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It’s Not Rocket Science: How To Improve Science Teaching in NYC Schools

With 1.1 million New York City public school students desperately needing help with their science education, we are fortunate that, on January 11, 2017, The American Museum of Natural History unveiled its upcoming Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. Projected to open in 2020, the 235,000 square-foot Gilder Center will include six Family Learning Zone classrooms for PreK-4th grade, three Middle School Learning Zone classrooms for grades 5-8, and a High-School Learning Zone with a visualization learning lab.

Lisa J. Guggenheim, Senior VP for Education, gushed that the new spaces will be an “opportunity to not only see science or read science but to do science.” Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, chimed in that it would be “teaching what science is and how it works.” However, Ellen V. Futter, AMNH President, was quick to reassure they weren’t there “to replace the role of schools, but to empower inquiry.”

To that end, Guggenheim talked of partnering with public schools to provide science education equity and access in a program that could enroll up to 300 students.

Unfortunately, when we’re talking about 1.1 million children, access for three hundred students is just a rounding error.

Even though the NYC Department of Ed lists a State Assessment in Science for grades 4 and 8, those scores are not easily available past 2009 in the way that English Language Arts and Math are. The New York Times has a depressing 2011 update which describes how NYC students performed much worse on national science tests than they did on state ones.

The Program for International School Assessment is a global exam measuring 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy. Their 2015 results came out in December of 2016. American science scores were similar to what they were three years ago, putting the US roughly in the middle of 70 participating nations.

In 2012, New York City participated in a pilot program where eleven public high-schools had their performance scores individually assessed. Based on records acquired via the Freedom of Information Law, we know the schools ranged from selective ones that admit students based on test results and grades, to ones where only a minority of the student body passes their Regents exams.  

The results were:

  • While the lowest performing NYC school performs in the bottom ten percent of schools in the US, the highest performing NYC school performs in the top 10% of schools in the US.
  • Although the highest performing school is among the top performing schools in the US, around half of all schools in Shanghai-China – the top-performing education system in PISA 2009 – have an average performance that is higher than any of the NYC schools.
  • NYC schools have a relatively small share of students that do not reach the baseline level of science, Level 2. However, most schools also have relatively few students, or no students at all, who reach the top levels of proficiency, Levels 5 and 6. The science performance is centered towards the intermediate levels of proficiency (Level 2, 3 and 4). In five schools, the intermediate levels of performance account for around nine out of ten students. In comparison, the average percentage of students in the United States that perform below the baseline level, Level 2, is eighteen percent and the average percentage of students that perform at Levels 5 or 6 is nine percent.
  • Despite the fact that NYC schools are performing relatively well on a national scale, around half of all schools in Shanghai-China have an average performance in science that is higher than any of the NYC Schools.

To summarize, even the best students in NYC, who are among the best students in America, are still woefully behind much of the world.

So aside from turning to external help like the Gilder Center, what can NYC schools do to change that?

Tue Halgreen, Senior Analyst of OECD PISA, spoke at BASIS Independent Brooklyn, a private school in the BASIS.ed school network and currently the first and only US case study being used for the PISA4U program to help inform schools how to model what high performing schools are doing right, had this to say:

There are patterns with high ranking school systems that we see. The first is that education is very highly valued – not just for students and parents. It is an important value in society… The second is that there is a belief that all students can learn and that with hard work you can learn and do well. Everyone can learn if you work. Equality is part of education policy.

What do you think?

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