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The Pulse of Earth Science: An Advocacy Guide

How Education Policy Is Made

Who decides whatís taught in our schools? Teachers have some choices about what to emphasize in the classroom. Principals and curriculum supervisors provide guidance. Superintendents and school boards set and implement broad policies for their school districts. State and federal education officials also exert influence, often through funding incentives and related testing mandates. But ultimately these arenít the people who decide what students learn about Earth science.

You, and citizens like you, are the ones who determine those choices, because your actions shape and direct the authority of education leaders at all levels.

You weigh in on education issues, most directly, through voting. But Earth science education probably is not the only, or even the most significant, issue that you consider when voting for an elected official. Fortunately there are many other ways for you to make your voice heard ó as long as you understand how education policy is made.

At the State Level

Why start at the state level? Under the framework established by the U.S. Constitution, most authority for public education rests in the hands of state government. State policymakers and education officials, more than anyone else, directly control what is taught in public schools.

You’ll find your most direct route to influence statewide education practice in the state board of education. Every state but two — Minnesota and Wisconsin — has a board. The state school board sets policy for the state superintendent and state education department in much the same way a local school board establishes the policy framework within which a school district superintendent and central office operate. The members of the state board usually are appointed by the governor, though in some states they are appointed by the legislature or elected directly by citizens. In virtually all cases, however, these policymakers are empowered to make many important decisions and are trusted by the legislature to take the lead in settling most questions about the state’s school system.

Your first contact with state leadership, then, should be with the state school board. Find out who is your local representative to the state school board. Talk with that person, by telephone, e-mail, or personal letter, about your concerns. Write to or meet with the chair of the state board. Make a presentation to the board’s curriculum committee, if appropriate, about the problem you’ve identified and the solution you’re proposing. And if you really want to make a difference, find out what it takes to become a member of the state school board. People just like you routinely run for such offices.

Your next stop after the state board is the state legislature. But unlike a school board, you must remember, a state legislature passes measures on a wide range of issues, from sales and income taxes to law enforcement and health-care regulation. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the general assembly lacks the experience or expertise to understand the significance of Earth science in the same way as you. That’s why lawmakers need to hear from constituents close to the issues — geoscience educators, professionals, employers, parents — like you.

Before attempting to educate either a state school board member or your legislative representative, however, educate yourself about the issues. Do your state’s academic standards, which dictate what students must learn at various grade levels, require that young people master knowledge and skills in Earth science? Is Earth science content assessed in state exams? What geoscience courses, if any, are students required to take? Do current teacher certification requirements ensure qualified Earth science teachers? Do the textbooks adopted by your state guarantee effective coverage of Earth science?

If the issues seem complex, don’t worry. You probably can find the answers to these questions on AGI’s Pulse of Earth Science Education website or on the website of your state’s department of education.

Once you have educated yourself about the status of geoscience education in your area and the political entities that control it, you must decide on an effective intervention strategy. You have many opportunities to influence the state education policymaking process. Depending on what sort of impact you wish to have — for example, pushing a new measure or fighting one that already has been proposed — you may want to reach out to your state school board chair, your legislative representative, the governor, or an official within your state’s education agency. See below for recommendations about what to do.

 

At the Local Level

If you’re happy with your state’s approach to Earth science education, yet concerned about school practices in your neighborhood, you may want to take a more active role in local politics. Every school district has an elected school board, community members just like you who vote to set district policies. The district superintendent is the executive charged with implementing those policies and managing district employees, including principals and teachers.

Contact your school district’s central office to learn what policies relate to Earth science education. If these policies are not adequate to ensure high-quality instruction in geoscience, you’ll want to direct your energy toward influencing school board members. If your concern is not with general policies but with specific practices, focus instead on shaping how the superintendent, district science curriculum supervisor, or school principals are implementing those policies. You might even run for a seat on the local school board. To strengthen instruction, in other words, you first must know where the weakness is.

And don’t forget the important functions of colleges and universities, not to mention informal education entities such as museums, science centers, local geological societies, and public parks. Along with public schools, these organizations should work together to educate young people and other community members about Earth science. You may find it advantageous to include representatives from these organizations in your advocacy efforts.

 

At the National Level

Nationwide there is widespread agreement on the importance of Earth science. In the National Research Council’s National Science Education Standards, a wide range of scientists in fields from chemistry to life sciences stress the importance of teaching students the basics of Earth science. These standards — detailed benchmarks stipulating the science knowledge and skills that all U.S. students should master at various grade levels — assert that science education should cover Earth and space science, as well as life science and physical science.

But while Congress and federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education help set education priorities nationwide, as noted above, they play relatively minor roles in deciding most questions of education policy in your community. True, you may find it useful to adapt some of the recommendations in this guide for, say, writing letters to your representatives in Washington, D.C. But your time and energy probably will be best spent in efforts to shape education policies at the state and local levels. Priorities asserted at these levels often register powerfully at the national level as well.

The Pulse of Earth Science Website

Want to check the pulse of Earth science education in your school system? AGI collects detailed data on the status of geoscience teaching and learning in every state and publishes that information on a new website, The Pulse of Earth Science: National Status of K-12 Earth Science Education, State by State. The website debuted during Earth Science Week 2007.

For every state, AGI seeks out the most recent data on:

  • teacher certification requirements and numbers teaching science;
  • required courses for middle and high school students;
  • K-12 enrollment in Earth science subjects;
  • Earth science in state science standards;
  • state assessment in Earth science;
  • textbook adoptions; and
  • state education contact information.

How does your school system fare? You might be surprised.

For example, although every state but Iowa has included Earth science in its science education standards, this priority rarely carried through to curriculum requirements in 2007. Only three states required an Earth science course for graduation, and only 11 states offered Earth science as an elective within science requirements.

The information presented is based on available data collected from numerous sources. Website users are invited to help update information by contacting AGI at info@earthsciweek.org. Visit www.earthsciweek.org to learn more.

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