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Monday, August 30, 2010

The scientific method

When I first learned about the "scientific method", I was a student in the same building where I now teach. I learned about it in a very definite way. There was no room to wiggle, no gray area. Every time we did it, we started and finished in the same way; ask a question; do research; develop a hypothesis; experiment; analyze data and communicate results. That was it. (Now, sure, the terms might have been slightly different from teacher to teacher, but they always meant the same thing). Then, in college, 'collect and analyze data' may have been split apart, but even their gist was always the same: there was a definite start and a definite finish.

Fast-forward to 2010: Now, the scientific method is no longer a beast with a definitive beginning and ending. Instead, it’s now a free-flowing entity that jumps back and forth, or can skip steps altogether. That’s right, folks - for almost 2,500 years, the scientific method was fine and dandy...but, suddenly, the Florida Department of Education decided it needed tweaking. (Aristotle, long thought to be the father of the scientific method, probably wouldn’t be pleased).

I asked another science teacher what the deal was - why were they switching up the scientific method after following it had led to TIVO, air conditioning and the peanut butter cup - (the three greatest inventions known to man) along with all the other scientific breakthroughs we currently enjoy? "Where were the steps...the order..." I asked, "and how can we skip doing 'research' and go straight to 'experiment' "? He kind of shrugged his shoulders and scrunched up his face, and replied, "Chris, I learned it the same way as you did, and this is the first year I am teaching it the new way; but I do what I am told".

"It's science", I replied. "If people would have done what they were told, we would still think that the world was flat, the sun revolved around the earth, and I shudder to think what peanut butter would taste like. Come on now", I continued, “ 'just because' is not what science is about".

"Well..." he began, "I think it's because it’s easier this new way. When kids have to put things in order, they can miss a step or mix the steps up". He scrunched up his face and shrugged his shoulders at the same time. I nodded that I got it, and what I got was that the 'everybody-gets-a-trophy' folks (who had somehow become in-charge of education's big picture) had decided to dumb-down the scientific method in order to make sure more kids could get that question right on the F-CAT. That’s what I got.

Folks, I know it’s ironic that I use a tool, the scientific method, (that tells us things can constantly evolve and change) to make my point - but my point is that there are some things we shouldn’t evolve or change. I get it, but at the same time, I really think there are some things that shouldn’t change unless it’s a manifest necessity. We shouldn’t change just for the sake of change and we definitely shouldn’t make changes that dumb education down. We should be moving forward, not back.

Education experts talk about the need for rigor, and also call for students to take advanced classes like Algebra II and Chemistry; but, then, at the same time, they dumb-down the Science portion of the F-CAT by getting rid of the short-answer questions. That makes it all multiple-choice, and it lowers the passing grade requirement on the Writing portion of the F-CAT from a 3.5 to a 3. An English teacher friend of mine said that a 3 on the F-CAT basically means being able to hold a pencil. I have another friend who told me only about 30% of his Algebra II students could pass a legitimate Algebra I class. Wouldn’t a better idea be to make sure students have mastered a skill and can do it well, rather than pushing them along and hoping they miraculously pick it up somewhere? In short, wouldn’t it be better to make sure students can do some things well rather than a lot of things half-assed? We shouldn’t be afraid of rigor, we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge students, and we shouldn’t be afraid to fail children, either, as long as, in the end, they have the skills they need. Education is not just a destination, but it is a journey, as well.

Education currently finds itself in a precarious position. We’re caught between what we say ("we want to prepare all children for a post-secondary education"), what we have done (created the reality of a nobody-can-fail environment), populated by who we have, (a significant portion of children who aren’t prepared for school; who should either be held back to get the skills they need or, sadly, will never get the skills society wants them to have). That doesn’t mean they can’t be successful; it just means we have to be realistic.

Education has reached a tipping point where something has got to give - and, because of the dichotomous nature of education, 'pass them at all costs - regardless if they are successful or not' - means, in the end, numerous children will be robbed of a proper sense of how society works and society itself will suffer.

The system has made it nearly impossible for teachers to fail children; "the kids aren't doing the work", or "the kids are doing substandard work" aren’t good enough reasons anymore. If a teacher fails a child now, the teacher's ability and credibility are questioned. Now, I am not saying that we shouldn’t have safeguards in place like tutoring after school and summer school opportunities. What I am saying is when we differentiate instruction to the point where three different levels of work from three different students can get the same credit and when we initiate learning recovery that any child can take (regardless of why they need it; unexcused absences, behavior or a lack of effort), we pervert the whole system.

