Geoscience Education

Geoscientists Defend Earth Science in Texas
David Lawrence

Few people noticed in 1998 when the Texas Board of Education dropped earth science from the high school curriculum. Last summer, the geoscience community found out, however, and began to let Texas authorities know how they felt: Dropping earth science is a bad idea.
Now everybody is paying attention.
Beginning in 1998, the state implemented the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards, which define what high school seniors must know before they graduate. Under TEKS standards, the only science courses high school students are required to take are biology, chemistry and physics. They must take one other science course of their choosing, and could conceivably take an earth science class. But school districts are not required to offer courses other than those specifically named in TEKS.
In November, Linda Knight, associate director of the Houston Independent School District/Rice University Model Science Lab, was trying to learn who taught the environmental science and geology, meteorology and oceanography class at a Houston high school. She could not find one. Knight says a counselor told her that the geology, meteorology and oceanography course was a remedial science and that the state only wanted students to learn biology, chemistry and physics.
The earth science community was slow to realize what had happened.
“I certainly know that the geoscience community was asleep at the switch,” said David Dunn, a geoscience professor and dean emeritus of at the University of Texas at Dallas. “We simply were not paying any attention to what was going on — and we should have been. We were remiss in not knowing about this as it was happening. We might have been able to prevent it had we been alert.”
According to Dunn, earth science was also dropped from the list of topics to be included on the eighth-grade science test. The highest grade level for which earth science is now required is the fifth grade.
“I’m sure they teach that water runs downhill, that some rocks get eroded and some don’t — some pretty straightforward concepts,” Dunn said. “But the sophisticated linkage of biology, chemistry and physics as it occurs in the solution of earth science problems can’t possibly be comprehended at the fifth-grade level.”
Harold Pratt, president of the National Science Teachers Association, thinks that what happened in Texas is part of a widespread phenomenon — states simplify curricula in order to make it easier for students to pass standardized tests required for graduation.
“You’re forced to give that test long before their senior year,” Pratt said. “It’s best in the junior year or even near the end of the sophomore year. The main reason for that is you want to give students several chances to retake the test if they don’t come up with a passing grade the first time.”
Thus, while the standards outline subjects to be mastered during four years of high school, the student has significantly less time to demonstrate proficiency in them.

“Suddenly the time allowed to meet the standard is compressed,” Pratt said. “The testing groups don’t take that into consideration when they start building the tests and then they say, ‘We can’t get this all in.’

“Most school districts try to fiddle around with the curriculum, and something had to give, so often it’s earth science because it is many times taught in the ninth grade or it wasn’t considered to be quite the same science as the others.”
Although the changes in Texas took effect in 1998, Marcus Milling first heard of them a few months ago. Milling is executive director of the American Geological Institute, which publishes Geotimes.
“I was down in Austin last summer, in July, and I had heard rumors and hearsay about what was happening and what wasn’t happening related to earth science in high school in Texas,” Milling said. “I just wanted to try to clarify it and understand what was really going on.”
He arranged a meeting with Irene Pickhardt, assistant director of science at the Texas Education Association, in July.
“That’s when I learned that earth science was being dropped as a core science credit course for Texas high school science graduation,” Milling says “and that they were simply going to teach biology and integrated science for the two-credit minimum requirement and biology, chemistry and physics for the advanced requirement. So with that, I came back and got Ed Roy engaged and we started a campaign to see if we couldn’t get it fixed.”
Milling and Roy, who is chairman of the AGI’s education advisory committee as well as a geology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, wrote a letter to Grace Shore, chairman of the Texas Board of Education, saying that the omission of earth science at the high school level was a “step backwards” for Texas and pointing out the importance of earth sciences to the state’s economy.
For example, Milling says, Texas public schools can access a $26 billion trust fund developed from royalties from oil and gas and mining productions on public lands. “You have this school fund that’s been built on the natural resources from the state, which geoscientists have largely produced,” Milling points out. “And then the school board is going to rule earth sciences irrelevant.”
They also pointed out that the Texas curriculum requirements do not meet the National Research Council’s National Science Education Standards, which suggest that earth science be treated as a core subject from kindergarten through the eighth grade.
Shore happened to agree with them — her primary business is in the oil and gas industry. She also said she would “support actions” to change the guidelines.
Milling and Roy began spreading the word about the Texas curriculum change among members of the earth science establishment. Texas education authorities began receiving a host of letters, and the board of education’s instruction committee held a hearing on the earth science curriculum on Jan. 10. Twenty-eight witnesses — including educators, energy executives, an astronaut and two college students — testified in favor of including earth science in the high school curriculum.
Shore said that this month the instruction committee will begin studying how to return earth science to the curriculum.
“It’s very important that the people who are interested in this keep addressing this committee with either a letter or telephone call — with some follow-up,” Shore said.

She added that any changes will take a lot of work.
“The first step will be to develop the curriculum items,” Shore said. “After the curriculum items have already been developed and approved for high schools, then we will have to get a textbook approved. So it is going to be a lengthy process to get it put back in. That’s why it’s a shame that it got taken out.”
Roy was in action a few days later at the Texas Science Summit, an annual meeting to discuss science education in the state. Roy reported that Jim Nelson, commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, expressed concern about the status of earth science education in the state. Roy, along with Dunn and geologist and businessman Stan Pittman, have begun organizing a task force to help support the board of education and the education agency as the groups begin to address the issue.
“We don’t want to go in and tell them what to do,” Roy said. “We want them to know that we stand ready and AGI stands ready to help whenever it is asked. And I think we need to be forceful enough to make our presence known and say, ‘Look, we’re here. Help us. We’ll help you.’ “
Jack Cooper, president of the Texas Earth Science Teachers Association, thinks the effort by the earth science community has already yielded one big benefit — that it has halted the decline in earth science education it Texas. But Cooper wants more.
“What we’re hoping for is a reversal,” Cooper said, “to go back and mandate a course offered at the high school level.”

Lawrence is a Geotimes contributing writer.

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