The first time the county's high school biology exam was given, almost two years ago, about half the kids failed. The reasons for such widespread failure were hard to pin down, but one had to be the fact that too few 10th-graders were prepared for a rigorous high school biology class. Second, in what could blandly be called "problems with program implementation," some biology teachers never bothered to look at the county curriculum materials until a few days before the exam, at which point it was simply too late to prepare their students properly.
Whatever the reasons, the fact that half the students failed was a terrible portent for the future, when students will have to take and pass at least two state exams in science in order to receive a diploma. (When this will take effect is not exactly clear -- probably in this decade.)
I'm happy to report that the powers that be in Montgomery County took the prospect of half of our students not being able to graduate as seriously as they should have.
I know this because Montgomery County -- together with the University System of Maryland -- just received a $7.5 million National Science Foundation grant to reform science teaching in high school and college. The idea is that university professors and high school teachers will work together to improve instruction in the county and the state's public colleges. "They will form a real learning community," is the way Donald N. Langenberg put it.
Langenberg, who retired this year as chancellor of the university system, is one of three people who will administer the grant. An experimental physicist by training, he now holds a professorship of education for kindergarten through a bachelor's degree, which allows him in retirement to reform all levels of science education.
It can certainly use reforming. The ignorance of science in the general population is appalling, and that has profound implications for our nation's ability to continue its momentum in scientific research and discovery. People who aren't really sure whether humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time are going to have a hard time producing enough scientists and researchers to answer the fundamental medical and scientific questions of the day.
This point was made recently by Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, at the Governor's Conference on Higher Education in College Park on Oct. 15. "If you look at who is succeeding in science, computer science and mathematics, they are from other countries," he told the assembled group of politicians, college presidents and others interested in higher education in Maryland.
He said he is very happy to have students come to his campus from China, India, Pakistan, Russia and Eastern Europe -- students who make up a huge percentage of today's graduate students in math and science nationwide. But, he added, the United States needs to grow its own scientists and mathematicians as well. We can't continue to rely on schools in Karachi, Pakistan and Budapest to produce American scientists; we need to make sure that American public schools do so as well.
Hrabowski went beyond the question of science education, issuing a challenge to the state's higher education community to work together with local school systems on improving the overall education of all students, and to face the "fundamental issue that poor children and children of color are not being educated."
That's part of what is so exciting about this National Science Foundation grant: It involves top scientists from the entire University System of Maryland with Montgomery County's high school science teachers. Symbolizing this link is the fact that the primary recipient and administrator of the grant is Nancy Shapiro, director of kindergarten through 12th-grade education for the chancellor of the university system and the mother of two children who attended Montgomery County public schools.
The third grant administrator, Michael Szesze, the science supervisor for Montgomery County public schools, said he is enthused by "the empowerment that this provides the schools to make a difference for students." He told me that the county's high school science teachers are looking forward to the opportunity to improve their knowledge and skills and to investigate in depth the question of how students learn science. "We've got the state tests coming down the line, and we know the kids aren't ready, so we're hearing [the teachers say] thank you."
The first group of teachers -- both high school and college -- to benefit from the grant will become "master science teachers," who will then train other teachers, until all the high schools' science teachers have been involved. But this isn't just a situation in which hotshot university professors are brought in to help high school teachers learn about cutting-edge research. The idea is that high school teachers have a lot to teach university professors about teaching young people as well.
This is a very intelligent approach to some very knotty problems -- such as the fact that high school science teachers are often cut off from the world of science, with few institutional links to keep them actively engaged in research and discussions with their colleagues at the university level. That makes it extremely difficult for them to maintain a scientific edge.
Another general problem is that serious university science classes are often difficult for the average student to negotiate, and the classes designed for college liberal arts majors (nicknamed "Rocks for Jocks" and "Physics for Poets") are too often low priorities for the science department and don't provide the broad scientific grounding that all citizens should have.
But those courses, in turn, are often the only ones our elementary school teachers take, which is one reason for our students' general lack of preparedness for high school science classes.
So one of the benefits that is supposed to come out of this grant is that new elementary school teachers will come to Montgomery County with a broader and more rigorous scientific background from their college education. Another benefit everyone is hoping for is that more highly trained scientists will come to Montgomery County to teach high school science classes.
Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and the rest of the folks in the Montgomery County school system and the University System of Maryland deserve applause for coming up with a really innovative approach. Ditto to the National Science Foundation for funding it.
As Szesze said, "It's one thing to say we have a problem. It's another thing to have a plan. It's another whole thing to figure out how to pay for it all."
Violence Doesn't Discriminate
Your Oct. 10 article infuriated and disgusted me as you cited examples of horror from ages past but chose to vilify only white offenders from history: Vikings, Crusaders, Portuguese slavers.
Next time you decide to be "struck anew how wildly violent the world has always been," imagine a Christian "father protecting his daughter from the pillaging" Muslims of various origins who spent centuries in a constant conquest of North Africa and Europe. Or imagine an African "grandparent protecting a child" from other Africans who captured slaves for their own use or transported them for sale to European or Arab buyers. Slavery is rampant in Africa today.
There's enough muck to sling to hit everybody. Try a little journalistic balance, huh?
Certainly there's plenty of carnage, violence and inhumanity to go around. There's just not enough space to include it all.
Homeroom appears every week in Montgomery Extra. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.