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Making science a classroom priority

Imagine learning the order of the planets for the first time in eighth grade. Imagine looking at a map of the United States and not knowing where your state or city is located as a seventh-grader. For students at my former school in the Bronx—and a handful of scholars at my current school in Brooklyn—this is reality.

For the past few years, with the rise of programs like Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, math and English have seen more emphasis in early schooling years than science. These programs have spurred a commitment to greatness in public schools, providing strong incentives for educators to raise the bar for every child. They have also made math and English the centerpiece of elementary and middle school standardized exams; poor performance in those areas can result in loss of funding or school closure.

We know that English and math form the bedrock of a great education. But I have seen the unintended, unfortunate consequence of leaving science for the later years.

In grades where English and math are the only tested subjects, I have seen students wind up with two or more class periods of reading and writing, and two or more class periods of math. With an finite number of hours in the school day, something has to be left out. The subjects left out are often science, social studies and the arts.

President Barack Obama and other politicians often call for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers, and warn the United States about our lack of a strong STEM education. It’s a very real concern: Many domestic jobs in these areas are unfilled because we lack people with the necessary qualifications.

And yet, we are not demonstrating our STEM commitment from the beginning of a child’s school career. Science needs to become a priority again.

In my five years teaching middle school science, I have seen these policies play out in the classroom. Many students in my Bronx school wouldn’t have their first science class until they reached eighth grade—the same year in which they were expected to pass the New York State Science Assessment.

Meanwhile, some of my students—including those as old as 17, depending on whether they had been left back—had never heard of the digestive system before. One day I was teaching about stomach acid. A student asked me: “How does baby survive in a mother’s stomach when the acid is so strong?” In a different context, that question might not be so upsetting. But in this case, it was a reflection of the student's inadequate science education.

How can we expect our students to do their best on state exams when they are just becoming familiar with the subject? Perhaps more importantly: How can we expect children to stumble upon an interest in science that will blossom into a life-long passion, if they are only learning the subject in the context of a pre-exam crunch?

Where I teach now—a charter school in Brooklyn—we have more flexibility because our test scores are rising and we have a longer school day. However, for struggling students, science education still remains non-existent until eighth grade. This is partly because students are pulled out of science and social studies classes for remedial, small-group instruction in math and English. I do not blame my school for this; our students need this instruction. But as a result, they are likely to enter eighth grade with no foundation of scientific knowledge.

For too many of our low-income students, education before eighth grade comes with big gaps where biology, chemistry, basic physics should be. If our president and policymakers truly believe we need for STEM education, they must do more than send out a rallying cry for STEM teachers. They must change policies so that they reflect our nation’s desire to improve STEM education. Our children deserve an opportunity to pursue careers—and passions—in any field, and the seeds for their education should be planted earlier than middle school.

Until we give science the same emphasis as math and English, we are limiting their futures.

Tamara Gilkes is a 2012 School Reform Blogging Fellow for NYCAN. She teaches sixth- and seventh-grade science at Achievement First Bushwick Middle School. Outside of the classroom, Tamara advocates with Educators 4 Excellence to include teachers in school policy decisions. She previously served as a Teach for America corps member in the South Bronx.

[Photo by Jeremy Wilbum, via Flickr]