Middle school science critiqued

California has the capacity to provide middle school students with an excellent science education.

The vast majority of its science teachers majored in the subjects they teach. Most classrooms are equipped with the basics for science instruction. One prominent think tank rated the state’s science standards the best in the nation. And even amid budget cuts, most science teachers have continued to pursue and receive additional training.

That’s all good. And yet science instruction in middle school is flagging or, in the judiciously worded title of a new study, has “Untapped Potential.”

“Students do not have the opportunities they need to participate in high-quality science learning experiences because the conditions that would support such learning are rarely in place,” concludes a two-year analysis of middle school science education in the state by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, with research by SRI International and the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley.

Based on an extensive two-year survey of district administrators, principals, and teachers, researchers estimate that “just 14 percent of middle school teachers provide a pattern of classroom practices that supports regular engagement in the practices of science” – in other words, offer the challenging and memorable experience in science learning that will inspire students to pursue science in high school, college, and their careers. These practices, which are in short supply, are engaging in hands-on activities, recording and analyzing data, designing investigations, and conducting fieldwork.

Principals of middle schools with a high percentage of poor children were far more likely to say that the lack of science preparation in elementary school is a problem. Click to enlarge. (Source: Untapped Potential: The Status of Middle School Science Education in California)
Principals of middle schools with a high percentage of poor children were far more likely to say that the lack of science preparation in elementary school is a problem. Click to enlarge. (Source: Untapped Potential: The Status of Middle School Science Education in California)

The reasons for subpar science education are numerous yet, in many cases, remediable. They are a function of instruction time that’s too short and disjointed, classes that are too large, an accountability system that de-emphasizes science, and students who often arrive in middle school with little or no knowledge of or appreciation for science.

Then there’s state standards themselves. The Fordham Institute this year gave California and one other state highest marks for clarity, rigor, and content, but many teachers will tell you that there are too many disconnected standards at each grade. So most of the time is spent learning facts and reading about concepts, with little time to explore them as a scientist would. As one teacher told researchers, we “really need to change the state standards – they have way too much to cover. This leaves little time for inquiry and deeper investigation.”

The worry is that students will turn off to science before they get to high school – and see it as just another boring subject. The study didn’t survey students for their attitude toward science, but 40 percent of teachers cited a lack of student interest and nearly 50 percent cited maintaining discipline as a moderate or major challenge to science instruction.

Teachers (striped bar), more so than principals, atributed large class sizes, a lack of funding for equipment and supplies and overemphasis on math and English language arts as factors holding back science instruction. Click to enlarge. (Source: Untapped Potential: The Status of  Middle School Science Education in California)
Teachers (striped bar), more so than principals, attributed large class sizes, a lack of funding for equipment and supplies, and overemphasis on math and English language arts as factors holding back science instruction. Click to enlarge. (Source: Untapped Potential: The Status of Middle School Science Education in California)

(Large class sizes and limited funds for equipment and supplies – often paid for by teachers themselves – were bigger obstacles. See chart.)

Last fall, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning released a report on the abysmal state of science education in California elementary schools. The survey found that teachers felt unprepared to teach science and unsupported by their districts and principals consumed by standardized tests’ focus on math and English language arts. As a result, four out of ten elementary teachers reported teaching science less than an hour per week.

The picture is not nearly as bleak in middle school, where 75 percent of teachers have a background in science. (That still leaves one out of four without it, and, contrary to what one might expect, they are not disproportionately in poor and minority districts.) However, time is a problem: 55-minute periods are not conducive to hands-on projects. And, with standardized tests comprising only 7 percent of a school’s API score, it remains a low priority. Ardice Hartry, deputy director of The Research Group at the Lawrence Hall of Science, said that teachers report pressure to use science instruction to boost literacy and improve math skills ­to read about science instead of doing science. As a result, they feel frustrated because of inability to do high-quality scientific practices.

At the same time, the report intentionally does not call for giving the science standardized tests more weight in the API – at least in their current form with multiple-choice questions, Hartry said. There must be better assessments to measure core concepts and scientific reasoning.

Recommendations

  • California is proof that good standards alone will not ensure quality instruction. However, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, many science advocates, and the California Science Teachers Association are putting faith in Next Generation Science Standards that the National Academy of Science developed last year. California is one of 20 states that is further developing the standards. The Center urges districts to begin preparing now for implementing the new standards, with the promise of more in-depth learning that is better integrated from elementary school to high school.
  • The report notes the erosion of support for science, with districts cutting back or eliminating science curriculum and training positions due to budget cuts. The Center emphasizes the critical need for more teacher training.
  • The Center urges districts to examine school scheduling, to lengthen science classes to better accommodate labs and hands-on projects.

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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