APS News

Poll Finds Significant Interest in School Boards Among Physicists

An APS News poll conducted in February has found that while not many physicists have served on their state or local school boards, a significant number have been involved with their school boards at some level, and many would consider running for election if they had some organizational support.

Michael Brown, Executive Director of Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA), thinks that school boards are an area where scientists can be valuable, and it’s relatively easy to get involved. “Scientists have a lot to offer school boards,” said Brown. SEA is an organization formed last September to promote good science in policy making.

Students in the United States continue to do poorly in science. The US is falling behind other countries in science proficiency, and because of that we’re losing our ability to compete in the global marketplace, said Brown. Encouraging scientists to get involved with school boards is one step we can take to improve science education, he said.

The APS News survey asked participants to answer three simple yes/no questions:
  • Have you ever attended a meeting of your local or state school board, or worked with your school board?
  • Have you ever served on a school board or run for election to a school board?
  • Given the need for better K-12 science education, would you consider running for school board if you could count on some organizational help?
In addition, room was provided for an optional comment.

The survey was sent to 1500 APS members, of whom 380 had responded by press time. About 26% of respondents said they have attended a school board meeting or worked with a member of their school board, and 12 respondents (3.2%) have actually run for and/or served on their school board. The poll also indicated that 94 more would consider running if they could count on some organizational support. Some survey respondents commented that they wanted to improve education but did not have time to run for or serve on a school board. Others said they were not interested in doing so because they do not have school age children, and several wrote that they thought serving on a school board was unnecessary because their local schools are already good. A few said they were involved in education in their communities in other ways.

In some cases, scientist input is needed on school boards to counter threats to science teaching, such as efforts to insert intelligent design into the science curriculum. “We need people involved in the education process to stand up and say this is not a scientific theory,” said Brown. But the need for scientist involvement goes beyond intelligent design, said Brown. “It’s much larger than a specific issue.”

One physicist who successfully ran for school board is Marshall Berman, who served on the State Board of Education in New Mexico. He decided to run for election after the State Board of Education, influenced by a creationist board member, removed all references to evolution from the state science standards in 1996. Berman formed an organization of scientists and other interested citizens in New Mexico called the Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education (www.cesame-nm.org), dedicated to improving science education. After he and the organization tried lobbying and letter-writing with no success, Berman decided to run for election to the State Board of Education. Though he had no prior experience in politics, he and a group of volunteers learned about the political process, and he was able to win election, defeating a 20-year incumbent. He took office in 1999.

Eventually the other members of the board began to trust him on scientific issues, and they adopted a set of high-quality science standards that included the teaching of evolution.

Berman achieved that, he said, by becoming an insider. “You have to build trust, in any kind of organization. It doesn’t matter what your credentials are,” said Berman. He believes he could not have accomplished what he did without actually serving on the State Board of Education.

Berman said he would absolutely encourage other scientists to serve on school boards. He did so while employed full time at Sandia National Laboratories. Serving on the state school board did take a significant amount of time, he said, and he did deal with many issues other than science curriculum. He says it’s important for those who want to run for office to be familiar with all the issues that are important to the community, and not to try to run a single-issue campaign on science education.

Most school boards don’t have to deal with intelligent design or other serious threats to science education, but scientists can still be useful, say some physicists who have served on their local school boards.  

Bob Welsh, a physicist at the College of William and Mary, served on a school board in Williamsburg, Virginia, from 1995-1998. Williamsburg is a college town with an educated population that is supportive of science and education, and the public schools there are good, said Welsh. During his term, the school board did not have to deal with intelligent design or any other issue related to science education, but he thinks that it would have been useful to have a scientific perspective on the school board if such an issue had come up. He suggested that in rural areas scientists could be even more valuable on school boards. “A scientist in a small town might find serving on a school board to be far more significant,” he said.

Scientists can also help school districts by volunteering to review textbooks, suggests Welsh. He volunteered to do so before he served on the school board, and he believes his scientific expertise was valuable and appreciated. Overall, Welsh said he found serving on the school board worthwhile, though it turned out to be a bigger time commitment than he had expected.

Another physicist who has served on a school board is Philip W. “Bo” Hammer, vice president of the Franklin Center of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. He is now in his second term on the school board in Haddon Heights, NJ, a small school district in a suburb of Philadelphia, with roughly 1380 students in the district. Hammer is currently the board vice president, and serves on the curriculum committee.

Hammer decided to run for school board because he has a son in the school system and he wanted to be involved in ensuring a good education for students in the district. He said the schools in Haddon Heights, and the science teachers there, are very good. He believes it’s important to have a scientist on the school board to keep an eye on how science is taught, and being on the board puts him in a good position to deal with any problems that might come up, said Hammer. Advising the school board in a public forum can have an impact, but since a lot of the board’s work is done in committees, actually serving on the board gives an individual much more influence, Hammer said.  

Hammer had no difficulty running for and being elected to the school board–in fact, he ran unopposed both times. Serving on the board required attending the monthly meetings as well as some committee meetings, a time commitment he did not find too burdensome.

Hammer said he would encourage others scientists to get involved with their local school boards. “I think there’s a lot of hesitation among scientist to get involved in the political process, but in actuality it’s a very rewarding experience. I think of all the elected offices, being on a school board is one where an individual can make a lot of difference.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff