Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Educating the educators

In today's reading from the collected works of St. Obvious of Duh, we have: a study out of the University of Vermont showing that students get substandard science education if their teachers are not trained in science.

This apparently is some kind of revelation.  What they did was to look at the use of inquiry-based instruction in eighth-grade science classes, and they found that the use of inquiry methods varied directly with the teacher's level of formal education in science.  Hearteningly, they found that teachers with little science background can eventually catch up with their better-educated peers -- if they are mentored by teachers who themselves have a solid foundation of understanding how science works.

Lest you think I'm overstating my case, here's what the authors -- Tammy Kolbe and Simon Jorgenson -- write:
For two decades, science teachers have been encouraged to orient their instruction around the practices of scientific inquiry; however, it is unclear whether teachers have the knowledge and skills to do so.  In this study, we draw upon data from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress to examine the extent to which eighth-grade science teachers’ educational backgrounds are related to using inquiry-oriented instruction.  We focus on aspects of teachers’ educational backgrounds that are most frequently used by teacher education programs and state licensing agencies as proxies for teachers’ content knowledge and professional preparation to teach science.  We find that teachers’ educational backgrounds, especially in science and engineering disciplines and science education, are associated with differences in the extent to which teachers engage in inquiry-oriented instruction, regardless of teaching experience.  Findings suggest that teachers’ educational backgrounds are relevant considerations as standards-based efforts to reform science instruction in middle-level classrooms move forward.
What baffles me is that anyone is surprised by this.  It's not like you would be shocked to find out that a person's level of expertise in architecture and engineering predicted how likely it was that the house (s)he designed would fall down.  Why did they even need a study to show this?

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gulliver Schools, Gulliver academy, CC BY 2.5]

The sad fact is that we're facing a shortage of well-trained science teachers.  This itself is not to be wondered at.  In the last ten years, we've heard teachers and teachers' unions demonized by politicians and talking heads whose last stay in a public school classroom was when they were in twelfth grade.  Teachers are derided as lazy slackers who only became teachers because they couldn't hack it in a "real" profession.  Unions get clobbered for protecting lousy teachers from getting fired -- tenure as immunity from the consequences of incompetence.

It's appalling how inaccurate this all is.  Even though the market for competent science teachers is getting woefully thin, the majority of us are doing whatever we're able to.  The fact is, I've taught in high schools for the last 31 years, and the truly bad teachers stand out in my memory primarily because they're so uncommon.  Most teachers work their asses off to provide their students with the best education they can.  They are committed professionals, who put in so much more time than the eight-to-three class schedule that it's a wonder any of us have a private life.

But honestly, I don't blame college graduates for choosing a career path other than teaching.  If I was a 2018 graduate, no way in hell would I become a teacher, and that's speaking as a veteran who (honestly) has had an overall awesome experience.  Why would you join a profession where you are working like crazy, while constantly facing salary, staffing, and budget cuts (to the extent that I purchase about a quarter of the lab supplies we use out of my own pocket), and still are portrayed negatively in the media?

So the University of Vermont study is correct, but is looking only at the surface of the problem.  The better question is: why are any students in eighth-grade science classes being taught by teachers with no background in science?  We wouldn't accept this in any other profession; why do we accept it here?

It's not an easy question to answer.  Here in New York, a lot of it has to do with the arcane funding formula, which bases part of school funding from state aid and the rest from local property taxes.  Since districts vary tremendously in the tax base, this creates huge inequities in funding -- it's unsurprising that rich districts in Westchester County have well-fitted-out, state-of-the-art science classrooms, and here in upstate New York I've more than once had to run to the store in the middle of the day to restock some lab supply we've run out of.  Even worse, school districts are forced by the funding formula into the solution of cutting the biggest-ticket item they have control over -- staffing.  Cutting staff (usually on a last-in, first-out basis) bumps up class sizes, another factor that affects how successful teaching is -- it is, quite simply, impossible to do deep, far-reaching, inquiry-based teaching in a class of 35 kids.  (No exaggeration; my first class ever in my career was 35 seventh-graders, in a classroom with 32 desks.  I had kids sitting on the lab tables.)

The result is a terrible synergy -- overcrowded classrooms, overworked teachers, poor working conditions, denigration in the press, budget cuts, and a thinning population of qualified applicants.  Why should we be surprised at poor outcomes for students?

The worst part is that this problem is a snake swallowing its own tail.  A generation of poorly-educated science students leads to a generation of poorly-educated science teachers, and on and on it goes.  However, until quality education starts being the first priority of voters -- and therefore, the first priority of politicians -- nothing's going to change.


The Skeptophilia book-of-the-week for this week is Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos.  If you've always wondered about such abstruse topics as quantum mechanics and Schrödinger's Cat and the General Theory of Relativity, but have been put off by the difficulty of the topic, this book is for you.  Greene has written an eloquent, lucid, mind-blowing description of some of the most counterintuitive discoveries of modern physics -- and all at a level the average layperson can comprehend.  It's a wild ride -- and a fun read.

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