Weak in math, weak in science

California students are lagging in math and science.

Even in her college prep biology class, students come less and less prepared each year, (Concord High teacher Ellen) Fasman said.

“They’re every bit as bright as they’ve ever been,” said Fasman, who has taught for 16 years. However, they increasingly come hampered by smaller vocabularies, lacking knowledge of basic cell biology and unable to deal with fractions, she said.

“Their math skills are rather poor,” Fasman said. “When we do the metric system at the beginning of the year, it’s a killer for them. When we get into genetics, sometimes it’s hard for them, understanding ratios.”

California is scrambling to hire qualified math and science teachers as baby-boomer teachers retire. Of course teachers with high-demand skills don’t get any more pay than other teachers.

Update: With union approval, Los Angeles is paying a hefty bonus to recruit new math, science and special education teachers.

Here’s a weird story from West Virginia: In advanced biology at Sissonville High, grades are determined primarily by the leaf project not by the final. Students collect and classify leaves. A straight-A student turned in her project late, lost credit and got a B for the class. She’d been out of town on a school-approved field trip. Her family has filed a lawsuit. The weird part is the high-credit leaf project in honors bio. I did a leaf project in third grade. Possibly second grade.

About Joanne


  1. RBR parent says:

    The leaf project incident reminds me of some of the things that happen in my children’s high school in NJ. I have noticed that some teachers revel in cutting the top students down to size. They can’t do this by making the tests harder (because the mediocre students will be affected even more), so they assign projects and make up rules such that the grading will be arbitrary and unrelated to the student’s mastery of the subject matter.

    My daughter had an Honors US History class full of arts and crafts projects (puppets, 3D posters, etc.) that were graded on “artistic quality” and “creativity” and constituted a large percentage of the grade. She spent many long weekends on such things, and the amount of actual history content in each project would fit on a 3×5 index card.

    Another teacher will give a quiz and then decide not to count it because her favored students did poorly. Frequently this will be one where my daughter studied hard and scored 100%.

  2. I think Professor Wu’s program is a great idea. College math is very different from high school math. A mathematician with a college degree is not necessary good high school teacher. On the other hand, some great future high school math teachers may not be able to handle the material of the full list of college math major classes. What they need is to revisit topics like Algebra and Geometry from an advanced point of view like in Wu’s class.

  3. I think there’s more to the leaf project story than we’re getting.

    It seems to me that the districts are rarely willing to allow bad teacher decisions to drag them into court. In this case, the district is backing the teacher, and that’s telling. (If the circumstances were as just described by the parents, why do you think the principal wouldn’t have simply told the teacher to accept the project without penalty? Why would the school board have not directed the teacher to take the project without penalty?)

    I suspect it’s going to turn out the teacher addressed this “no late projects” in advance in writing, and that students who went on the trip were instructed to turn the assignment in early or make sure someone else turned it in for them on time. (Couldn’t these same parents willing to sue today just have dropped the project off at the school on the due date since the student indicates she had it completed as of Sunday?)

    I think that frequently we only get the parent and student side in the media because the district doesn’t want to violate the student’s privacy rights.

    Let’s see what other info. comes out in court.

    Isn’t it nuts to SUE over making a B in a course because you were penalized when you didn’t turn an assignment in on time? People are now entitled to turn in work late after missing class for completely elected reasons and still get an A? This will be an interesting precedent for this student in college and in the work force. All your college professor were cool with your turning assignments in late if you were out of town on a school activities trip, right? Later in life, you can totally ignore the statute of limitations in filing charges as long as you were doing continuing legal education on the day time ran out, right?

  4. I was doing some more surfing about the leaf thing. The deadline for the project was on the class syllabus.

    Here’s the thing: it seems harsh for the teacher not to take it the day after the student got back, and yet, if you give students a syllabus the first day of class with the deadline and explain that you won’t take the project late, why should the student get until the next day to turn it in if she’s known about it the whole semester? Should it just be understood that you can turn long standing assignments in late if you go on a school trip or is it reasonable that only students who have completed the work for their classes should go on the trip?

  5. wayne martin says:

    > I think there’s more to the leaf project story than we’re getting.

    That seems to be true with stories about schools.

    > I suspect it’s going to turn out the teacher addressed
    > this “no late projects” in advance in writing, and that
    > students who went on the trip were instructed to turn
    > the assignment in early or make sure someone else
    > turned it in for them on time.

