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At least once a month (often more often), I get an email from someone saying they really wished they’d taken astronomy in high school. I more rarely get emails from students who “wish [their] school taught astronomy.” In today’s world of “No Child Left Behind” (which my pre-service teachers lovingly refer to as All Children Left Behind), it is time to ask

  • How many students have the opportunity to take astronomy?
  • And of those students, how many students take astronomy? and
  • How many take it from someone who has actually studied astronomy themselves?

These questions and more were answered by almost-Dr. Lawrence Krumenaker who will be defending his PhD in the next few months. In a very brief talk he ran through all the numbers, and I have to admit that I walked away depressed. Here are the basics:

In the United States, population 330 million, there are about 4000 astronomy classes being taught in 2500 schools to 80,000 students. Roughly 800 of these classes have less than 10 students. This is a 3-4% increase from earlier work by Phil Sadler in 1986.

This means only 3.5% of all high school students take an astronomy class (1 semester long course or longer).

The teachers who teach these classes are largely to be commended. They work in isolation with 68% of them being the only person who teaches astronomy in their school, despite typically being at schools with several thousand students (and many many classes and teachers). 55% of instructors teach just one astronomy class and they spend the rest of their day teaching other classes. While most instructors (65%) have science or science education degrees, 19% are teaching completely out of their field (this would be the history majors teaching science), and 28% never actually took astronomy themselves. This means these folks are relying on workshops, online resources, their book, magazines, and other online and paper resources to get them through the classes they teach.

Imagine learning French from someone whose never studied French.

In today’s educational environment, there isn’t always room to fit in astronomy. There are no states in these United States that have astronomy education certifications. Astronomy is an extra. When something needs cut, it is one of the first programs to go.

But isn’t astronomy vast enough (encompassing the whole universe and all that) that it can be used to teach other things? When I was in middle school I took part in a curriculum called “Project STAR” (where I met Phil Sadler). The STAR is in all caps because it stands for “Scientific Teaching Through its Astronomical Roots.” This program sought to teach math, and physics, and much much more, while teaching astronomy.

Is it too much to wish that 10%, or any other double digit number, of students were able to take astronomy in high school from teachers who have taken a university level course in astronomy?

Sadly, yes, that is too much to ask.