In a large conference room, several groups of adults gather around an assortment of batteries, copper wires, and light bulbs. Their task is to discover how many different ways they can illuminate the bulbs using only this rudimentary electrical equipment.The adults—school policymakers from urban districts around the country—work together, experimenting with different configurations of battery, wire, and bulb to create electric light. This hands-on activity was drawn from EDC’s fifth grade science curriculum, Insights. It kicked off a recent conference called Promoting Equal Access to High-Quality Science Education, organized by CUSER, a project at EDC’s Center for Science Education (CSE).
A casual observer might wonder what bulbs and batteries have to do with equity in science education. But for Judith Sandler, director of CSE, the big policy questions in education have everything to do with what students actually learn in the classroom. “We need science coordinators and other administrators to become advocates for quality science programs for all of their students,” she explains. “And in order to be effective advocates, they need to see, firsthand, what good science looks like.”
Developing New Connections
Hoping to build support for excellent science programs across the 22 urban school districts it works with, CUSER invited teams of central office administrators to its equity conference. “Our goal was to initiate conversations between science coordinators and their district colleagues on what it takes to provide high-quality science instruction for all of their students, especially those who have been underserved historically: students with disabilities, English language learners, girls, and students from different racial and ethnic groups,” explains Doris Santamaria, one of the conference organizers.
The connections between curriculum and policy became evident there, as participants moved easily from conversations about light bulbs to concerns about equity. EDC’s Judy Zorfass, for example, talked about ways to adapt the circuits lesson for students with disabilities. “A blind student might be able to feel the bulb for heat,” she explains, “so a teacher could modify the lesson a bit to accommodate that.” Maria Dufek, a bilingual teacher from the Clark County school district in Las Vegas, emphasized the importance of an integrated curriculum for English language learners: “Science coordinators need to make connections with ESL teachers so that students get content-based ESL learning.”
Challenging Old Assumptions
All discussions about equity in education eventually come back to the problem of limited resources. In many urban schools, finding the money to replace science materials on a daily basis is a struggle. For Melva Greene, a curriculum specialist from the Baltimore City Schools, the challenge of securing adequate funds for science is as much about changing belief systems as it is about advocating for more money: “I say to the principals in my district: You bought new reading textbooks two years ago. Last year you bought the supplementary texts, and this year you plan to buy the resource books. If you spent your money on reading three years in a row, maybe it’s time to spend some on science.”
A District Making Change
Changing belief systems about the value of excellent science instruction for all students is a challenge that the CUSER staff and its partner districts have been tackling for the past several years. “What we have learned is that many elementary schools do not consider science a core subject,” explains Jeanne Century, senior research associate at CUSER. For example, when the Jackson, Mississippi, school district joined CUSER two and a half years ago, the elementary science instruction was sporadic. “Some classroom teachers were not teaching any science; some were teaching just a bit,” explains Century. “There was little money and no one in the central office directly responsible for the science curriculum.”
Today, Jackson has science and elementary instruction specialists working closely with CUSER to develop a coherent K- 8 science curriculum across the district. In addition, Jackson applied for and received a U.S. Department of Education Federal Enterprise Zone grant. It supports a pilot program for hands-on science in 10 inner city schools, including the purchase of inquiry-based science kits. In July, teachers from a CUSER district in New York City, who are familiar with the curricula, traveled to Jackson to provide training on instructional techniques to a team of teachers from local elementary schools. As a result, each of the 10 schools now has several teachers using the kits, and some of the schools are using them in every classroom.
Harriet Garrison, the elementary instructional specialist in Jackson, is excited about the district’s new emphasis on science and sees its impact on other subjects across the curriculum. She is now developing ways to link science instruction to the language arts curriculum, using new books recently purchased with the grant money. “As a former classroom teacher myself, I’m especially excited about these new books,” Garrison explains, “because they are literature based and have rich science content—stories and picture books about ecosystems and animals and plant life that will really engage all the kids.”
In a world grown dependent on scientific and technological know-how, it has become increasingly important for educators to provide all students access to quality science materials and instruction. As Sandler explains, “For some kids science is seen as a must; for others it isn’t. This is an equity issue.”
Originally published on June 30, 1998