Woeful state of science instruction

California elementary school teachers feel unprepared, under-resourced, unsupported, and under pressure when it comes to teaching science. As a result, they spend scarcely any time on the subject, which is at odds with what the public says it expects from schools. And it’s hardly the way for a state that’s betting much of its economic future on high technology to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers.

The survey data in “High Hopes – Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California,” a report issued today from the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, is not breaking news. But it does confirm on a statewide basis a survey from several years ago of Bay Area teachers, and it verifies anecdotal evidence that science continues to be largely ignored in the lower grades. (As writer Peter Schrag observes in an opinion piece today, the worry about shorting science education is hardly new.)

The exceptions are a small set of districts that provide high-quality science, usually in partnership with a science center or lab, like the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego or the Exploratorium in San Francisco, said Rena Dorph, director of the Center for Research Evaluation and Assessment at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, which, with SRI International, conducted the study.

Students receive more science instruction the closer they come to fifth grade, when they are tested. Click to enlarge. (Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning)
Students receive more science instruction the closer they come to fifth grade, when they are tested. Click to enlarge. (Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning)

A few salient findings:

  • More than 60 percent of districts surveyed have no district staff dedicated to elementary science, with 13 percent more having less than a half-time staff person devoted to early-grade science. Three-quarters of elementary schools do not have access to a science specialist or coach.
  • Four out of 10 elementary teachers spend an hour or less on science each week; one out of eight spends less than half an hour on it.
  • One out of five districts offer science-related professional development for elementary teachers. More than 85 percent of elementary teachers report no science-related training  in the last three years. (Those who receive it often do so out of their own pockets.) A decade ago, the state budgeted $4 million for teacher training. That jumped to $9 million in 2002-03. This year, the funding is $1.2 million, including federal money.

    Of all of the subjects they teach, teachers consider themselves least prepared to teach science. Click to enlarge. (Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning)
    Of all of the subjects they teach, teachers consider themselves least prepared to teach science. Click to enlarge. (Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning)
  • So it’s no surprise, then, that a third of elementary teachers say they feel very prepared to teach science, compared with 90 percent who feel that way about math and English language arts.
  • Notwithstanding time constraints, the percentage of fifth graders who tested proficient or advanced on the state standardized science test more than doubled in seven years, from 24 percent in 2004 to 58 percent this year. However, on a national science test, NAEP, given to fourth graders, California ranked with the bottom states of Arizona and Mississippi, with only 10 percent of Hispanic and African American children testing proficient.

Time and testing pressure

With near unanimity, science teachers say there is not enough time in the day for science instruction. More than four out of five say science is being squeezed out by math and English language arts – subjects that are tested every year for state and federal accountability, as opposed to science, which is tested in fifth and eighth grades only.

“It’s clear that accountability mandates leave little time for teaching science. And almost all schools are feeling the pressure” – not just those facing sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law, said Holly Jacobson, executive director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.

One approach, on the rationale “what gets tested gets taught,” would be to call for more testing of science. But the report, while calling for “immediate action to restore a full and balanced curriculum in the state’s public schools,” does not do that. Until there is a better science assessment, adding more testing “would create a new set of problems,” said Dorph.

Dorph, Chris Roe, CEO of the California STEM Learning Network, and other science education advocates are hoping that the new Common Core standards in English and math, plus the Next Generation Science Standards, which are being developed nationally, will provide opportunities for better science instruction and higher-quality assessments. Last year, the State Board of Education adopted science literacy standards as part of Common Core. That won’t by itself change the quality of science instruction, but it will allow elementary teachers to introduce science concepts in the course of teaching math and English.

New models of instruction

Meanwhile, districts and schools are improvising, the report says. Teachers who integrate science into their day, typically in English language arts, report offering science 36 minutes more per week on average. Along with improving students’ expository writing skills, this “helps students realize that science permeates everything—they begin to see science in their everyday lives.”

For lack of professional development, teachers at some schools have been informally becoming the science expert, taking extra training. This has led to team-teaching in some cases, or swapping classes over the course of a week.  In the Bay Area and in Sacramento, thousands of teachers are buying inexpensive materials and science kits through RAFT (Resource Area For Teachers), a non-profit that trains teachers and provides hands-on materials.

Meanwhile, the California State University, which trains most of the state’s K-12 teachers, is responding to criticism that new teachers lack knowledge or know-how in science.  CSU East Bay has introduced a certificate in Foundational Level 1 Science, a four-course program for elementary and middle school science teachers. CSU Los Angeles,  CSU Sacramento and San Francisco State are following suit. CSU Fullerton is integrating kit-based science resources into elementary pedagogy. And teachers earning their credential at CSU L.A. and nine other CSU campuses will teach low-income students hands-on science activities during after school programs – an effort funded by the Packard Foundation.

Chris Roe’s STEM Learning Network is focusing its immediate attention on after-activities as well. The California Afterschool Network is piloting 30 to 60 hours of hands-on science activities at 300 after-school sites serving low-income students funded by Proposition 49. For many students, this will be their only applied science. If the pilot works, Bechtel and other foundations have been asked to kick in enough money to reach as many as 1 million young children within a year or two.

These partnerships, while immediate and important, will not substitute for what the report advocates: “a unified vision for science education, ensuring that every student receives high-quality science instruction from a well-prepared and knowledgeable teacher and has access to the materials and resources that enable him or her to fully engage in learning science.”

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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