Elementary school students doing a science experiment

Biologist and biology educator Joanne Manaster has a thought-provoking guest blog post today on what, if anything, scientists can do to help K-12 science education. She quotes English physics teacher Alom Shaha expressing an opinion that I don't think gets aired enough:

If I were trying to be controversial, I'd reply "very little, until they properly understand how schools work". What I mean by this is that good intentions are not enough to make a difference to school education if the people trying to "help" make no effort to appreciate what it is that we teachers have to do and the conditions in which we have to do them.

Right now there's a wave of enthusiasm for getting scientists involved in classrooms, but I worry that these initiatives aren't learning from the shortcomings of past such efforts. Back in the mid-'90s, before I came to Sci Am, I worked at an astronomy-education nonprofit and spent some time working with local teachers. Like today, it was a time of high hopes that scientists could revitalize education by visiting classrooms, developing activities and setting standards. Many of my high-school and college classmates gave up lucrative career offers to go teach science and math.

Boom turned to bust. My friends left teaching in frustration at how their schools were run. My nonprofit proved to be deeply dysfunctional. A lot of teachers attended our workshops just to collect the swag. I met teachers studying for mid-career master's degrees and was astounded by their lack of curiosity. Most of the school administrators I encountered cared more looking good before boards of education than doing good.

Now we're back in a boom phase, signaled by its own horrible edu-jargon ("STEM"). And what has changed? I was talking this weekend with a friend who used to teach math and now works at a math-education nonprofit. The organization is flush with funding—their holiday goodie bags included iPads. She freely admits the irony of leaving teaching to encourage teaching, but the daily workload made it impossible to have a life. "Teaching sucks," she said. Another friend, who teaches middle school, is also thinking of leaving the profession, worn down by class after class of resentful teenagers.

When non-teachers hear stories like this, many tend to blame the teachers. It's true that a lot of teachers are just awful—whatever spark they once had has been snuffed out, and unions should stop making excuses for them. But in general it's the conditions rather than the teachers that need to be changed, as high-school English teacher Ellie Herman described earlier this week in an LA Times opinion piece. Above a class size of 25, it's impossible for even a superteacher to keep track of individual students, let alone tailor lessons to their needs. And we all know where class sizes are going these days, given the budget problems faced by local school districts.

So the first lesson is that scientists' involvement, heartwarming though it is, just nibbles around the edges of the problem. If there's anything they should be doing, it's organizing as a community to work toward systemic reform.

Second, we need to turn the boom-bust cycle into a boom-boom one. At the micro level, if researchers want to visit classrooms, which can be an immensely rewarding experience for all concerned, let it be part of a larger sustained partnership, rather than a one-off. At the macro scale, education initiatives need to build slowly and pace themselves for the long-haul. We are already seeing signs of the coming bust. The National Science Foundation recently canceled a program to train graduate students in the sciences how best to work with K-12 teachers.

Finally, it's not necessarily innovation that schools require. Every education reformer wants to do it differently—whatever came before must have been totally wrong. Funding agencies want specific deliverables, the glossier the better. Pilot projects get lots of attention, while ongoing initiatives are left to fend for themselves. Philanthropists get excited about new technology when it is old technology that really matters.

The longer I think about the problems of K-12 education, the more I realize I don't know or understand about it. That humility must be the starting point for all reformers who want to make a difference.

Elementary school students doing a science experiment, from iStockPhoto