What’s going to happen when these children join the workforce or go to college? Are their employers and professors going to dumb-down what they have to do, or have different requirements for the same class or for the same job? No, they are not - and after a lifetime of being pushed along or having things altered to fit not just what they can do but what they want to do, then cold reality is going to slap them in the face. They are going to get a wakeup call that they are not prepared for.

When education meets students where they are, it prevents education from getting students to where they should be. I would argue that when we dumb-down the scientific method, we’re not doing the kids any favors. Sure, it might be easier; sure, our test scores might go up, and a school grade might get better - but what’s the real benefit? Is there a real benefit? I doubt Aristotle would think so


  1. The passing score for the fcat writes is still a 3.5. What changed is the number of scorers, thus the change in how a student earns a 3.5. No student can earn a 3.5, it would be impossible with one scorer. The 3.5 is an average of the percent of students earning a 4 and higher and the percent earning a 3. Look up the technical assistance paper and it breaks it down. It is actually going up to a 4 soon for passing.

  2. Thanks, I e-mailed a couple english teacher friends of mine and when they get back to me, I'll do the edits...


    Read this and it tells how the scoring requiements changed...

  4. The article you cited is vague/misleading. When it came out it was just to mislead. See below for text from
    For 2010, there were two changes made to the FCAT Writing administration, including providing only one prompt at all grade levels (4, 8, and 10) and reducing the number of hand-scorers to one. To accommodate this change, the writing component of the school grade calculation will be the average of the percentage of students scoring a 3 and above and the percentage of students scoring a 4 and above.

    Nowhere does it say a 3 is passing. Schools are still graded on the percent of students scoring proficient. This is based upon the above formula which does not set a 3 for proficiency. You actually need more 4's to push a school over.

  5. Even if I grant your point and I have heard from one english teacher who just wrote, three.
    Could it be three is passing for an individual child but the school only gets points for the fours? I read above five times and I am still not sure I understand it.

    I still think we're in the process of dumbiing down education to the detriment of our children and society. I'll continue to look into what you wrote above.

  6. Well, students don't technically have to pass the writing test. Do not tell the students that. I have attached below what is from the technical assistance paper on It explains exactly how the writing score is calculated for school grade. The Times Union article is incorrect and only caused more people to rally against public education. Fldoe confused the issue when they posted the original scores as 3.0 and higher on their grade calculations. Do I think we are dumbing down education? Only in the sense that we are having to work harder to reach our students who are nothing like the students we were in school. We are having to use different methods to reach them and different methods to teach them. If we continued doing what we were doing 15 years ago with the children we see now in our schools we would be doing a disservice to both us and them.

    4.4 – Calculate Writing Performance: This component recognizes the traditional objective that students be able to write a composition that meets at least minimal requirements. The percentage points earned take into account the percent of students scoring at proficient and above on the essay part of the FCAT writing examination. The number of eligible students scoring at proficient and above is then divided by the number of eligible students who took the writing test and for whom a valid score was reported. Beginning with reporting for 2009-10, changes in scoring procedures for FCAT writing essays (assignment of a single reader to each essay, rather than two readers per essay) will require an adjustment to the way that “percent proficient” is determined for schools. Since “proficient” is still equated with a score of 3.5 – but only whole-number scores from 1 to 6 are now possible with single-reader scoring – the percent proficient will be determined by averaging the percent of eligible students scoring at 3 and higher with the percent of eligible students scoring at 4 and higher.
    Example: In a hypothetical school, there were 131 eligible students who took FCAT Writing. Ninety-four students scored at 3 and above. Eighty-one students scored at 4 and above. The percent meeting high standards in writing at this hypothetical school is the average of 72% (94 ÷ 131) and 62% (81  131), or 175 (94 +81)  262 (131+131), which equals 67%.
    Note: If fewer than 10 eligible students were tested in writing, the district writing average is substituted for the school writing proficiency results.

  7. I hope that's great information for those who can interpet it. Maybe I am just tired but that had my head spinning. Okay you convinced me but I will say a lot of the teachers that travel in my circles think we ned to get back to what we were doing ten, fifteen years ago, that moving away from it caused a lot of our problems.

    I hope you continue to keep me straight in the future...

  8. It's all moot anyway because beginning with this school year the writing component of the school grade will simply be the percent of eligible students who score a 4 or higher. Is that simple enough for you?

  9. Wow, maybe one of the problems we are having, is if you ask four different people the same question you will get four different answers and sadly they all think they are right.