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Friday, November 16, 2012 9:04 PM

Educators ‘shocked’ by state’s decreasing emphasis on science

By CRYSTAL HERBER, Herald Staff Writer

Is science important for 10-year-olds? Apparently not, according to a study of school districts’ practices.

A Kansas school superintendent recently released a study that concluded more than half of elementary schools have decreased science education in Kansas and four other states.

Decreased science education could have a lasting effect on students, Kelly Shepherd, a Franklin County elementary science teacher, said, adding that science is important and should continue to be taught at all levels of education.

“Since so many professions are very science-oriented, like nursing ... I think that it will probably effect the workforce before long,” Shepherd, fifth-grade science teacher at Central Heights Elementary School, said.

George Griffith, superintendent for the Trego school district in northwest Kansas, told the Kansas Board of Education this week that he surveyed more than 900 elementary teachers in Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska as part of a doctoral dissertation. Griffith also is a member of a Kansas committee drawing new national science standards.

“I identified that a little over 55 percent of our K-6 teachers have decreased science education,” Griffith said, according to media reports. “The average was between 30 minutes to an hour per week that they have cut it, with the main reason that they want to focus on reading and math assessments.”

Thirty minutes a day is about the amount of time Shepherd, who also teaches reading and language, spends instructing students on science lessons. In the 13 years she has been teaching science, Shepherd said, time for science has decreased — replaced instead by additional reading classes. One reason, Shepherd said, is because standardized test scores continue to determine the amount of state and federal funding a school receives, a side effect of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

“I know that they’ve done it because math and reading have been the major tested classes, and AYP is based on it,” Shepherd said. “I think it’s unfortunate that science has been cut back, because some kids just thrive on that. ... So it saddens me.”

AYP, or adequate yearly progress, was intended to be a means to allow the U.S. Department of Education to determine how every public school and school district in the country is performing academically according to results on standardized tests.

Despite being given a federal waiver from the stringent rules of No Child Left Behind in early July, Kansas schools still are focusing on teaching math and reading. As part of the Common Core State Standards, elementary-age students are to focus on English language arts and math, the two subjects on which they receive standardized testing. With the common core standards, science does not become part of the curriculum until at least sixth grade, according to the core standards’ website, and is joined together with social studies, history and technical subjects.

The federal waiver allows schools to adhere to the state’s core standards rather than the benchmarks set in place by No Child Left Behind, which required all students to score proficient or better in math and reading standardized test.

Ann Collins, principal at Central Heights Elementary School, said the results of Griffith’s survey are disappointing. As a first-year principal, but a long-time educator, Collins said the details of the survey shocked her. Science is an important part of the curriculum at Central Heights, she said, and it helps prepare students for the future.

 “I think it’s extremely important. We’ve got jobs out there that we’re not going to be able to fill without math and science, so I don’t see the rationale for [decreasing science class time],” Collins said.

At Central Heights, first through fifth grades receive some type of science education, focusing mainly on the basics, Shepherd said. They learn life science, astronomy, environment and earth science, as well as physical science, she said.

“I know one of the favorites is learning about Newton’s Law [of Motion] and forces, and so we do,” Shepherd said of her fifth-grade science class.

Shepherd agreed with Collins’ assessment of the survey results, adding that a lack of science classes in elementary school would yield ill-prepared students for the science classes in high school and college. But perhaps more important than that, Shepherd said, less science education would produce students with a lack of understanding of the world around them.

“Obviously I’m not real pleased about it. In my opinion, science is important,” she said. “I tell my kids science is all around them, every day. Basically it’s them understanding their world.”

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