The Kansas State Board of Education is expected to take another look next month at a research report showing many elementary teachers have cut back or eliminated the time they spend teaching science, even though they still post science grades on student report cards.
Three board members who spoke with the Journal-World this week confirmed that they have received copies of the original research by George Griffith, superintendent of the Wakeeney school district in Trego County, who conducted the survey for his doctoral dissertation.
Griffith, who also serves on the Kansas committee that is helping to develop a new national science curriculum known as the Next Generation Science Standards, discussed his research findings with the state board last month.
Griffith said much of the decline is due in large part to the federal law known as No Child Left Behind and the emphasis it puts on reading and math scores.
"I think it comes from a lot of the pressures put on teachers at that level to focus so much on reading and math," he said.
As part of his doctoral research, Griffith surveyed 928 teachers in Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri about how much time they spend in the classroom teaching science. Of those, more than half (55.3 percent) said they had decreased the amount of time they spend teaching science since implementation of No Child Left Behind. And of those who reported cutting back on science, nearly half (48.8 percent) said they had cut between half an hour to an hour per week.
Also among those who reported cutting time for science, more than a fourth (26.7 percent) admitted they had given a grade in science even though they did not spend time teaching or evaluating science material.
In follow-up interviews with some of the respondents, Griffith asked for explanations about why they had given grades even though they had provided little or no instruction in science.
Most said they did so because a grade was required. "Data rules, even if it has no meaning," one teacher wrote.
"It was expected, but I gave all the kids equal grades because of fair treatment," wrote another.
Others said they gave grades based on class participation. Others said grades were based on limited reading of science-related material.
"I usually coupled science with reading to create science grades, although I wasn't teaching traditional science curriculum it was related," one teacher wrote.
Board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, initially reacted to the report Nov. 13 by calling the practice “unconscionable” and saying it “reflects a lack of integrity.” During an interview Friday, however, he softened that statement and said the problem lies more with federal regulations than with teachers.
“My comment sounded pretty harsh and it was not meant to be an indictment of teachers,” Willard said. “We're dealing with a situation where the federal footprint is so large over education, it drives everything we do. We're married to the money we get from the fed government, and so we do what they tell us to do."
Board member Janet Waugh, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan., agreed.
"When you think about it, you understand it's due to the emphasis that's been put on the (reading and math) assessments,” she said.
In Lawrence, Assistant Superintendent Adam Holden said recently that here we maintain a "robust" science curriculum and that the district recommends teachers spend an average of 40 minutes a day teaching science, although how that is allocated throughout a week or month is left to the discretion of teachers and building principals.
But Holden said he understood how teachers in other districts could feel pressured to de-emphasize science in order to focus on reading and math. He acknowledged an old adage in education: "What gets tested is what gets taught."
"You hear that all the time: Is that on the test?" Holden said. "Because that's the world we've been living in."
Holden, as well as many State Board of Education members, say they hope the transition to the Common Core State Standards in reading and math will help improve science education. That's because those standards, which will take full effect in the 2014-15 school year, try to integrate science and social studies education into reading and math lessons. Reading instruction, for example, is supposed to focus more on nonfiction works, including material dealing with science and social studies.
However, not all education professionals are that optimistic.
John Richard Schrock is a professor of science education at Emporia State University, where he trains future biology teachers.
"Science is experienced-based," Schrock said. "It's all about asking questions, not reading about stories about some scientist, or how birds fly. It's about asking questions, and you can't ask questions if you don't have materials in front of you. You don't know what things mean if you don't have those materials. The lab work. So this has been pure baloney, this argument that we can read about science and that takes care of science has absolutely no value educationally."