analysis of the study, at Not Exactly Rocket Science (with ensuing good discussion).

If knowing a lot of science doesn’t improve logic, why bother to learn science? the creationists asked.  Especially, why not teach creationism in biology, since teaching evolution seems to them rather authoritarian.

Could you make this stuff up?

Here’s the EurekAlert summary, and here’s a clip from the description:

The research appears in the January 30, 2009 issue of the journal Science.

Lei Bao, associate professor of physics at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, said that the finding defies conventional wisdom, which holds that teaching science facts will improve students’ reasoning ability.

“Our study shows that, contrary to what many people would expect, even when students are rigorously taught the facts, they don’t necessarily develop the reasoning skills they need to succeed,” Bao said. “Because students need both knowledge and reasoning, we need to explore teaching methods that target both.”

Bao directs Ohio State’s Physics Education Research Group, which is developing new strategies for teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For this study, he and his colleagues across the United States and in China decided to compare students from both countries, because the educational systems are so different.

In the United States, only one-third of students take a year-long physics course before they graduate from high school. The rest only study physics within general science courses. Curricula vary widely from school to school, and students can choose among elective courses.

In China, however, every student in every school follows exactly the same curriculum, which includes five years of continuous physics classes from grades 8 through 12. All students must perform well on a national exam if they hope to enter college, and the exam contains advanced physics problems.

“Each system has its strengths and weaknesses,” Bao said. “In China, schools emphasize a very extensive learning of STEM content knowledge, while in the United States, science courses are more flexible, with simpler content but with a high emphasis on scientific methods. We need to think of a new strategy, perhaps one that blends the best of both worlds.”

The students who participated in the study were all incoming freshmen who had just enrolled in a calculus-based introductory physics course. They took three multiple-choice tests: two which tested knowledge of physics concepts, and one which tested scientific reasoning.

Did you see anything there that suggested that NOT learning science facts is a good idea?

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian used the study as a springboard to rail at evolution in biology curricula, and at the National Center for Science Education, calling the study (somewhat tongue in cheek, I think) “terribly dangerous.”  No, that doesn’t make sense, but it gets stranger as he explains in comments that he’s not advocating creationism or intelligent design, either.

But nothing in the study suggests any serious problem with the teaching of evolution theory.  Where did Tom get that idea?

Bao explained that STEM students need to excel at scientific reasoning in order to handle open-ended real-world tasks in their future careers in science and engineering.

Ohio State graduate student and study co-author Jing Han echoed that sentiment. “To do my own research, I need to be able to plan what I’m going to investigate and how to do it. I can’t just ask my professor or look up the answer in a book,” she said.

“These skills are especially important today, when we are determined to build a society with a sustainable edge in science and technology in a fast-evolving global environment,” Bao said.

He quickly added that reasoning is a good skill for everyone to possess — not just scientists and engineers.

“The general public also needs good reasoning skills in order to correctly interpret scientific findings and think rationally,” he said.

Telic Thoughts seized on it , too.

It’s a springboard to a new creationist meme, and here’s how it will come out of the mouths of creationists, speaking to school boards and writing letters to editorial pages: “Learning a lot of science doesn’t improve critical thinking skills, so let’s teach something other than evolution.”

That’s not what the study says.

First, the study says Chinese students know more science than U.S. students. This is worrisome for the U.S.  While the study shows that entering freshmen are no better at critical thinking than U.S. students, the fact remains that more Chinese students graduate with science degrees.  Then a lot of them come to the U.S. to get advanced degrees.  Even the radical right wing National Center for Policy Analysis worries about the number of Chinese engineers and scientists U.S. colleges and universities graduate.  We’re behind in this race for brains and skills.

Second, researchers showed that freshman science students need to improve their reasoning skills, in both China and the U.S. Look hard at any creationist claim — they won’t argue for more education to improve reasoning.  We need to note what this finding is not:  It’s not an indictment of science education.  It’s not a call to stop or slow down science education.  It defies “conventional wisdom,” but it’s not an endorsement of knocking down science education as a result.

Third, the study only identifies what might be a problem. High school graduates in their first year of studying science in Chinese and American universities are not very sophisticated in their science reasoning.  Is this a problem?  Is this a skill that should be learned in high school?  Or, is it a skill that is better taught after the freshman year, at college?  This study was a snapshot, not a longitudinal study.  It did not purport to show when or how to best instruct on the reasoning processes necessary for a successful career in science.

In particular, this is not an indictment of biology education in the U.S., nor especially an indictment of education in evolution theory.  It’s possible to suggest that Chinese students know more evolution than U.S. students.  That’s a far sight from saying education in evolution theory doesn’t work.



How is education in Alaska?

November 18, 2008

Alaska is still counting ballots in the U.S. Senate race, but for the state offices, most of which were not contended in this cycle, the election is over.  Sarah Palin is back at work there — except when she’s on a plane to the lower 48 to do interviews for her out-of-Alaska career.

So, how is education faring there?

Progressive Alaska notes several areas where improvement might be had.  (Is that really a photo of Gov. Palin?)

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