Eliminating second-year science mandate is fast fix with long-term damage

Governor Brown, what are you thinking? Your proposal, to end the mandate that requires a second year of science for high school graduation, as a way to fix a dysfunctional budget process, makes absolutely no sense.

Since 1986 every student who graduated from high school in California has been required to take and pass one year of life science and one year of physical science. The second year of science requirement was added when it became obvious that a literate citizenry needed to know more about the science and technology that drives their everyday world than a one-year general science class could provide.

What has changed? Is it less important now, in 2012, for citizens of California to have the minimum amount of science necessary for access to careers or colleges after high school? The economy of California is heavily dependent on the technology that results from the work of scientists and researchers, and California citizens, the consumers of that technology, must have a solid understanding of its origins, is applications, and its limitations to make sound decisions for the future. Decreasing the number of years of science required in high school for graduation is a step in the wrong direction.

Throughout all of the rhetoric surrounding this proposal, your office and the Department of Finance have argued that removal of the mandate will not affect the quality of education our students receive. They argue that the California State University and the University of California will still require two years of lab science as a minimum requirement for admission. This is likely true, but this fact does not address the large number of students who don’t see four-year colleges in their future plans. For those students, a reduction in the number of years of required science could mean a workforce that is even less prepared than they are now. Removal of the mandate could easily result in an underprepared workforce for California. In a time when employers argue that it is difficult to find qualified workers, anything that reduces worker preparation should be avoided.

Don’t trust the predictions

Supporters of your proposal argue that graduation requirements are still the responsibility of the local school districts and that districts would never reduce graduation requirements. I would caution that as schools face declining budgets and continued pressure to perform on standardized tests, districts may find themselves forced to make decisions that seem unconscionable today.

Teaching science is not cheap. The Department of Finance estimates that the cost of the second year of science requirement is $250 million per year. If we accept this amount, it should not be a stretch to see that a district that has to cut millions of dollars from its annual budget will see elimination of a non-mandated cost as an easy way to maintain solvency. This possibility is further compounded by the realization that school districts have not been reimbursed at this level for years. Essentially, they are fulfilling this mandate from their general funding, since no additional support has been provided by the state.

Furthermore, districts that are struggling to meet their measures of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), as called for in the No Child Left Behind law, will see this as an opportunity to place more emphasis on the subject areas that contribute the most to scores – mathematics and language arts – and eliminate a year of science. Evidence of schools’ willingness to do this can be seen every day in elementary schools throughout California. If a subject is not tested, it is often not taught.

The  proposed elimination of the second year of science as a graduation requirement is a quick answer to a much bigger problem. Schools have, in good faith, met this two-year mandate for 26 years with little or no compensation from the state. Schools are owed almost $2.5 billion for doing a job that is required of them that has not been supported.

Yes, eliminating the mandate will stop the continued accumulation of the debt owed to the schools, but it will not fix the dysfunctional budgeting process. It will result in a further eroding of the quality of the workforce that is so critical to the financial recovery of California. It sends the message that science, as a core curriculum area, is not valued. It is the first step down a slippery slope that will result in fewer students entering college with aspirations in the fields of science and technology, and in an underprepared workforce. It will lead to a wider gap of college admission rates between students who traditionally attend a four-year college and students in underserved populations.

Governor Brown, I ask that you drop this proposal and  find other ways to fix the budget problem. This problem was not created by the students or the schools in California, and you should not place the burden of fixing it on them.

Rick Pomeroy is science education lecturer/supervisor in the School of Education, University of California, Davis and is president of the California Science Teachers Association.

More dismal science test results

Once again, California students have done stunningly worse than their eighth grade peers in other states on Science 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a biennial test of knowledge in science.

The results were announced earlier this month on the same day as the release of the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, which the National Research Council and states have been developing. Many California science educators are counting on the new standards, which focus on an in-depth understanding of science concepts, to jump-start improvement in science in California. Count Elizabeth Stage, the director of the Lawrence Hall of Science, the public science center at UC Berkeley, among the optimists, but only, she adds, if the state makes science a priority, with more time spent on  it and training for teachers in how it should be taught.

