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Getting a Head Start

The word "minority" is becoming a misnomer in many parts of the United States.

By | November 7, 2005

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The word "minority" is becoming a misnomer in many parts of the United States. More than 40% of American public school students belong to a racial or ethnic minority group, according to the latest figures from the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. And in many Western states, nonwhite students now outnumber their white peers.

But while the number of nonwhite students enrolling in public schools has been rising for decades, the system is still struggling to find ways to serve them successfully. Latino, African American and Native American high school students perform poorly in the classroom compared with their nonminority peers, are more likely to drop out of school, and are less likely to pursue college degrees.

"There is ample evidence from at least high school, if not before, through graduate school that minorities are way behind in science in particular and academia in general, and something has to be done about that," says Wayne Carley, executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers. If the face of science is to begin to reflect the face of America, sweeping changes will be necessary, he says, to ensure that an educated workforce of ethnic minorities is available to academic and industry employers.

MAKING SCIENCE A PRIORITY

One major change is just around the corner, but whether it is likely to be helpful or harmful remains a subject of debate. President Bush's educational reform program, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which emphasizes standardized testing as an accountability measure for public schools, has focused so far on reading and math. Standardized science testing is next, and is likely to change the way under-resourced schools serving large minority populations allocate their time and money, according to Jo Anne Vasquez, president of the National Science Education Leadership Association.

"Science needs to be on equal footing with math and reading, particularly in the elementary school classroom, and that is more likely to happen when it's tested through No Child Left Behind," she says. Science testing will become mandatory nationwide starting in the 2007–2008 school year. Still, Vasquez echoes a number of critics of NCLB when she says she is also concerned that the program's emphasis on standardized testing could lead educators to "teach to the test" rather than encouraging creative thinking in their classrooms. The University of Central Florida's Bobby Jeanpierre, who serves as the multicultural division director for the National Science Teachers Association, says NCLB may have a negative effect on science teaching in middle and high schools, but a positive effect in elementary schools, because any increase in the amount of science being taught at that level is an improvement. "The focus right now in elementary schools is on reading and, second to that, mathematics," says Jeanpierre, who has conducted research on elementary school principals' priorities. "In the interviews I've done with principals, when I ask why there's so little attention paid to science, they say, 'Wait until 2007 when it's tested. Then we'll start focusing on it."'

In middle schools and high schools, "teachers are capable of doing more than teaching to a test, but they will likely find themselves being directed that way or will feel they must go in that direction to help their students do well," Jeanpierre says. Those priorities may squeeze out more effective hands-on learning, particularly in schools where there aren't enough resources to allow both types of teaching.

Carley goes further in his criticism, arguing that NCLB and other Bush Administration policies fail to address the real source of the problem in minority education. "President Bush has called himself the education president. If, in fact, he was concerned about education, he'd be pouring a whole lot of money into classroom programs in urban and minority districts, and he is not doing that," Carley says.

TEACHERS AS THE KEY

Experts agree that recruiting and retaining talented educators may be the key to getting more students excited about science. But while shortages of highly qualified teachers occur in many disciplines, the difficulty is particularly acute in science because of competition from industry. "Nowadays, most high school teachers are supposed to have a degree in the discipline they teach," Carley notes. "What kind of quality science major is going to go to work [in the public schools] for half what they can make someplace else?"

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One solution that is frequently discussed is to pay science and math teachers more than teachers in other disciplines, but teachers' unions have balked at that idea, says Vasquez. She says a less controversial approach that has had some success is for public schools to collaborate with industry to find lucrative summer jobs for science teachers at technology companies.

Teacher training and professional development is another key, but it's often one of the first things to be cut in resource-poor schools that have to make tough budget decisions. In some cases, private programs have stepped in to fill the gap. Wyeth's Making Science Make Sense program, for example, has demonstrated that providing elementary school teachers with better training in science content and teaching methods can make a difference in their students' standardized test scores.

In a twist on the idea that industry steals talented science majors away from teaching, some companies are working to encourage their employees to step into math and science classrooms. IBM, for example, recently announced a pilot program under which employees nearing retirement can receive time off, stipends, and tuition reimbursement to help them earn their teaching credentials and complete their student teaching, preparing them to serve as teachers once they leave the company. The program, which was announced in September, will begin with 100 employees, with substantial expansions planned for the future.

Carley says the next step is for recruitment programs to put their focus on getting more minority teachers into science classrooms. "Right now, kids don't have role models of Black or His-panic teachers who really have achieved in science and can lead them on," he points out.

EDUCATE THROUGH THE YEARS

Research shows that it's important to start working with students when they are quite young in order to encourage an interest and ability in science, Vasquez says. "If they don't get it taught in elementary classrooms, by the time they get to junior high school, they're lost. They don't know the language of science."

Older minority students, including those pursuing college and graduate degrees, also need support, and a number of colleges and universities run programs designed to ensure they are equipped to meet the challenges of higher education, particularly in rigorous fields such as the sciences.

For example, the New York State Education Department partners with more than 40 New York colleges and universities on its Collegiate Science & Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), which offers underrepresented students services such as tutoring, training in research methods, graduate school admissions preparation, and help with studying for standardized tests. CSTEP seniors graduate at a higher rate than their peers who are not enrolled in the program, and more of them pursue graduate degrees and professional licensure, according to the New York State Education Department.

Although students must be in good academic standing to participate in CSTEP, the program is designed to serve a range of minority scholars, not just those with the highest grades or SAT scores. John Matsui, who runs the Biology Scholars Program at University of California, Berkeley, (see Sidebar) says that an inclusive approach is key.

"A lot of programs for minority students use a skimming approach, taking the 1200 or above SAT students," he says. "They do that because they want the quick and easy, but in order to truly enlarge and diversify the pool of people who go into science, we can't just skim or cream. We need to do the hard work."

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