I had an interesting week last week. I attended the Informal Science Education Association of Texas (ISEA) meeting in Junction, Texas from Wednesday through Thursday, then traveled to Austin, Texas for the DoD African American Heritage Observance and HBCU Symposium.
As you might imagine, the experiences and perspectives of mostly rural, small museum educators and mostly urban historically black college and university faculty, differ when it comes to the needs of K-12 education.
They do not differ due to agenda, but rather focus. I found much more commonality then one might expect, however. Both groups want to strengthen STEM education for minority students, and both groups are concerned about the effects of standardized testing.
I have already stated in previous blogs that I think standardized testing is antithetical to science education. Whoever you ask and whatever standards you look at, most science educators agree that conceptual learning is more important than the memorization of facts. TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) strands emphasize this, but TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) tests obscure this goal by focusing teachers on specific content knowledge, for instance.
The biases of standardized tests are also well documented in minority communities. It is simply impossible to create one test which can effectively measure achievement in all populations from rural to urban, wealthy to poor, east to west, and so on and so on.
I have also argued in earlier blogs that disparities in access to ISE experiences creates a stark variation in the preparedness of students entering preK and K classes. I would propose that addressing this disconnect is part of the solution to the needs of both groups I met with last week.
Kids need exposure to informal science prior to entering classrooms for many reasons. These experiences allow kids to create a framework for understanding and learning. It allows them confidence that they can create their own understanding, and that they are capable of learning science. It demystifies science and makes it seem accessible and relevant. Most importantly, children who are exposed to ISE early in their childhood are stimulated to learn about worlds outside of their own.
This is not an easy solution. How do we increase access to ISE institutions? How do we increase access to parks and outdoor areas? How do we provide the resources necessary for preschools and parents to reach these experiences?
I propose some ideas. First, let's recognize the value of these experiences. Let's tell our elected officials that we want more real experiences for our kids, not more tests. Second, let's organize our resources more effectively. Early childhood programs are proven successful, yet they do not receive adequate funding. Let's tell our elected officials to expand early childhood programs, and to reward those that provide ISE experiences for their students. And, thirdly, let's work together to make ISE experiences more available to our communities. We need more buses or mass transit to ISE areas. ISE outreach programs need to focus on the transportation needs of early childhood programs. Transit authorities need to make ISE areas accessible for parents throughout underserved areas.
I know these are not bold ideas, but they do mark a shift in perspective that is counter to our current political agenda. It takes a concerted effort to turn the tide. Let me know what you think we can do, and what other changes need to be made.