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Academic genocide

Whatever happened to social studies and science?


Kids in Steve Oreskovic's social studies classes at Randolph Junior High School just say the darndest things.

An eighth grader asked Oreskovic this recently: If America had a war on its soil, would we collect all of our women and children and protect them like the Germans protected Anne Frank and her family? Would we hide them in attics so the enemy wouldn't get them?

Oreskovic gets these kinds of questions all the time. Many of the kids he teaches have heard of World War II; it rings a bell of familiarity for them, but they can't necessarily tell you who fought in it, or over what, he says. It's pretty much typical.

For years, it has been Charlotte-Mecklenburg School's policy that social studies and science each be taught to elementary students for at least 45 minutes one day per week.

But teachers say that, for years, that rule has been treated as a strict limit in many schools, particularly schools struggling to boost reading and math scores. Beyond that, they say, you could face the wrath of a test-score-hungry principal if you "wasted time" on it rather than drilling reading one more time. Cut social studies or science out entirely, particularly in a low-scoring school, and no one would care, they say. State end-of-grade tests currently only test schools on math and reading, which has led to other less-important subjects' demise.

Until recently, there was actually a climate of fear around teaching social studies and science too much, and some teachers say they snuck the two subjects in on a more regular basis when they knew their supervisors were tied up elsewhere, risking their jobs or a bad evaluation in the process.

One teacher was given a warning the second time he was busted teaching science to low-income kids he was supposed to spend three hours a day drilling reading skills into.

Scott Reynolds, a science teacher at Winterfield Elementary, says another teacher who disliked him "tried to set me up to show I was teaching too much science," to get him in trouble with his supervisors.

"I had always been afraid to teach science more than what is the minimum," Reynolds says.

This is old news to Classroom Teachers Association President Judy Kidd, a high school science teacher who has heard these stories for years.

"These kids were getting no science in elementary school and very little in middle school," says Kidd. "The kids are hitting high school, and they can't perform and the people are wondering why."

At age 12, as many students in the CMS system began the serious study of science for the first time in middle school, across the globe, the average Chinese student is already well-versed in chemistry and has a foundation in physics.

Starting this month, as mandated by Superintendent Peter Gorman, science will now be taught at least 45 minutes a day three days a week to elementary students, unless they are struggling with reading and need remedial help. The social studies directive will stay the same at a minimum of 45 minutes a week. In junior high school, the kids will get 90 minutes of science every other day and more social studies.

But teachers say that's still not enough to catch them up, particularly those who were deprived of these subjects until recently and are now entering junior high school.

All of which begs the question: While former superintendents Frances Haithcock and James Pughsley were running around town giving their "Prepare for Greatness" and "Debunking the myth of academic failure" speeches to every group of stuffed suits who would listen, what the hell was going on in our classrooms? Did Haithcock, Pughsley and Superintendent Eric Smith before them only commit academic genocide on lower-income students by shutting them out of the opportunity to learn science and the history of their country, or had they also gotten sloppy about it in suburban schools, too? Exactly how much science and social studies had they been teaching, and to which students? I asked CMS for a detailed breakdown by school.

"That information is not available," says Cindy Moss, the science curriculum specialist at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. "Each school has been allowed to do science however they could work it into their schedule, and we do not have a CMS report on that time allotment."

However they could work it in? Not important enough to track?

For years, the battle over where new schools will be built has consumed this community.

But in November, when the Charlotte Observer reported, almost casually, that science would now be taught three times a week at the elementary level, the ire was missing. Where were the mobs of outraged parents of all socioeconomic levels, demanding to know what on earth their kids had been learning up until now? In a sane society, or a Chinese province perhaps, the school board meeting where the superintendent was forced to admit that they'd barely taught children science and social studies would be standing room only -- and the superintendent would need police protection to exit afterward. But unfortunately, the parents in this community seem to care more about the construction quality of the classroom their kid sits in than what he or she learns there.

All of which makes me wonder ... is this going on across the country? It sure could explain a few things.

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