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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    High School Sciences Struggle to Keep Up With Science Community

    Townsend Harris High School and Far Rockaway High School have been nurturing the minds of America’s youth since before Albert Einstein discovered that E=mc^2.

    Now, more than a hundred years later, everyone knows about Einstein and his revolutionary theories, yet only one of the schools is offering its students the chance to learn about them.

    Each school educates approximately the same number of students, possesses similar annual budgets and was established before the 20th century. They are separated by a mere 13 miles in physical distance, however, their science education programs, despite both receiving an accountability status of ‘good standing’ on their 2006-07 New York State School Report Cards, are much further apart.

    For Townsend Harris, the mark of ‘good standing’ highlighted achievements, like having over 93 percent of its 255 physics students receive a passing grade on the 2005-06 regents exam, and receiving an ‘A’ on the New York City Department of Education’s new ‘A’ through ‘F’ school rating system.

    On the other hand, for Far Rockaway, the ‘good standing’ mark didn’t represent its students’ accolades in physics during the 2005-06 school year because the school didn’t teach a physics course. And here the mark wasn’t joined by an ‘A’ on the new system of evaluation, but rather by a ‘D.’

    Ingrained within these rating systems and report card grades may be the real issue: the scientific education of the few versus the scientific education of the many.

    In today’s high schools, many scientists and educators feel that physics is the most challenging of the major sciences. Thus, the availability of this course can be used to study the status of America‘s science education, as well as the broader issue of the country’s mediocre pre-collegiate schooling.

    The imbalance seen within the science programs of various high schools is one of the major factors that members of Congress will take into account when they decide on whether or not to renew the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The NCLB has been one of the Bush administration’s key pieces of legislation for improving our nation’s educational status within the global community over the last five years. Yet, despite the requirements the act has placed on the country’s schools, America‘s adolescents have scored in the middle of the pack on several international exams.

    Over the last 12 years, the United States has continued to see its eighth graders outscored on exams in both math and science by their counterparts in other countries, including Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, according to a study of Trends in International Mathematics and Science.

    The 2003 version of the study consisted of giving identical exams to eighth graders in 46 different countries. The 8,912 Americans that were tested finished in fifteenth place in math and tenth place in science.

    The National Center for Education Statistics has withdrawn the United States from the field in the upcoming version of the study set to take place in 2008.

    ‘A dichotomy exists in science education in the United States,’ said Dr. Keith Sheppard, the current Director of the Science Education Program at Stony Brook University and a former high school science teacher for 25 years. ‘The real question that we have to ask ourselves is, is science for all or is it only for the scientists?’

    New York City, the largest school district in the United States with about 300,000 secondary school students, can be seen as a microcosm of this issue. Some schools have rigorous entrance exams and admissions requirements that allow them to have their pick of the litter in terms of quality students from all five boroughs of New York City.

    Most of these schools, like Townsend Harris, offer multiple sections of upper level sciences, like physics, to its students. However, the overwhelming majority of the near 400 high schools in New York City follow the Far Rockaway model and offer no or limited upper level sciences to its students.

    ‘This is a creaming effect,’ said Dr. Sheppard. ‘A small number of schools offer tests that draw in the best students, thus leaving virtually no students in the rest of the schools that can take physics. They prevent this sort of thing in baseball with a salary cap. If they didn’t the Yankees would just buy the league’s best ten players.’

    In 2002, a doctoral student and her advisor set out on an arduous journey of analyzing the accessibility of physics in New York City public high schools. The advisor was Dr. Sheppard, and the student was Dr. Angela Kelly. Four years, dozens of late night pizza deliveries and hundreds of phone calls later, the journey ended and her dissertation was complete.

    The duo’s campaign earned Dr. Kelly an audience full of members of Congress and congressional staffers on Capitol Hill this coming February. Besides presenting the finer points of her study, Dr. Kelly will also be speaking about the NCLB and how the act can be revised to provide a better availability of physics to students in urban high schools.

    Among Dr. Kelly’s findings was that during the 2004-05 school year, 55% of the 298 public city high schools surveyed simply didn’t offer physics to their students. Additionally, she discovered that the most influential causes of this discrepancy were based on the students’ races or socioeconomic status, as well as the students’ lack of the necessary math skills and a shortage of qualified physics teachers.

    ‘As parents we want to believe that our students are being taught in a democratic system of education,’ said Dr. Kelly, who, in addition to being the Coordinator of the Graduate Program in Science Education at Lehman College, is also a mother of five children. ‘However, this isn’t the case. Whether it’s textbooks, labs, or course availability, urban communities rarely have the same access as one another in terms of scientific availability.’

    At the time of Dr. Kelly’s study, Far Rockaway had 21 students enrolled in one section of physics. However, after only two of those students passed that year’s Physics Regents exam the school did away with the course. Members of the Far Rockaway staff declined to comment on the issue.

    Townsend Harris, unlike Far Rockaway, has displayed certain immunity to the common infections that science departments of high schools throughout New York City have been battling over the recent years. This immunity is based on several factors, including a healthy division of its budget and the fact that the school is home to a select group of students that were hand picked based upon their grades, test scores and attendance records in middle school.

    In 2007, Townsend Harris, despite being known as a humanities-oriented school, spent about the same amount of money in science, $670,000, as it did in social studies, $597,000. During that same year, Far Rockaway spent about half as much money on science, $330,000, as it did on social studies, $620,000.

    ‘It’s a question of balance of the curriculum,’ said Dr. Sheppard, who was a high school physics and chemistry teacher in England, Tanzania, and the United States. ‘Why are we focusing on history more than we are on science? If you look at the countries we’re outsourcing to they have a different mode. There they want to take physics; while here people try to avoid it.’

    Sue Brustein, the Assistant Principal of Science at Townsend Harris, heads a department where its students have the luxury of taking the core sciences, biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as multiple advanced science topics, including astrophysics, organic chemistry and space/time physics.

    While she is pleased with her students’ drive to take such upper level classes, Brustein recognizes that the students in many of her neighboring high schools might have different ambitions then those of her own students.

    ‘For many of the kids in other schools their goal isn’t physics,’ said Brustein. ‘It’s to be able to count their change so they aren’t ripped off when they buy food or to be able to read their prescription so they can take care of themselves when they’re sick.’

    High school students and their relation with physics can be categorized into four general groups, according to Dr. Sheppard. Some want it and have it. Some want it and don’t have it. Some don’t want it and have it. And some don’t want it and don’t have it. While educators are aware of these groups, the real challenge, says Dr. Sheppard, is how to appease the members of each group.

    ‘When you look at science education in America, especially among urban communities, you have to realize that we are preventing thousands of potential scientists from entering the world,’ said Dr. Sheppard. ‘Who knows, somewhere in one of these communities could even be the next Einstein.’

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