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American Schools Are Failing Miserably at Science Education

American Schools Are Failing Miserably at Science Education
Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Quick! What's the easiest way to find the names of the six noble gases?

Right, Google it. But there's another way, too. Just look at the far-right side of the Periodic Table of Elements, and the gases are all lined up there vertically. If you didn't know to do that, don't fret: You're in good company.

The majority of American states have abysmal science standards, leading children in cities across the nation to graduate with gaping holes in their knowledge of how the physical world works, according to a new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. If that doesn't inspire fear in you for the future of America's competitiveness, then maybe this totally gnarly T-Rex of Ignorance that adorns the report's title page will:

Fordham analyzed the science standards of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia for grades K through 12, assessing them on criteria such as "Content & Rigor," "Scientific Inquiry & Methodology," "Physics" and "Chemistry." A solid set of state-mandated standards, or skills and concepts that students should master before passing to the next grade, is crucial to forging well-educated students. So, just how deep of a pile of doodoo are we in?

The researchers found that most states have "mediocre to awful" standards, with the average school adhering to one of C-minus quality. Six states received an "A" on Fordham's report card, while twenty-seven jurisdictions got stuck with a "D" or "F" and were promptly grounded by their parents.

At the top of the class, in order, were California, Washington, D.C., Indiana, Massachusetts and South Carolina. Struggling at the bottom were South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and, lastly, Wisconsin.

Did you go to school in Honolulu? Then here's the trash that Fordham is talking about your state:

The Hawaii science standards are a case study in half-loaves and inconsistencies. At times the K-8 standards are reasonably rigorous and thorough. But the high school material in the Aloha State is woefully inadequate, including only rare islands of content floating in a sea of omission, confusion, and plain inaccuracy.

Grow up in Knoxville? This is what the researchers had to say about Tennessee's science standards: "Thermodynamics is hopeless. Much is omitted, many unimportant matters are stressed, and the logical order more often than not is unruly or even completely inverted."

Ouch. It turns out that eighth grade students in the typical U.S. school are only the eleventh smartest in a class of 48 nations when it comes to math and science. Sailing above their heads in academic achievement are the students of Hungary, the Czech Republic and – 300 kosmatih medvedov! – Slovenia.

If Americans eventually become subjugated to the throbbing brains of Eastern Europe, the researchers say we have four reasons to blame ourselves.

The first is a persistent reluctance to embrace the theory of evolution. In states like Missouri and Tennessee, learning about Darwin's theory of natural selection is still voluntary in schools. Many standards also evince a remarkable vagueness in the goals they hope to achieve, Fordham claims. Math instruction is lacking in many jurisdictions, and teachers don't have enough guidance when it comes to building science instruction into their lesson plans.

How should America fix its sucky science education? The researchers believe that more states and communities need to take "concrete action to build world-class science programs into their K-12 schools." Or they should just copy California's science standards. In this case, Fordham says, stealing answers should be encouraged.

Keywords: Education, California

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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