The secretary of education wants to draw support for science education from some unusual quarters.
When DISCOVER magazine approached Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Secretary of Education, for this interview, they experienced firsthand the frustrations of government bureaucracy. The secretary’s office was excited to speak to the magazine and were intrigued by the chosen interviewer: Wes McCoy, an award-winning teacher who is the chairman of the science department at
But as the date of the interview drew nearer, political reality intruded. Spellings had many other commitments she considered more pressing than discussing the state of American education with a science teacher. In the end, they managed to catch her between speeches at the
What do you see as the greatest strengths in American science education?
I think we have so many resources available to us here in the
Do you think it’s time for another kind of Sputnik-era push to develop new teacher development programs?
I sure do, and there’s broad consensus in the Congress about the need to do just that. One of the things that is encouraging in the Congress—and the president talked about it at last year’s State of the
I’ve heard from my elementary teaching colleagues that sometimes they spend less time teaching science in order to have more time to teach reading. How can we help them increase the amount of time they can devote to science?
I am a “what gets measured, gets done,” kind of person, as you might expect with my heavy involvement in No Child Left Behind. And I really believe that these new science assessments are going to cause more attention to be paid to science, and rightfully so.
Of course it’s not just a matter of attention—there’s also the problem of presenting science to the kids in ways that really lead to understanding. How does the Department of Education plan to support creative approaches to science teaching?
One of the best ways to strengthen science instruction is to get more scientists into the classroom to teach and share their real-world knowledge. President Bush has proposed an Adjunct Teacher Corps, which would provide an opportunity for talented and dedicated industry experts from outside the teaching profession to share their knowledge in middle and high school classrooms. On a recent trip to
Is there any way that your department can encourage families to push more kids into science and math?
One of the things that I’m working on—and it’s a collaborative effort with a lot of external organizations from the Girl Scouts to the Sara Lee Foundation—is engendering more enthusiasm about science in girls. Parents need to understand that their kids really need to know more than they do about science, and they shouldn’t be intimidated by that. [A parent will say,] “Well, I’ve done fine,” and Mom and Dad are lawyers, or Mom and Dad are bus drivers, or whatever, and they don’t see the importance of science in their experience. We have to overcome some of that.
Do you think that some hot-button social issues, such as creationism, have distracted us from the big and more important focus on science literacy?
I think that obviously that is a state issue, and happily I don’t have anything to do with it in
You helped develop No Child Left Behind, and recently I’ve heard you talking about a growth model for the program. How are you planning on changing it?
First let me say, because I think educators need to know this, the reason that we didn’t enact a growth model into the law five years ago when it was written in the first place is we didn’t have annual assessment in about half of the states. Only when you have benchmarks where you can chart growth is that possible. Now with annual assessment in every single state, that’s finally possible. I think it can provide teachers with better data, more accurate information, and likewise be a truer picture of a school’s accountability and a teacher’s performance.
My last question is, if I was trying to hire you as a science teacher at my school—
You wouldn’t do that. I could only teach political science or language arts.
—but what would I see in your classroom if I came to watch you teaching science? What do you regard as good science education?
The ability to apply a problem to a real world, a relevant kind of example, I think you’d see that. I’m big on this because I think often our schools are isolated from the community broadly. I hope you’d find a veterinarian or a NASA scientist or a doctor or a pharmacist or people who were using those sorts of skills in fields successfully today. I’d do some of those sorts of things. Would that be good?
I think I might hire you. :-)
Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7)