Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Start at Newton's Apple, by John Young

July 13, 2004

by John Young, Opinion page editor

I'm now about to regret, big-time, something I wrote for many years about
education in our state. I wrote, many times, that science was getting the shaft.

I'm regretting it not because it wasn't true. It was. It still is. I'm
regretting it because the state is poised to do something about it, and it's wrong. The State Board of Education this week will vote on requiring high schoolers to
have four credits of science to complete the recommended degree plan. If so, Texas would be one of only four states with such a stiff requirement. Just this year the state implemented a three-science-credit requirement for incoming freshmen.
Now the board talks about bumping that up one more.

The person who has no children in high school might say, "Good. More
science." The parent of a high schooler will say, "Just how many hours do you think there are in a day?"

The answer: Not enough, meaning kiss another elective goodbye.

Yes, there just aren't enough hours to go around in high school. That's
why more and more students, at their own expense, go to summer school or the local community college to get a credit that will free them to do the electives they love, like music, art and drama.

While science teachers apparently are applauding this proposal, other
faculty groups like the Texas Music Educators Association are denouncing it. "A step in eliminating electives" says its president.

Superintendents see it as a $200 million unfunded mandate. Or, did you
think Rick Perry and his "no new taxes" acolytes would help?

----When answer is the problem----

Why would I have complained about science getting the shaft before and not
be happy with this idea? Simple. In grade school I saw my children get cheated
of science instruction during the reading-writing-math drumbeat around TAKS'
successor, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills 52; TAAS.

Elementary teachers complained that they didn't have time to teach science
because they had to belabor "TAAS objectives."

Under TAKS, science is more broadly tested, no doubt a response to
complaints like mine. Still, with testing taking up increasing amounts of time in Texas schools, important teaching time goes by the wayside. If state policy makers really cared about science education they'd step inside elementary teachers' shoes and find out how top-down mandates have sapped the classroom of vitality and time to teach important concepts. To improve science education, emphasize it in grade school.

Require another science credit in high school? How late in the game are we
getting? By the time a student is a senior in high school he or she should be
drawing a bead on an interest or an emphasis, and not under the thumb of suits in Austin.

What is suspect about this proposal, or what it may imply about our
"accountability system," is that policy makers say it's needed because students aren't performing sufficiently on the TAKS science portion. So, you're going to require another science credit? But that would be for the senior year 52; after most students have passed the TAKS exit test.

Just what is TAKS testing, anyway? Stuff our children are taught or stuff
we didn't get around to teaching them?

Meanwhile, the music teachers make an important point: Electives are a key
ingredient in keeping students in school. Additionally, that fourth science
credit just might be the last straw for a student who says, "I don't have to be here, and I won't."

Texas has the nation's highest dropout rate. Everyone has a theory about
that. My theory is that the state has bled the education process of much of its
vitality through test emphasis and standardization. Students on the margins look at the way they've become objectified in the process and say, "the heck with this."

People who see electives like fine arts as pointless frills are, to use an
umpiring phrase, so away from the play as to be out of the ballpark.

To improve science education, start in kindergarten. Don't try to shoehorn
more science into an already packed 12th grade because you failed to deliver in -11.

John Young's column appears Thursday, Sunday and occasionally Tuesday. E-mail:


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