EDU: Finding Time for Science

Note: Here in the Kitsap newsroom, we each get to wear multiple hats. I’ll now be doing occasional general education stories, as well as covering South Kitsap School district as part of the SK beat (Kitsap Caucus blog host Steve Gardner is now covering the county).

We don’t have a separate education blog, so for now, I’ll post education related items on the SK beat blog with the tag EDU. Recent blog entries show up temporarily on the Kitsap Sun home page, as well as permanently on each blog’s home page. If you’re particularly interested in education (or if you just want to keep track of recent entries) you can subscribe to be on the blog notification list. To do so, enter your e-mail in the window at the right of the page. Any problems, call me (360) 792-9219.

OK here’s the post:

A story in today’s Kitsap Sun describes the Washington Aerospace Scholars program, a public-private-business partnership aimed at drawing highly capable science and math students into the aerospace field. Six Kitsap and North Mason students were selected for the program, with a chance to get a summer internship at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

These kids are the proverbial cream of the crop. As Jim Daniel, the chemistry teacher of one aerospace student, puts it, “If I had a classroom of Rebeccas we’d be in good shape.”

But what about the mainstream students, whose cumulative scores on the Washington Assessment of Student learning have fallen short of the target standard?

The 2007 state Legislature passed a bill to beef up math and science curricula, in part by providing funding to better train teachers in those areas, even as they delayed having results of the math and science WASL count toward graduation until 2013.

Daniel was not happy with that move. “The problem is, as long as we continue to take the (science) WASL and it doesn’t count, they’re going to continue to do poorly because there’s no motivation.”

Another problem with the science WASL, as it now stands, said Ron Ness, a chemistry teacher at South Kitsap High School, is that students are tested in their sophomore year, before they’ve really had a chance to learn the upper level concepts included on the test. No wonder many students do poorly said Ness. He thinks schools should provide more science instruction in lower grades.

Daniel, who teaches at Olympic High School in Central Kitsap, said he would like to see three years of science required at the high school level. Speaking of the notorious gap in science achievement between American students and their foreign counterparts, Daniel said it is an “apples to oranges” comparison, because in England, for example, students specialize in their area of study at the high school level. The students who take primarily math and science are those who have shown an aptitude for it, while the U.S. model seeks well-rounded students.

“I would say I have to come down on the side of the U.S. model,” said Daniel, “There’s a lot of negative PR about the U.S. system.”

The trick, of course, is finding the time and money to make students well-rounded yet proficient.

I talked to Dan Whitford, South Kitsap’s director of instructional services, about the constraints districts face in this regard. Based on Ness and Daniel’s observations, it would seem one way to address the issue of poor achievement in science is to add more science instruction time. I asked if there’s been much discussion about extending the school day or the school year.

“Discussion goes on constantly,” Whitford said. The problem is that the state already doesn’t fully fund basic education. Districts rely on levy funding to fill the gap between what the state allows and what it actually costs, he said. The Legislature is working on solutions, but there’s no quick fix, because of the many competing and compelling needs, including the environment, transportation, health and social services to name a few, Whitford said.

School districts in the state and around the country have sued their respective legislatures over the issue of basic education funding.

Washington’s Joint Task Force on Basic Education Finance, on which Bremerton School District Superintendent Bette Hyde serves, met throughout 2007 and will continue to meet through 2008 to look at the current definition of “basic education,” to redefine it and propose options that will lead to adequate financing. They next meet March 24-25.

In the meantime, South Kitsap is overhauling its science curriculum, with some help from state funding aimed at improving WASL scores.

Teachers at the elementary level are receiving training to help them be more effective, said Whitford. Science in South Kitsap’s grades K-6 is woven into the daily curriculum, Whitford admitted science has sometimes taken a back seat to reading, writing and math.

“Our teaches are well aware of the issue,” he said. “But the problem is getting everything covered every day. Once you take reading, writing and math, it leaves about an hour a day for social studies, health and science.”

To get more bang for the buck, so to speak, the district is encouraging teachers to integrate science into other curricula, for example by having students keep science notebooks.

Currently in South Kitsap’s junior highs, students in 7th grade get one semester of science; 8th graders get a full year, and 9th graders get one semester. Next year, 9th graders will get a full year of science.

At the high school level, 10th graders currently get a full year of science. To graduate, students must have at least two credits of science, with one being a lab science.

The state Board of Education is reviewing all credit requirements, so that may change, Whitford said. The board has said a third credit in math, rather than the current 2, will be required by 2013. The board could make the same decision about science, Whitford said.

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