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Duncan Calls for Better Science Tests—and More Science in the Curriculum

By Sean Cavanagh — October 23, 2009 2 min read
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Arne Duncan spoke before a top White House advisory panel on science today, hammering home a couple points. The nation will need many more, and more talented math and science teachers in the years ahead, the secretary said. He also echoed worries that too many schools have pushed science out of the curriculum in the No Child Left Behind era, and said the administration wants to find ways to end that erosion, as part of efforts to reauthorize the law.

On these and other points, Duncan was speaking to a receptive audience: the President’s Council of Advisors on Science in Technology, a part of the White House executive office. The panel heard the secretary’s thoughts on the state of ‘STEM’ education, and threw some questions his way afterward.

One of Duncan’s points was that, given an anticipated wave of teacher retirements in the years ahead, policymakers will have to work harder to lure aspiring math and science educators into the profession—through pay incentives, by loosening certification requirements to allow career-changers, and so on.

“Our ability to attract and retain great talent over the next four, five, six years is going to shape education over the next 30,” Duncan told the council.

The secretary has plugged differential pay for teachers of math, science, and other high-need subjects before. He told the science council he wasn’t sure of what dollar amounts are necessary, but argued that there needs to be more of a market in which schools can bid more for outside talent and recruit it. “It’s not the solution,” he said of math-science teacher shortages, “but it’s a piece of the solution.”

Council members also voiced worries about what they saw as the poor quality of many state science tests, which in their view, place far too much emphasis on multiple-choice and rote memorization, and have the effect of killing many students’ love of the subject. Duncan predicted that the $350 million pool of federal funding the administration is putting toward supporting common standards and tests would have an impact, and said he, too, wants to support “less fill-in-the-bubble, more critical thinking,” on science exams.

The secretary also voiced concerns about science getting ignored, as districts scramble to raise math and reading scores. He recounted a recent meeting with a school superintendent who told Duncan that he’d recently visited 100 schools and didn’t see science being taught in any of them. Duncan said he and his staff are looking at ways to encourage schools to cover a broad range of subjects, as the administration considers ways to revamp No Child Left Behind.

“I worry tremendously about the loss of science and engineering,” Duncan said at one point. The main question, he added is: “How do we create the incentives so that students have a well-rounded curriculum?...We’re thinking these things though.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.