How my dad saved high school biology

It really came as no surprise when my 9th grade high school biology teacher told me that we wouldn’t be doing any experiments that year. The high school I attended was a chronically underperforming and severely underfunded school situated in the densely-populated, square-mile city of Central Falls, RI–an impoverished, inner-city community with a largely immigrant population. And if you were wondering, yes, it’s that Central Falls–the city that infamously tried to fire all of its high school teachers and shortly, thereafter declared bankruptcy (although, it has since rehired most of the teachers and exited bankruptcy). So I was pretty sure the reason we wouldn’t be doing experiments that year was due to a shortfall in the school budget.

Central Falls High School

The prospect of not doing experiments however, was still a disappointment to me. Especially considering that a classmate and I had spent the beginning of the school year petitioning the administration to let us take biology instead of the general science class outlined in the normal 9th grade curriculum. We’d already taken general science during the previous two years in junior high and I had grown tired of learning the different types of clouds and classes of rocks. No offense to meteorologists and geologists, but it was time for me to move on to what I thought were the “big leagues.” I wanted to do more hands-on experiments like dissecting frogs, looking at cells under a microscope, or wiping bacteria off of door handles and growing them on petri dishes. These were, at least, what 14 year-old me thought constituted a science experiment–before I knew that these were really called “labs.” And so, after petitioning the school and obtaining approval to take biology, what was the obstacle to making my dreams of experiments a reality, you ask? There wasn’t enough money in the school budget for latex gloves.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only bit of bad news in my life back then. Right around the same time, my dad lost his job at a local medical supply manufacturer, after they had decided to move their operation to Mexico (perhaps a casualty of NAFTA and what not). They were “kind” enough, however, to offer their former employees a “severance” package–their choice of the surplus medical supplies left behind in the move. According to my dad, there were boxes upon boxes full of gauze, bandages, medical tape, cotton swabs, and other supplies available for the taking. When I told my dad the disappointing news that we wouldn’t be doing any experiments that year because the class didn’t have latex gloves, my father smiled. Completely out of coincidence–unaware as he was to the plight of my biology class– my father had decided to take home nearly a palette’s worth of cases of latex gloves.

I remember the day my dad delivered the latex gloves to my biology class. Since my dad was never much the sort to draw attention to himself and because he didn’t want disrupt class, he waited until after the school day was over. I met my dad by the door nearest our biology classroom and helped him carry the cases of gloves into the building. We knocked on the door to the class and when my bio teacher answered, I explained to him that my dad had some things he wanted to donate. I could see my teacher’s eyes light up when his gaze fell on the large, cardboard cases labeled “Medical Exam Gloves” of assorted sizes. He was speechless for a brief moment as my dad and I pushed boxes into the classroom. And when he fully realized what was happening he grasped my father’s hand and started shaking it. He thanked my father profusely and told him how much this meant. I stood between them, translating in Vietnamese the extent of my teacher’s appreciation for my father’s generosity. My dad tried to wave it off as though it were no big deal, but I knew it was. Just days prior, my dad had suffered the indignity of losing his job, but on that day, my dad was a hero– a hero at a time when he really needed to feel like one. He needed this moment as much as we need those gloves.

I left Central Falls High School the following year after accepting an opportunity to attend a private school that I couldn’t turn down. But I never forgot about CF High. I came back often to visit the school and, in parpticular, my biology teacher. For my high school community service project I helped out as his teacher’s aide during the first semester of my junior year. Even when I went off to college, I made an effort to see my biology teacher whenever I was home on break. And during each visit he’d remind me of how grateful he was for what my father did. Sadly, I can remember seeing those same cases of gloves sitting in the back storage room–the number of smaller boxes inside dwindling with each passing year.

Several years ago, my 9th grade biology teacher retired and I haven’t been back to the school since for a visit, so to when those gloves finally ran out, I wouldn’t know. But the fact that he was frugally rationing them out over the course of many years really stuck with me. And the sad reality is that underfunded schools, unfortunately, is not specific to the city I grew up in. It’s a problem that is faced by a number of inner-city and rural schools across the country–a problem exacerbated by the financial tumult of the past few years.

