New teachers are smarter

The academic caliber of new teachers is rising significantly, according to a University of Washington study published in Education NextThe average SAT score of first-year teachers in 2008 was 8 percentile rank points higher than the average score among new teachers in 2001. New teachers in 2008 averaged higher SAT scores than college graduates entering other professions.

“It is unclear whether this improvement reflects a temporary response to the economic downturn or a more permanent shift,” write the study’s authors, Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch.

Teachers working in 2008 were slightly more likely to hold a master’s degree or higher compared to teachers in 1987.  Sixty-three percent of teachers in 2010 had graduate training compared to 45 percent 20 years earlier.

Some claim that test-based accountability policies have made teaching less attractive to top students. Not so.

. . .  the researchers compare the SAT scores of new teachers entering classrooms that typically face accountability-based test achievement pressures (grade 4–8 reading and math) and classrooms in those grades that do not involve high-stakes testing. They find that new teachers in high-stakes classrooms tend to have higher SAT scores than those in other classrooms, and that the size of this difference increased between 2001 and 2008. This suggests that more academically proficient teachers are not generally shying away from classrooms that face accountability pressures.

High-scoring math and science majors were more likely to become teachers in 2008 than in the past, but teaching still isn’t drawing enough math and science majors, the study found. Only 30 percent of math and science classes in 2008 were led by teachers who majored in math or science in college, the same as in 1993.

Most high school students with aspirations to teach don’t become teachers — or even college graduates, notes an Illinois study. The stronger students are more likely to persist. People who earn teaching credentials have “weaker academic qualifications” than other bachelor’s degree earners, “but those who actually became teachers were quite similar academically to non-teaching college graduates.”

Smart enough?

U.S. is above average in math, science

U.S. eighth graders in 36 states outperform the international average, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. In science, U.S. students in 46 states outscored the global competition.

However, even in the top-performing states — Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota — fewer U.S. students scored at the highest levels than students in several East Asian countries, notes the New York Times.

“It’s better news than we’re used to,” said David Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national exams commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. “But it’s still not anything to allow us to rest on our laurels.”

While 19 percent of eighth graders in Massachusetts, the highest-performing state, scored at the advanced level in math, close to 50 percent were advanced in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

Twenty-four percent of Massachusetts students achieved the advanced level, compared with 40 percent in Singapore.

France, Germany, Denmark, China and India did not participate, notes Paul Peterson, a Harvard education professor.

This global math achievement graph, via Education Week, shows the U.S. tied with Britain. South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan — you sense a pattern perhaps — do the best.

In science, the top seven performers globally are: Singapore, Massachusetts, Taiwan, Vermont, South Korea, Japan and New Hampshire.

Arguing like a scientist

Learning to “argue, question and communicate more like real scientists” may help students understand scientific concepts more deeply, researchers believe.

Both the Common Core State Standards for reading and mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards have increased the focus within their disciplines on skills such as constructing and evaluating arguments, complex communications, disciplinary discourse, and critical thinking, said James W. Pellegrino, a co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“Although some think of these as general cognitive competencies, it turns out that reasoning and argumentation have to be disciplinary-based,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “Reason and argumentation in literature is not the same as it is in history, is not the same as it is in science.”

Florida State University’s laboratory school and local Gainesville-area secondary schools are testing a new method to teach reason and argumentation, reports Education Week. In “argument-driven inquiry,” small groups of 8th graders choose how to investigate a problem, run experiments, analyze data and “develop arguments to present to the rest of the class.”

Based on those discussions, the students may collect more data, reflect on their findings, and write up an “investigation report” that has to go through a double-blind peer review process, modeled on the peer review boards that professional journals use to screen scientific papers submitted for publication. Each student then revises his or her work and submits a final report.

In a pilot comparison study of 265 8th grade students in 16 classes at both the laboratory school and regular district-run schools, researchers at the university’s Center for Educational Research in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science found students using the traditional lab model engaged in more structured lab tasks than those in the argument-driven labs, but the latter labs went deeper during each task.

. . . After a year, the students in both lab models significantly improved their knowledge of scientific concepts, but only the students in the argument-driven inquiry labs had improved in science writing and in their understanding of the nature and development of science knowledge. Moreover, the students who were taught in the pilot labs showed nearly twice as much improvement in their ability to use and generate scientific explanations and arguments as the students in the traditional labs.

Another study looked at traditional science labs. Researchers found that “middle and early high school students often avoid setting a hypothesis that could be rejected, try to design and conduct experiments that would confirm biases they already hold, and reject evidence from an experiment that contradicts what they thought going into it.” Even when 8th graders entered a “scientifically accurate” interpretation of  data, many “privately—and incorrectly—interpreted the results to confirm their initial hypotheses.”

More try STEM majors — and quit

More students are trying — and quitting — STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, reports USA Today.

Interest is up, says UCLA Professor Mitchell Chang. Persistence is not.

Many students aren’t prepared for the rigors of introductory chemistry and calculus, says Clemencia Cosentino de Cohen, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research. Women are more likely to drop the major.

