President Barack Obama expressed dismay in last week’s State of the Union speech that "the quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations." The same day, the Nation’s Report Card revealed that Hawaii’s public schools rank second from the bottom in science proficiency at the fourth-grade level. Greater effort is needed at both the federal and state levels to correct this deficiency.
Former Gov. Linda Lingle was enthusiastic during her administration to expand students’ learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, throughout the schooling of Hawaii’s children. Last year, she authorized the use of $2.8 million in federal stimulus funds to enhance the teaching of the science of robots.
Such an effort is needed in general science education at every level throughout the school system. The report by the National Assessment of Education determined that nearly four of every 10 fourth-graders and half of eighth-graders in Hawaii’s public schools tested "below basic" proficiency in science.
Nationally, 29 percent of fourth-graders and 38 percent of eighth-graders scored less than basically proficient. Only one in 20 of Hawaii’s fourth- and eighth-graders were "advanced" in science.
Part of the reason for Hawaii’s low science scores may result from the emphasis of math and reading rather than science under the federal No Child Left Behind program, according to Jeff Piontek, president of the Hawaii Science Teachers Association’s board and head of the Hawaii Technology Academy.
Under No Child Left Behind, school systems with failing grades are punished through denial of federal funding. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top instead provides stimulus money to systems committing to reform, including turning around their lowest-performing schools. Hawaii was promised a $75 million grant in last fall’s competition.
Hawaii’s school system should seek more ways to interest students in science. As an example, Big Island schools last week played host to NASA astronaut Daniel Tani’s visit to share his experience from two space missions. A standing-room-only crowd at the University of Hawaii at Hilo paid tribute to the legacy of astronaut and Kona native Ellison S. Onizuka, who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion.
The state Department of Education recently hired Derrick Tsuruda to fill a two-year vacancy of the position of educational specialist. Tsuruda wants to increase training for science teachers, a long-term plan.
In the short term, Hawaii schools Superintendent Kathy Matayoshi says she hopes to see progress in next month’s national science assessment but acknowledges that "we have our work cut out for us."
President Obama noted that China, India and other nations "started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science." In what he declared as "our generation’s Sputnik moment," Hawaii’s schools should join in preparing students for the competition for scientific advances.