News & Views » Citizen Servatius

Short-shrifting science has resulted in educational apartheid

4 comments

Suppose Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James, who made national news by suggesting that urban blacks live in a "moral sewer," called a press conference to pitch his latest racially controversial idea. Imagine James proposed that we should stop teaching poor black kids science. And civics.

White kids would still be taught science and civics, of course, but most black kids, who wouldn't really need these subjects anyway, largely wouldn't. And if they were left too civically illiterate to vote in their own interests? Oh well.

James would once again be widely condemned as a racist, no doubt. I could see this one making national news, too. It sounds like something straight out of the segregationist era.

If James' proposal was actually embraced by school officials after that, Al Sharpton would be marching here by the end of the week. Or would he?

Ironically, the scenario above has essentially been policy in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for years, as Superintendent Peter Gorman explained in a press conference last month that elicited barely a yawn from the public.

It's all in how you spin it, apparently.

Last month, CMS acknowledged that only 44 percent of the system's fifth and eighth grade students passed state science exams. It was an educational massacre at most schools.

Just nine schools had pass rates over 75 percent, The Charlotte Observer reported. Forty-one largely minority, low-income schools had pass rates below 25 percent and eight schools had pass rates below 10 percent.

These results aren't surprising. Until recently, it was Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' policy that social studies and science each be taught to elementary students for at least 45 minutes one day per week.

But Creative Loafing in 2007 found that for years, that rule was treated as a strict limit in many schools, particularly schools struggling to boost reading and math scores.

Since the state tested students in reading and math, but not in science or civics, those subjects fell by the wayside in many schools.

Teachers told us at the time that you could face the wrath of a test score-hungry principal if you "wasted time" on science rather than drilling reading one more time. 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 when they knew their supervisors were tied up elsewhere, risking their jobs or a bad evaluation in the process.

When we tried to find out how much science and civics students at each elementary school were getting, we were told that information wasn't available, that the system wasn't tracking it.

"Each school has been allowed to do science however they could work it into their schedule," Cindy Moss, the science curriculum specialist at CMS, told CL in 2007.

However they could work it into their schedule? We're seeing the results of those policies now, in the state science results.

Back in 2007, in advance of the state beginning the new science test this year, Gorman mandated that elementary students be taught science at least 45 minutes a day, three days a week unless they needed help with reading. The social studies directive remained at a minimum of 45 minutes a week.

Classroom Teachers Association President Judy Kidd, a high school science teacher, has seen the results of these policies in her classroom for years as students who were taught little or no science struggled with the subject.

Things aren't much better across the state, with an average of only 47 percent of students passing, according to the Observer.

That means that a whole generation of kids, in particular students who are low-income and black, were deprived of a chance to learn science, a subject that might have sparked their interest in learning.

Obviously, students who struggle need to focus on reading, but what these schools are doing is drilling to reading tests, rather than teaching reading, or science for that matter. Kids don't need to read or to read well to be taught science. Much of the science I was taught in elementary school didn't come from a book, but from watching. Ditto for civics. Those struggling to read could learn to read by reading about these subjects. There has to be a way to do better than this.

And there should be outrage at administrators who deprived students of these two subjects all those years, people like former superintendents Jim Pughsley and Frances Haithcock, who were praised when they left the school system.

Some, of course, will blame the imperfect No Child Left Behind law for increasing schools' emphasis on testing, but I don't. Though it has its flaws, before there was mandatory testing and measurement of results, reading and math instruction could be as shoddy as science instruction is now, and there were few ways to compare schools and hold administrators accountable.

Now, for the first time, we're seeing who got left behind in science. It looks like something out of South Africa under apartheid. Is someone going to call Al Sharpton, or should I?

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment
 

Add a comment