Partial state by state results, including California, with percentages of students who tested basic, proficient and advanced. Source: NAEP (click to enlarge).
Partial state-by-state results, including California, with percentages of students who tested basic, proficient, and advanced. Source: NAEP. (Click twice to enlarge)

There’s a lot of room for improvement. Nationwide, 32 percent of students tested proficient or above on the NAEP science test of physical, life, and Earth and space sciences. In California, 21 percent tested proficient, including one percent advanced, and 47 percent were far below basic. California’s average score of 140 on a scale of 300 – on the upper end of the below-basic band – put it on par with Arizona and perennially poor performers from the Deep South – Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana – at the bottom. Only Washington, D.C., which took the test for the first time this year, did a lot worse.

The national average was 152, two points higher than in 2009. Massachusetts, often compared with California for its rigorous standards in general, had a score of 160 ­ – the upper end of the basic band, with 40 percent of its students proficient and 4 percent advanced.

Science scores made a slight improvement in California in two years but continued to lag behind the nation. Source: NAEP (Click to enlarge)
Science scores made a slight improvement in California in two years but continued to lag behind the nation. Source: NAEP. (Click to enlarge)

White students in California scored 159, compared with 163 nationwide, and Asians averaged 158, one point below the national average. But Hispanics in California scored only 128, compared with 137 nationwide, with only 11 percent proficient or advanced. For African Americans, the scores were 124 in California (8 percent proficient) and 129 nationwide.

Dave Gordon, superintendent of Sacramento County and a former member of the NAEP board of governors, called California’s distance behind the rest of the nation “shocking.” He said the low score reflects that science is not being taught enough in elementary grades, where disproportionate time is spent on math and English language arts, which are tested annually (science is tested only in fifth and eighth grades in California). And science isn’t being taught engagingly, with hands-on lessons, Gordon said.

There appears to be a connection. Students of teachers who reported they did hands-on projects nearly every day scored significantly higher (156 points) than those who reported they did it only once or twice a month (149). A survey of California teachers and principals last year by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd confirms Gordon’s impressions; 85 percent of elementary teachers said they had no training in science in the past three years, and 40 percent said they taught it less than an hour each week.

Sixteen of 47 states that took NAEP in 2011 made what NAEP termed significant increases – anywhere from two- to six-point gains on the 300-point scale. Although California’s score also increased three points, from 137 in 2009, NAEP didn’t consider this significantly higher because of the number of test takers relative to the size of the state.

There was some good news nationwide and in California, in narrowing the achievement gap. Hispanic students’ scores rose five points nationwide and four points in California, reducing the big disparities between them and white students from 30 points two years ago to 26 points in 2011 nationwide and 31 points in California. The 36-point gap between African American and white students in California and 35-point gap nationwide failed to narrow.

More than multiple choice

NAEP Science was given to 122,000 eighth graders in 7, 292 schools in 47 states. It used a matrix sampling method, with each student answering only sections of the test. It tested students in physical science and life science (30 percent each), with 40 percent Earth and space sciences. The NAEP test isn’t aligned with California standards or those of any state. It measures the knowledge that a group of scientists and educators agree that all students in eighth grade should know. While California’s science test is all multiple choice, NAEP includes some short-answer questions that require students to analyze a problem or set of data and explain the reasoning behind an answer.

72 percent of eighth graders who took NAEP Science answered this question correctly (click to enlarge)
72 percent of eighth graders who took NAEP Science answered this question correctly. (Click to enlarge)

NAEP science results shouldn’t be compared with California’s content standards tests, in part because the NAEP board sets a higher expectation for reaching proficiency. NAEP defines “basic” as partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade, while “proficient” represents “solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challeng­ing subject matter.”

Even the description of “basic” knowledge in the Earth and space sciences section sounds rigorous, however: Students “should be able to describe a Sun-centered model of the solar system that illustrates how gravity keeps the objects in regular motion; describe how fossils and rock formations can be used as evidence to infer events in Earth’s history; relate major geologic events, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain building to the movement of lithospheric plates; use weather data to identify major weather events; and describe the processes of the water cycle including changes in the physical state of water.”

By comparison, students who test proficient “should be able to explain how gravity accounts for the visible patterns of motion of the Earth, Sun, and Moon; explain how fossils and rock formations are used for relative dating; use models of Earth’s interior to explain lithospheric plate movement; explain the formation of Earth materials using the properties of rocks and soils; identify recurring patterns of weather phenomena; and predict surface and groundwater movement in different regions of the world.”