    > “The plaintiff has a right to be out of school on approved
    > school activities, such as student council, without being
    > punished by a teacher who intentionally manipulated the
    > grading system and used the grade as a form of punishment
    > to make sure that the minor plaintiff’s 4.5 GPA was destroyed,”
    > the lawsuit says.

    Give a “F” – Go To Jail.

    > Officials with the state’s largest teachers’ union say they’re
    > closely watching the litigation for its potential to have
    > far-reaching effects on how teachers hand out grades.

    Giving this matter very little thought – it would seem to me that a District-wide policy on “late work” would be in everyone’s interest. While this nay take a little “authority” away from individual teachers, having a policy about how to handle late work would make everyone’s life a lot simpler.

  6. Why would they use this language of manipulation and deliberate punishment? It just seems to me that if that were the case, the district would have backed down long before now.

    It just seems so weird, and to me, it makes the parents seems crazier.

    I think a district policy would be a great idea, especially if it meant teachers could count on support from above. Even though most administrators buckle the minute they get challenged by a parent, at least the policy would let teachers know not to exceed the district policy with their own rules.

  7. From the article: The student’s parents are seeking an injunction, punitive damages, and damages for “emotional stress, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of scholarship potential.”

    I didn’t know you could sue for loss of enjoyment of life.

    Anyone know a good lawyer?

  8. Oh, Lord.

    So this means if I refuse to accept late work – or refuse to let a student take a quiz late because they ‘couldn’t get up’ on time for class, I’m causing them “loss of enjoyment of life”?

    What about “loss of enjoyment” in the instructor’s life when they have to deal with students who beg, plead, wheedle, complain, threaten to go above the instructor’s head, etc., etc. when the instructor enforces some policy (LISTED ON THE SYLLABUS) that the student doesn’t like?

    As for a “leaf project” in Honors Biology: that’s just stupid. In INTRO bio in high school we had to do a taxonomy project involving collecting leaves, invertebrates, fossils, and other things, but we were also expected to correctly identify them and put them in taxonomic context. Oh, and hand the whole thing on time, too.

  9. I went to high school in the same area, and if my experiences are typical then this isn’t too surprising. Senior-level teachers have a large number of students who can’t handle rigorous work, and aren’t really allowed to fail them (graduating on time is a big deal), so large parts of your grade are from craft projects. I can’t count the number of weekends that I spent making videos for history classes (the teacher was shocked when the whole class wound up sick after spending a winter weekend running around in sheets with sandals/no shoes because we’d lose points if our Greek costumes weren’t ‘authentic’). The grading was arbitrary and often was a way to make sure the desired students had the highest grades (I actually had a teacher tell me that my grades would be higher in college when I wasn’t competing against the teacher’s/principal’s relatives and friends – and they were right).

    In this area there are an inordinate number of school-sponsored events that can cause successful students to miss school (all-state band, national merit scholar awards) and it is often in the school policy that teachers will work with these absences (the schools want to look good by having lots of students at the awards). The student should have turned in her assignment earlier (I tried to never give teachers an excuse to lower my grade) but coming from these less-than-stellar schools, not being valedictorian can stop you from being admitted to a good school or earning a scholarship.

  10. It’s just so strange when you teach at a school where you’re accustomed to having to defend your grades and standards to hear of places where it’s accepted that teachers game the system to favor certain kids.

    My school might make is too easy for everyone to do well, but there’s no gaming of the system to favor one student over another.

  11. NDC writes:

    It’s just so strange when you teach at a school where you’re accustomed to having to defend your grades and standards to hear of places where it’s accepted that teachers game the system to favor certain kids.


    Such teachers should be tarred and feathered.
    Or at least thrown out of the local teachers union.

  12. Angry Liberal says:

    As a college professor who teaches at a college where students see due dates as a suggestion instead of a deadline, I was all set to take the teacher’s side here. I get these slackers after the High Schools have allowed them to get away with murder. I said to myself, finally a teacher not afraid to hold students to some standards.


    Apparently the school handbook stipulates that students who are absent due to school functions, illness, or disciplinary action have the same number of days they were absent to make up schoolwork. IMHO if kids suspended for being problem children can make up work, then a student who was absent because she was representing the school should definitely receive the same allowances.

    This is a student who had the wherewithal to know that she could not finish the project when she returned from the trip, so she finished it early and had it ready to turn in as soon as she returned. If it were my kid, and this problem took her out of the running for valedictorian (and also some scholarships based on class rank), I sure has hell would sue them too!