Since 2006, however, a select group of science bloggers have been raising money through the online charity DonorsChoose to help fund many science education-related projects submitted by teachers in underfunded schools. Going through their giving pages and reading the projects submitted by teachers really drove home for me just how underfunded some schools are. Projects from requesting money to purchase new stools to securing supplies for frog and organ dissections to, you guessed it, latex gloves. If you’d like to contribute, here’s your chance to capture the spirit of my dad and help save science education for students in need–but you’ll need to act fast because fundraising ends on Nov. 5th November 9th (there is also a match in effect of up to $100 if you enter SCIENCE in the “Match or gift code” box).

Here are the giving pages for Science Bloggers for Students and also projects submitted by Central Falls teachers (not exclusively science-related).


Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough? An educator’s response.

Credit: Stephen Janis

This is an educator’s response to my earlier post: Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough?

by Eric Klein

     Evidence of the effect of external factors such as recession on academic achievement will lag far behind the actual occurrence of the factor. Let me explain what I mean with an example. Suppose Billy’s dad loses his job tomorrow and the family goes through a crisis that hinders Billy’s education. Billy shuts down academically, stops doing his schoolwork. While this will affect his grades for this year, it is unlikely to show up in his performance in standardized testing this year. However, the long-term effect of losing a year’s, two years, three years worth of learning will be exhibited in the data some years down the road.

     When state and local governments choose to underfund their school systems, this same lag occurs. It takes years for the effects of educational policy to appear in the data. Thus, I suspect it is too soon to draw any conclusions. The State of Maryland tests its kids at the beginning AND end of each school year, which makes their data valuable for assessing rate of growth in student achievement. That might be worth taking a peek at. Bare in mind, that funds from the stimulus package were allocated to keep teachers in the classroom for the 2009-10 school year, so the true effects of the recession on academic achievement don’t appear until 2010-11.

     That said, the recession is not the first instance of government underfunding education. The decline started 25 years ago when states began to fund their schools through sales tax, which is a regressive tax in that it does not keep up with growth in the economy. Thus, the recession cuts in education are not so much a disastrous event as the next phase in the deconstruction of our public infrastructure.

Related Reading:

Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher

Obama urges governors to boost education funding, calls it key to competitiveness

Eric Klein fills students’ brains with math and numbers as a Michigan high school teacher.

Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough?

This is a follow-up to an earlier post:

     Obama’s STEM education initiatives were formally proposed last week with the unveiling of his budget for fiscal year 2013. The purpose of these initiatives is to train 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2020 as well as generate 1 million new STEM graduates as part of a broader plan designed to make America the leading innovator of STEM technologies. Obama’s STEM initiatives face several problems however, the biggest being the fat chance that his budget, which rings in at $3.8 billion, gets approved by Congress. And just for argument’s sake, let’s say his budget does get passed, will his STEM initiatives be enough to counteract the affects of the recession on science and math education/achievement? Or are we effectively fighting the tide without knowing how to swim?

How the recession effects academic achievement

     The early effects of the Great Recession that officially started in December 2007 were dominated by the collapse of the real estate market and the subsequent fall of several Wall St institutions. The panic that hit the banking industry quickly spread through the country, compounded by rising oil and food prices as well as unemployment. Although, the recession itself, was a short-lived event (ending in the Summer of 2009) the lingering effects of the recession can still be felt. At the time of this post, the US employment rate was still high at 8.3%. Now four plus years out from the recession, the economy is still sluggish albeit showing signs of slow recovery.

     Long-term effects of the recession can also be felt in education. One particular area that the Economic Policy Institute identifies as being “economically scarred” is academic achievement. There report indicates that “Unemployment and income losses can reduce educational achievement by threatening early childhood nutrition; reducing families’ abilities to provide a supportive learning environment (including adequate health care, summer activities, and stable housing); and by forcing a delay or abandonment of college plans.” Echoing the EPI’s findings, the National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study measuring the effects of statewide job loss on student achievement concluding that “job losses decrease scores,” particularly in math. Not to mention that “Elementary and high schools are receiving less state funding than last year in at least 37 states, and in at least 30 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels – often far below.

