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Local educators decry push to relax high school science requirement


Educators across California are lashing out at an item in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed 2012-2013 budget that would eliminate a second year of science as a minimum requirement to graduate from high school.

The item, which has caught some officials by surprise, is causing outrage among educators who say California's students should be getting more science, not less.

"To me, it's absolutely astounding that the state of California, our leadership, would actually believe it would be appropriate not to have more science and actually have less science," said longtime Santa Rosa School Board member Frank Pugh. "I hope the public really understands — they are dismantling, day-by-day, public education."

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance, said the item is part of a larger push by the Brown administration to lift state requirements and give local schools a greater say in how they spend money.

"There is no reduction or elimination of dollars in association with the elimination of that mandate," he said.

"This is being put forward as a part of a broader proposal to provide school districts with greater flexibility and greater local control," he said. It gives "greater empowerment to local school districts to make local decisions."

But school officials fear cash-strapped districts buffeted by deep budget cuts will choose to move funds away from no-longer-mandated courses to pay for those that are required by law.

Since fiscal 2007-2008, districts in California have seen their per-pupil funding cut and annual cost of living increases frozen, leaving districts with 80 percent of the funding they are entitled to by the state's minimum funding law, said Denise Calvert, deputy superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Keller McDonald, superintendent of the West County School District, called it a "forced choice" between such things as bus service, which is up for elimination in Brown's proposed budget, and a science class that might no longer be required.

"I just can't imagine that districts would see this as a positive," he said, saying he expected El Molino and Analy High schools to continue to require the second science course for graduation.

"This is certainly counter to every initiative on how to better prepare students for college and the workforce," said Anastasia Zita, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Santa Rosa City Schools. "I realize that in these budget times there are many things being discussed, but from an education standpoint, I simply can't fathom having less than a two-year requirement."

Educators pointed to other programs that have been given funding flexibility in recent years — adult education, maintenance, art supplies, career technical and libraries — only to have them eliminated or severely cut as districts divert funding to required programs.

"To me, once you start not making it a mandate, people feel released from it," said Phil Lafontaine, director of professional development and curriculum support division at the state Department of Education.

"I imagine that districts that are really struggling financially will probably pocket the money to help their finances," Pugh said.

"They keep telling us that we have to meet world-class requirements in math and science. How do these recommendations co-exist with demands for highly successful schools? This is the mixed message that drives you nuts," he said.

The proposed change to science graduation requirements comes as President Barack Obama is urging colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers who majored in the science, technology engineering and math fields.

Only 21 percent of 12th graders surveyed nationwide in 2009 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress scored proficient or above on questions related to physical, life, Earth and space science.

At the elementary level, a recent study led by the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley found 10 percent of California elementary school students regularly get hands-on science lessons and one-third of elementary school teachers feel prepared to teach science.

And the dearth of in-depth science study is more acute on campuses that serve low-income students, the study found.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools and districts are penalized if students don't produce target scores predominantly in language arts and math. If a school is struggling to meet those benchmarks, administrators might be tempted to cut the second science class and use those funds to support more English and math courses, Lafontaine said.

"Truth be told, there are some schools already doing that," he said.

"There are some ramifications there in that the inequality could be children of poverty, children of low means, children that are struggling in school may not get science," he said. "How are they going to be competitive with children who are getting two, three, even four years?"

Mike Roa, science consultant for the county Office of Education, called the reduction in science at all grades "not only absurd but obscene."

"It's pretty essential knowledge in today's society," he said. "How can you be a voter if you don't have a clue about global warming, smart meters, alternative energy sources, genetically modified foods, health issues?"

But Roa expressed sympathy for schools and districts trying to get higher test scores in English and math to avoid sanctions and a public black eye.

"Most districts will say &amp;&lsquo;Wow, here is more money that we can put into language arts and math because that is what we are tested on,'<TH>" he said.

While the proposal calls for the reduction of science requirements to graduate high school, the minimum number of science classes required to apply to California State University and University of California campuses will remain at two years, with many students opting to taken even more to make their applications more competitive.

But for those students not eyeing a four-year college, a different delivery of science might not be a bad idea, said Nancy Brownell, assistant superintendent of the county Office of Education.

"If you are really locked into the CSU and UC sequence, you don't really have that much flexibility," she said. "It's sort of that tension of what are the college and career options for our kids?"

Patty Dunlap, a Montgomery High School teacher who has spent 34 years teaching science in multiple grades and disciplines, said a student needn't plan to become a scientist or engineer to benefit from biology or earth science.

"It's a way to become analytical. They don't realize they are going to have to analyze everything they do in life," she said. "All of our kids deserve the opportunity to have a well-rounded education."

Lessening any emphasis on science in schools is "going in the wrong direction as far as our competitiveness," said Jeff Weber, spokesman for Agilent Technologies.

"You never know when a light bulb is going to go off over someone and they just click," he said. "Potentially we are going to be eliminating ourselves and our skill set in this critical area and technology leadership in the future."

The fallout — educationally and economically — if California lessens its science requirement could be long term, said Rick Pomeroy, a clinical faculty member at UC Davis and president of the California Science Teachers Association.

"Science and technology is the way for California to return to being a vibrant, leading economy in the world and yet we think so little of science that we don't even require it to graduate from high school?"

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.