“If women get a B, they think they’re failing. A man gets a B, and he’s happy. They say they’re acing the class,” Cosentino says. “Women who go into hard sciences, they’re very driven, they’re very high achieving, and if they’re not performing at that very top level, they become discouraged, and they think that it is not for them.”

Tough grading in science classes leads to attrition, a 2010 Cornell study found. STEM students realize they can work less and earn higher grades in liberal arts courses.

The S in STEM has been oversold, writes Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews.

“Employers are paying more, often far more, for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering and mathematics (TEM),” College Measures President Mark Schneider wrote in his report, “Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than for Others.”

But “evidence does not suggest that graduates with degrees in biology earn a wage premium — in fact, they often earn less than English majors,” Schneider wrote. “Graduates with degrees in chemistry earn somewhat more than biology majors, but they do not command the wage premium typically sought by those who major in engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics.”

A TEM bachelor’s degree qualifies a graduate for a good job. An S bachelor’s degree usually isn’t enough on its own, though it can be the first step to a medical degree.

Streaming on aquatic life

oceans There are lots of good science videos for children out there, says Mike Petrilli. His 10 best streaming videos on aquatic life start with Disneynature’s Oceans, “a spectacular story about remarkable creatures under the sea.”

The Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Oceans has eight 45-minute episodes. “David Attenborough narrates this definitive exploration of the marine world, from the familiar to the unknown, revealing the sea and its communities at their most fearsome and alluring.”

In Turtle: The Incredible Journey, “a loggerhead turtle swims from a beach in Florida across the Atlantic Ocean, encountering stunning sea creatures as well as serious hazards created by modern man.”

The periodic table in song

In The Elements, Tom Lehrer has fun with the periodic table.

Why does Mr. Snuffleupagus snuffle?

Sesame Street is trying to teach nature, math, science and engineering ideas to preschoolers, reports the New York Times.

. . . (A cow) made it up the stairs to the beauty parlor but now, her bouffant piled high, she’s stuck. Cows can go up stairs, she moans, but not down.

Enter Super Grover 2.0. Out from his bottomless “utility sock” comes an enormous ramp, which, as the cow cheerily notes before clomping on down, is “a sloping surface that goes from high to low.”

It’s not about the letter C or the number 7  any more. Now Sesame Street is tackling “topics like how a pulley works or how to go about investigating what’s making Mr. Snuffleupagus sneeze,” reports the Times.

Zach Hyman

Murray Monster, shown here attending Robo Fun School, appears in science-focused segments with children.

Super Grover 2.0 “uses magnets, springs and ‘superpowers’ of investigation, observation and reporting to solve problems through trial and error. Before settling on a ramp for the stuck cow, for instance, he tries a trampoline.”

Last season, Elmo began starring in a daily musical that incorporates math.

On Sept. 24, Sesame Workshop will launch “Little Discoverers: Big Fun With Science, Math and More” on the web site. “In one game, little fingers manipulate a virtual spring to launch pieces of trash into Oscar the Grouch’s trash can, a Sesame Street version of ‘Angry Birds’.”

How would you improve science ed?

If you could make one change to improve science education, what would it be? Science Times asked 19 scientists, educators and students.

Quite a few called for science teachers who know science, math teachers who know math and lessons that ask students to solve real-world problems.

Maria Klawe, a computer scientist and president of Harvey Mudd College wants teachers to “help all students understand that hard work and persistence are much more important to scientific success than natural ability.”

Focus STEM courses on “creativity and invention,” says Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy.  The “traditional skills . . .  are tools to empower creativity.”

States aren’t rushing to adopt Next Generation Science Standards, which was developed by a consortium of 26 states, notes the Hechinger Report. California adopted the standards last week, joining Maryland, Vermont, Rhode Island, Kansas and Kentucky.

Paul Bruno, a middle school science teacher from California – a state which got an ‘A’ in the Fordham ratings – has gotten attention for his critique of the NGSS. He said that basic content knowledge was needed before students could understand scientific and engineering practices, or how scientists ‘do science.’

Bruno worries the standards will confuse and overwhelm students by asking them to do too much at once.

California hasn’t decided when to implement NGSS, reports EdSource  Today.

Like the Common Core standards, their counterparts in English language arts and math, the new science standards stress problem solving, critical thinking and finding common principles or “cross-cutting concepts” that engineering and various fields of science share. They emphasize scientific thinking and big ideas over memorization in the hope that more students will become intrigued by science.

Implementing Common core standards in language arts and math is sucking up schools’ time, money and “mindshare.”

Poll: Math is most valuable subject

Math is the most valuable school subject in later life, say Americans in a new Gallup poll. English, literature, or reading came in second, but lost a few points since 2002. Science/physics/biology increased from 4 percent to 12 percent, passing history for third place.

Trend: Thinking about all the subjects you studied in school, which one, if any, has been the most valuable to you in your life? [OPEN-ENDED]

The importance of English rises with higher levels of formal education, tying math as the most important among four-year college graduates and coming in first among postgraduates.