About This Issue

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

About This Issue

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 6, November/December 1979, p. 4–5

The Boston Science and Education Editorial Group selected the articles for this issue of SftP magazine based on our interests and experiences as teachers. We are concerned with the need for change in education, particularly science education, and are well aware of the difficulties confronting teachers who attempt these changes. For the most part we have been teaching high school in systems which deny the possibility and/or need for reform. At the same time we have been working within SftP to develop our sense of the important role politics plays in schools. We recognize the difficulty of simultaneously meeting the demands of required curriculum and attempting to integrate our growing political awareness into our teaching methods. We believe, nonetheless, that teachers can make small inroads of educational reform in their classes, that these inroads are important, and that, in the long run, greater numbers of people working together are needed for lasting change.

In this About This Issue, we take on a rather large task. In addition to summarizing the articles we have chosen, we discuss the problems in our educational system, some solutions, and some of the frustration and obstacles involved in the process.

An Historical Perspective

We believe that the source of the problems in American education is that schools are designed to meet the needs of our economic system. Marvin Kalkstein, in his review of Bowles and Gintis’ Schooling in Capitalist America, describes how schools were founded to assimilate a new group of immigrants into the growing industrial economy. Schools continue today to fulfill this function of forming able-bodied workers. The teacher, in Bowles and Gintis’s view, is a facsimile of the foreman, supervisor, or boss. Bowles and Gintis shed light on the rationale for the controls and rules we see in most schools: the lines, the handraising, the unquestioning of authority. Kalkstein’s review of their book provides a context within which to view and understand some of the underlying problems in American education.

Kalkstein touches on some of the ways in which schools continue today to be geared toward regimentation and control. David Boucher in his article on the use of management techniques in teaching reading, and Paula George, in her article on the increased use of minimum competency testing for high school graduation, amplify Kalkstein’s review with two specific examples. They both illustrate how schools are moving in directions that further develop their factory-like qualities and show how educators now use “scientific” techniques to legitimize and validate these qualities.

The Business of Schools

Boucher describes the use of a “Taylorized” approach to teaching reading, so called after the man who devised this efficiency method of running factories. According to Boucher, major publishing houses have developed a comprehensive elementary reading course which works uniformly, regardless of the teacher, student, or classroom atmosphere. It reduces the teacher’s role to that of a monitor, demands that children learn in a singular, regimented fashion, and shifts the responsibility of educating away from the schools. If this curriculum gains popularity, more children could more easily be designated “slow learners” or “ineducable”. Boucher’s article touches on many facets of the issue surrounding scientific approaches to teaching reading but, due to time and space limitations, these intriguing dimensions could not be fully developed.

The issue of competency testing, which raises some of the same concerns as that of scientific teaching techniques, demands immediate attention due to its growing presence throughout the nation. Competency testing is a complex issue. It could have value in bringing up the standard of education throughout the country. The manner in which it is presently used, however, serves to split student bodies, largely along socioeconomic class lines, make profits for publishing houses, and place the burden of becoming educated onto the student. It is not used as it might be to facilitate institution of remedial classes or to determine weak spots in a school’s performance. George elicits the many implications of the minimum testing controversy.

Attitudes Toward Science

The use of science to justify the educational “innovations” of competency testing and management methods of teaching reading reveals the elevated position of science in our society. Too few people feel equipped to evaluate the social implications of scientific endeavors, some of which do not contribute to the majority’s wellbeing. We must strengthen our skills and confidence so that more people can participate in everyday science and in policy decisions affecting the course and outcome of scientific work.

We believe that many of the attitudes which place science on its isolated pedestal and which contribute to people’s sense of incompetency in matters of scientific policymaking are formed in our schools. The teacher, for the most part, stands at the head of the class, asks questions to which there is supposedly one answer, rewards those who answer correctly, and punishes those who don’t. This process contributes to the impotence students often feel. Science education is particularly guilty of employing this approach. It does so by teaching objective facts without dealing with their implications on people’s lives. Science becomes abstract and distant for many.

Teaching Suggestions

For the teacher with some flexibility in course content and political accountability, we include in this issue course outlines, a lesson plan, an alternative model of teaching, and tips for teachers.

In Margaret Alic’s course description on women in science, we see how, even more than the general population, women have been excluded from science. So great has been the sense of the inappropriateness of science as a field for women, that many women’s contributions have been ignored. If we are ever to attain more power to monitor the uses of science, women must be included among those who feel competent to consider the issues. Margaret Alic’s course description begins to work in this direction.

George Salzman and the Food and Nutrition Group of the Boston chapter, concerned with the neglect of the social and political implications of science, have created and utilized alternative curricula. Salzman’s course “Science for Humane Survival” is geared to college students, while the Food and Nutrition Group’s “Feed, Need, Greed” lesson plan is directed toward high school students. These curricula speak to the complex issues of food production, hunger, population, and ecological living, and bring these world problems to the personal level in the hopes of affecting change within a political framework.

Brenda Lansdowne describes an educational model which deals with the method of teaching rather than the content. In what she calls “investigative colloquia”, the teacher assumes the role of facilitator while the students on their own share and discover scientific, philosophical, and historical concepts. In this manner, children gain a sense of their own importance in their education and the power of their ideas.

Fighting Back is a recent, unpublished manuscript by Jonathan Kozol, in which he proposes ways of integrating social change into the classroom and community. We have excerpted his “Tips for Teachers,” some ot which can easily be used in the clasroom. He gives ideas on how teachers can in their attitude and approach ex-pose the political overtones of a subject matter. In addition, Kozol introduces more radical tactics to begin social transformation at the community level.

Although we firmly believe in the aims of these alternatives, few teachers have the time to meet the demands of required curricula and develop additional course material. A teacher faces many risks. in most cases, if she or he decides to integrate politics into the classroom: alienation of colleagues and students, and the threat of losing his or her job are only a few. Nancy Brown’s vignette of her experiences as a substitute in the Boston schools further impresses us with the near imposssibility of the teacher’s task. Brown reminds us of the student’s desperation and justified apathy.

In summary, we see and support the need for small steps toward changing schools. Ultimately, we believe that only broader sociopolitical change can alleviate the deep-seated problems in our educational system. We feel that schools presently mold students to a troubled world. What we desire is schools that educate people for a different reality based on more humane values and a more equitable economic system. Change, nonetheless, is a slow evolving process, and we, as teachers, struggle daily to act upon some of the ideas, suggestions and tactics described in these pages. It is our hope that these ideas will be valuable not only to teachers, but to everyone concerned with transforming present attitudes toward science and empowering the students who now emerge from our public school systems.

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