California eighth graders take and are tested in physical science. They’re supposed to learn Earth science in sixth grade and life science in seventh grade. So students are partly being tested in NAEP on two-year-old knowledge ­ – one reason cited for California’s poor performance. But both Gordon and Stage say that’s a minor factor.

Stage says that California science standards require an extensive knowledge of facts; with little time to teach science each week, that’s what teachers focus on and not a conceptual framework or scientific investigations and experimentation.

The Next Generation Science Standards teach science in a more integrated way, encouraging students to see common practices between life science and engineering and technology. It stresses what creators call “crosscutting concepts” – a way of linking different areas of science through similar lines of inquiry, such as cause and effect, patterns, and scale. These sound abstract, but the standards stress making them explicit.

Stage points to a distinction between second grade California and New Generation standards dealing with motion of objects. California requires that students know “the way to change how something is moving is by giving it a push or a pull.” The Next  Generation standards would expect students to “analyze data to determine the relationship between friction and the warming of objects” by rubbing two objects together or “develop and share a design solution to reduce friction between two objects,” perhaps by lubricating wheels on a skateboard – something kids can relate to.

The Next Generation standard is an /“accessible way to understand the relationship between energy and experience and it’s a really good example of an engineering practice,” Stage said.

California is expected to adopt the new standards sometime next year. It has no plans – or money, for now – to design a new set of science assessments, but Stage hopes that California will join other states in creating one.

No more dodging Algebra dilemma

For nearly two years, California’s unwieldy eighth grade math standards have lain untouched like an unexploded IED, a roadside bomb of the math wars. But with middle and high school math teachers clamoring for guidance and new assessments two-plus years away, the Legislature and State Board must soon answer the question, What about Algebra I in eighth grade?

Faced with political pressure from Gov. Schwarzenegger and bound by restrictions of the Legislature, the California State Academic Standards Commission and the State Board couldn’t resolve the issue in July and August 2010, when they adopted the Common Core standards in math and English language arts. A strong-willed minority of Schwarzenegger appointees to the Commission  who had a hand in designing the 1997 state math standards – Ze’ev Wurman, a Palo Alto engineer, and Hoover Institution scholar Bill Evers – wanted to make Algebra I the default curriculum in eighth grade. The majority supported Common Core’s eighth grade standards, which introduce elements of algebra and geometry with the goal of sending students to high school better prepared for Algebra I and higher math.

So the Commission, whose job it was to advise the State Board, adopted essentially two courses worth of standards, the 28 Common Core eighth grade math standards and an Algebra I course with an intimidating 72 standards – an amalgam of a few of the old California Algebra I standards and Common Core high school algebra standards on top of  Common Core eighth grade math. ***

The State Board, restricted by the Legislature to either adopt or reject – but not change – the package, adopted them intact on Aug. 1, 2010. That was the deadline for approval in order to get points for Race to the Top, which Schwarzenegger was pushing.

At that point, the Commission went out of business, leaving the State Board with no authority to modify the standards. Since then, eighth grade math has been a void. It’s not part of the Common Core interim materials adoption process, and there’s been confusion over how to create curriculum frameworks and teacher training for that grade.

A new Commission’s charge

Fast forward to this past Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee and the 7-2 passage of SB 1200, authored by Sen. Loni Hancock, an Oakland Democrat, on behalf of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. It would establish an 11-member standards review commission charged with making recommendations to the State Board for modifying eighth grade math standards by July 2013.

The Legislature and Torlakson will name seven of the 11 members, with Gov. Brown naming the other four. The Commission and ultimately the State Board must decide whether eighth grade Common Core or a new Algebra I will be the default course ­– and how California will assess any standards that are outside of the Common Core. But it’s clear, from the language of the bill, what the Legislature’s intent would be: Common Core, not Algebra I, in eighth grade for most students.

As the committee staff analysis of SB 1200 notes, the bill requires that the new commission’s recommendations and the State Board’s modifications ensure:

  • “The rigor of the state Common Core standards is maintained so that all high school graduates are prepared for college and careers, as specified in the Common Core standards.”
  • All of the Common Core standards are adopted.
  • Modifications total no more than 15 percent of the already adopted state Common Core standards. (That percentage was the same limit imposed to qualify for Race to the Top.)