Rhode Island NECAP scores

     Given that the recession really took a turn for the worse in September 2008, we now have a 3+year-cohort of students (of various grades) whose standardized test scores we can track.  Rhode Island participates in the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP, often pronounced knee-cap), which is a series of standardized tests that measure student proficiency in reading, writing, math and science. Other states that take part of the NECAPs are New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Using RI as an example, I compiled RI’s math and science test scores from 2008-2011 (available from the RI Department of Elementary and Secondary Education):

     One would have expected worsening scores, however, year-over-year math and science scores either improved or stayed roughly the same for each grade. Either the recession had no effects on RI NECAP scores or the scores are a lagging indicator of recession effects. We have to keep in mind that unemployment did not hit its peak (~10%) until October 2009 and that state education budget cuts were not cut until about a year or two ago. Therefore, it would be imperative to track NECAP scores beyond 2012.

     Of course this exercise is not meant to discredit the effects of the recession on academic achievement. What we see in RI is by no means indicative of trends in math and science scores across the country. It should be noted that the RI education budget changes (FY08 to FY12) are on the lower end (see chart above) and also that RI is among the few states increasing its education budget over last year (FY11):

Are you an education policy expert? Or do you have particular insights into the effects of recession on math and science education? Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me: I would love to hear your thoughts.

Improving STEM Education

Obama’s STEM Initiatives

     Earlier this week, President Obama hosted the second annual White House Science Fair where 100 students were invited to present their research and inventions. The President used the opportunity to speak with students such as Samantha Garvey, who garnered much attention earlier this year after being named a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, shortly after her family was evicted on New Year’s Eve. Her research focused on predator-prey interactions between an invasive species of Asian shore crab and the ribbed mussel (Geukensia demissa), which is native to Long Island Sound. In her study, she compared the shells of mussels raised in tanks in the absence of crabs and in the presence of crabs that were separated by cages. She found that the mussels that were raised in the presence of the crabs had thicker shells suggesting that the mussels were able to sense the presence of predators and in response produced a thicker shell for defense. President Obama also tested out a marshmallow cannon designed by with Joey Hudy (defense contractors take note!):

President Obama also used the Science Fair as an occasion to highlight his STEM (science, technology, education, and math) education initiatives:

  • A priority on undergraduate STEM education reform in the President’s upcoming budget, including a $100 million investment by the National Science Foundation to improve undergraduate STEM education practices.
  • A new K-16 education initiative jointly administered by Department of Education and the National Science Foundation to improve math education
  • Commitments from private sector groups and coalitions to do more to get students excited about STEM-related
  • New policies to recruit, support, retain and reward excellent STEM teachers, along with an $80 million investment in the President’s upcoming budget tohelp prepare effective STEM teachers.
  • A new $22 million investment from the philanthropic and private sector to complement the Administration’s teacher preparation efforts. (

PISA score results indicate: American 15 year olds are “meh” at science and math

     In an CNN Opinion article published today, former secretary of Education William Bennett writes “Two indicators are particularly worrisome, especially as this country experiences greater global competition and high unemployment. American students score 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries. In math, we are beaten by countries from Lichtenstein and Slovakia to the Netherlands and Singapore. In science, we are beaten by countries from New Zealand and Estonia to Finland and Hungary.” Damn those Lichensteinians! The results Bennett cite are from the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Conducted by the Paris-based  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA is a standardized-test that measures literacy in reading, science, and math. Started in 2000, the test is administered worldwide every three years. There are currently 65 member countries.

     The PISA, although well-respected, is not without its critics. Mel Riddile, Associate Director for High School Services of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), has argued that PISA ignores a significant indicator of educational performance: poverty. When Riddile adjusts the scores to take into account poverty levels, students from areas with low povery score very high on the PISA while students from areas with high poverty score fairly low on the PISA. However, Riddile compared “the scores of American schools with comparable poverty rates to those of other countries.” By doing so, Riddile assumes that the poverty rates in other countries is uniform, which is clearly not the case for the US. (Read more about poverty and education.)

Improving STEM education

     In addition to President Obama’s initiatives, William Bennett proposes five ways in which to improve STEM education–the main theme being integration at all levels. Math and science should be integrated earlier in the curriculum. The methods of science and math instruction should also be adopted in other classes to reinforce scientific ways of analysis. He argues that this integration should be carried out at a physical level too, in that science and math classes should not be segregated from the school building and should not be spun off into specialized, magnet/charter schools. Furthermore, students who excel at math and science should remain integrated with the rest of the student body to avoid being seen as different or other associated stigmas. Lastly, Bennett calls for the proper amount of (continuing) training for educators to implement these changes.

Luckily, his proposals did not include performing demonstrations that can go horribly wrong

Read the follow up blog post here.