Science Ed: Why Big Bird and Mythbusters Won't Cut It

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Last month President Obama announced a new “Educate to Innovate” program, aimed at raising American K-12 students “...from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math over the next decade.”

While Obama's new program will bring loads of new science programming to television shows like Sesame Street and the Discovery Channel, I just wonder if this $ is directed at the real issue - helping underserved youth and their families find ways to prioritize education and learning. Are kids from underserved communities really watching the Discovery Channel?

Obama's goal - and the goal of every teacher out there - is to prepare our youth to be successful, responsible, informed citizens. They'll need to compete for jobs on a global scale, and deal with complex scientific, policy-laden issues like climate change, renewable energy, and the spread of infectious disease.

But his "middle of the pack" statement does a disservice to the stickiest problems confronting science and math education. Not only is our educational system different from state to state and even from suburb to suburb, but huge achievement gaps exist that, when averaged, give us the impression that we only need to move kids from middle to top. That's not quite the real picture.

There's no question that America's best students are among the best in the world. But we have a disproportionate share of struggling students. In fact, we have twice as many students who score at the bottom of the science literacy scale as our neighbors to the north, Canada.

Have a look at the metrics for students in Chicago Public Schools, the third largest school district in the country. The percentage of all students scoring a 20 or higher on the ACT exam, a score that roughly equates to "college readiness" is just 22% (download the IL ACT report here).

Break this down further by socioeconomic status, and you see stark differences. Kids who come from low income families "pass" the ACT at a rate of 17%. Compare this to a 46% rate for CPS kids from middle and upper-income homes. Even wider achievement gaps exist for African American (11%) and Hispanic (22%) students compared to their Asian (61%) and White (59%) counterparts.

Yes, Obama has also committed $4 billion to the "Race to the Top" initiative, aimed at addressing under-performing public schools, helping solve curriculum-based issues, and better measuring student outcomes. This is good.

It would just be nice to see some "Educate to Innovate" funds go directly to programs specifically designed to help urban youth.

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