The Pew Research Center reports that the number of foreign college students staying in the U.S. to fill science vacancies has increased 400 percent between 2008 and 2016. Another indication that American science literacy has reached a profound low. And part of the blame for our lack of K-12 science education rests with the science community itself.  

It was the late 1980s and I was a young professor of biology education. I found myself sitting in a conference room with local high school science teachers to discuss offering more advanced science courses for their best students who wanted to learn more biology, chemistry and other science.

But before the meeting got underway, the principal burst in with an announcement in their monthly school administrator’s magazine. The American Association for the Advancement of Science was working on a new national science teaching strategy. But school administrators discovered their proposal and beat them to the headlines. The new theme from AAAS was “Less Science, Not More.”

Our discussion on adding more advanced science courses in high school came to an abrupt end.

The AAAS is a major science organization. The AAAS journal Science has worldwide readership and is one of the two premier science journals in the world. Unfortunately, the AAAS education staff were not scientists, but had education school backgrounds.

Over the following years, many U.S. scientists complained to AAAS about their destructive theme.

I did. Their response was that we did not need to teach more science classes, but that we could teach fewer science classes better.

The AAAS soon broadcast a second theme: “Science For All Americans.” This reduced high school coursework down to a minimum of what all students should know in science.

Again, the criticisms from scientists that “less science, is less science” was ignored.

The situation became worse under No Child Left Behind. Testing focused on math and language. Science remained a requirement in most states’ graduation criteria. But since it was not measured for making Adequate Yearly Progress, science teaching was ignored.  

While the amount of science coursework has increased across the developed world, K-12 science in the United States has fallen far behind. The depth of training of U.S. science teachers has also dropped. Only 11 states require separate endorsements in biology, chemistry, physics and earth science.  Forty states (includes Washington, D.C.) train shallow “science” teachers for high school teaching — a level of knowledge that barley suffices a middle school science teacher.

I recently checked Kansas’s 286 Unified School Districts and their teacher directories. I estimate that more than half of Kansas schools lack a qualified physics teacher. Probably a third of schools, mostly rural, lack a teacher with a chemistry endorsement. You can’t teach what you don’t know, and many “science” teachers across the U.S. don’t know much.

The American public can detect our science illiteracy when we pick up a prescription and have to wait for the pharmacist to explain that three-times-a-day doesn’t mean take all three pills at once. Every high school student should have taken a human anatomy and physiology course — our owner’s manual — to be health literate. But even in Kansas, where we have a distinct biology teacher endorsement, half of new biology teachers come from programs where they never had to take a human anatomy and physiology course.

AAAS’s Project 2061 aspired to be “A long-term research and development initiative focused on improving science education so that all Americans can become literate in science, mathematics and technology.” But none of those AAAS “initiatives” involved training teachers in depth. And none expanded the science curriculum that our students receive.

Even if we started today to train more science teachers in-depth and to increase science coursework offered in our schools, it would take several decades to begin to lift science literacy in America. 

Until the AAAS stops taking its directions from Education Schools and begins advocating for more bonafide science teachers and K-12 science coursework, the AAAS remains part of the problem. 

 

Dr. John Richard Schrock is the editor of the Kansas School Naturalist and former chairman of the Biology Department at Emporia State University.