Saturday, October 07, 2006

We're in denial II: The heart breaking decline rigorous math and science

A few weeks ago I observed,
We'’re in denial: The better educated a SC student'’s parents, the further he trails peers nationally.
South Carolina has 22 high schools that participate in the International Baccalaureate program. Recently I had the privilege of visiting the robotics team at one of them, and I met an incredible group of students. About half the students were either born outside the US, or their parents were.

I got a nice follow-up note from their teacher, which I'll let speak for itself.
Hi John,

Thanks again for coming and talking to my students. We perform an after action analysis the following day in class after each Thursday meeting. I heard nothing but very positive comments about your presentation. Many of the students seemed to be really pumped up after your talk.

By the way, the reason I asked the students to raise their hands if they spoke English as a second language was to illustrate some of the things you have been saying on your web site. Our school's program compares well with the Governor's school for Math and Science both in SAT scores and in curriculum. We teach an entire year of math beyond BC Calculus, have a strong AP Computer Science program, and are the only area school offering the entire calculus based AP Physics curriculum. Yet, international students are about the only ones taking advantage of what we offer.

When I first started teaching, the high school regional science fair could have filled a gymnasium. Last year there were only 12 individual entries, mostly from our school, even though our regional fair draws from 4 counties! It is heart breaking to see the almost total decline of interest in rigorous math and science in our school. By contrast, regional science fairs in New York City (and there are several) typically have 1800 or more entries and these include only the top projects from their respective school science fairs.

Again, thanks for talking to us.


Steve Stevenson said...

As a consumer of the K-12 system (computer science prof), I feel we need to think about a couple things.

1. The students we're seeing don't lack facts, they lack problem-solving skills.

2. The students cannot gain information from reading technical material solo --- they must be told.

What Moms and Dads need to do is get the test mavens out of the schools and push the schools to challenge the kids beyond the ingestion of facts: sterile facts cannot solve scientific or engineering challenges.

parentalcation said...

I just registered my niece in Crestwood High School in Sumter and they don't even have an AP or IB program at all. They do offer Central Carolina Technical College courses in the students senior year of high school.

One of the most troubling things I noticed was that they used a 4x4 block schedule. In other words, a student only takes a math or english course for half a year. If they have 1st semester math one year, they migh have a 2nd semester math course the next year leaving a whole year between math courses.

A little research showed me that this format is fairly common in SC. I am willing to bet that this system contributes to the under-performance on our states's SAT scores.

Additionally, the school didn't even offer the PSAT for sophmores, so any student who wanted to get into the South Carolina Governors School for Science and Mathematics has to pay for in on thier own.

nobrainer said...

First, my school in Ohio went to the 4x4 block schedule my senior year. I loved it because it let me take additional AP level classes. In particular I was able to take BC calculus, a course not at all recently offered in my district.

Secondly, I can agree with Steve about students lacking problem-solving skills (I'm a TA for first year engineering students). Unfortunately, a lot of them enter engineering with good science and math skills but extremely low mechanical aptitude. The anecdote around here is about a mechanical engineering class where the professor was stunned to find out that about half the class had absolutely no idea that screw threads were actually helical; they thought they were just concentric rings.

Finally, were the state to address the issue, I suggest they consider scaling teacher pay both by effectiveness and by discipline.

Griff said...

The decline in math and science, in particular, is a tragedy in our schools. My generation was motivated by Sputnik. What motivates today's kids? Video games, pop culture, mega rich basketball players, bling? I don't know, but I do know that we have limited time to turn the ship around, if we want our kids to have an opportunity at the same life we Boomers have had.

William I. Griffith, Ph.D.
SC-4 Candidate U.S. House

parentalcation said...

Steve, I would disagree with you. Unfortunately our students do lack facts, as proven by the test mavens.

Problem-solving skills are dependent on having adequate content knowledge. For example, algebra is a form of problem solving, but if you haven't mastered your basic math skills, no matter how many formulas you know, you will never be competent at algebra.

As far as reading goes, of course our students can’t gain information from technical manuals, their reading skills suck.

Testing is the best way to measure whether students have these basic skills. Those who complain about teaching to test, ignore the fact that it’s the tests that measure mastery of core tasks that are required for higher level critical thinking and problem-solving.

At my children’s schools, there are approximately 6 total days through out the year set aside for testing. This is a small price to pay to get some sort of accountability about how well our schools are teaching our kids. Since only about 50% of the school day is filled with instruction time anyway, even these six days of testing could be compensated for if schools improved the efficiency of instruction.

parentalcation said...


If the school allowed my niece to take consecutive math classes in one year I wouldn't mind. Unfortunately the policy is that students are only allowed to take one math course a year... doubling up is not allowed.