Retreat from universal Algebra in eighth grade

Wurman said Thursday that passage of the bill would confirm what he had predicted after the adoption of Common Core standards: Within a few years, there will be a sharp decline in the number of students taking Algebra I in eighth grade, leading to fewer students taking Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Only students who are tutored or go to private schools that ignore Common Core will take Algebra in eighth grade, he said. “Private school kids will have calculus. Public school students will be less competitive for select private universities.”

California is one of the few states that adopted a policy of universal Algebra in eighth grade, and by some measures, it has been a marked success. Last year, two-thirds of eighth graders took either Algebra or Geometry – compared with only a third in 2003. Despite that doubling, the proportion of students who tested proficient rose from 39 percent in 2003 to 47 percent in 2011.

But consider the majority who aren’t proficient on the standardized test and even some who are, said Scott Farrand, a math professor at California State University, Sacramento, and leader of those on the Academic Standards Commission who favored Common Core math. “Tens of thousands of students now in Algebra I cannot add fractions,” he said. “The push for Algebra I is failing lots and lots of students.” Many of those forced to repeat Algebra I in ninth grade get frustrated and develop a dislike of math, he said. Common Core, with a more logical sequence and focus on understanding concepts starting in lower grades, will better prepare most students to succeed in  Algebra and beyond, he said. “We want to build a system that allows them to move forward.” That’s why he disputes Wurman’s contention that fewer students, including minority students, will pursue majors in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – in college.

Can it be fixed?

Wurman and Farrand agree that the 72-standard Algebra I course that the Academic Standards Commission created is unmanageable, but they disagree as to how it came to be that way and whether it’s fixable..

Wurman and Evers argued for pushing down a number of Common Core standards to lower grades, from eighth grade to seventh and seventh to sixth, in order to prepare students for Algebra. But, with a handful of exceptions, the Commission refused, because members said, they didn’t want to tamper with Common Core’s order and sequence. (What to do with these non-conforming, acceleration standards will be the job of a separate group reporting to the State Board, the Instructional Quality Commission. It will create detailed grade by grade curriculum frameworks.)

By creating no on-ramp to Algebra, Wurman said, “we ended up with a fake algebra option that is infeasible.” At this point, the intellectually honest thing for the State Board to say is, “Our expectations of 8th graders have dropped. We screwed up and do not offer Algebra as an option.” The Algebra I course that the Academic Standards Commission designed would be taught in ninth grade.

Farrand said that the Algebra I course was voluminous because the Commission believed it had the authority only to add to Common Core standards, not eliminate them. A manageable Algebra I course for eighth grade can be created, he said, by pulling out some less related and duplicative standards, including probability and statistics. There should be an option for those students in a position to accelerate, he said. How it might be assessed is another issue for the new commission. Under the No Child Left Behind law, the federal government insisted on one test administered to all eighth graders. But that policy could change, because it’s not in anyone’s interest to discourage students from taking Algebra early.

Farrand and Wurman agree that the next Commission won’t be as contentious as the last one. For starters, neither Wurman nor Evers will be appointed. “I’m hoping the Commission will do something other than put on armor and fight,” Farrand said.

“No serious changes will be made to the standards. There won’t be anyone willing to go to the barricades” to defend rigorous California standards, Wurman said.

*** Here are the Common Core Standards as adopted in California. Start on page 34 for eighth grade. For the new Algebra I course, see page 36.  Common Core high school standards are in yellow. Common Core eighth grade math standards are in green. California Algebra standards that have been included in the new Algebra I are in purple.

Mixed results using iPads

A study conducted in four California school districts found that students studying Algebra I on an iPad did no better overall than students equipped with a traditional textbook.

The results of the 2010-11 study – the largest to date – disappointed Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher that commissioned the research and had expected better outcomes from the new technology. But at the same time, a company executive  said the firm remains undeterred in developing its digital textbooks and was heartened by scores in Riverside Unified, the one district in the study where students using iPads markedly outperformed their peers. In a white paper that the company published, putting a positive spin on the research, the Riverside teachers in the study extolled the software, which it said motivated students to take charge of  their learning.

HMH Fuse, the software that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt developed exclusively for the iPad, comes equipped with many nifty features: more than 300 video tutorials by the textbook’s author, a scratch pad for note-taking, icons that provide links for support, an ability to record notes by voice, and animated views that walk students through sample problems. Students I spoke with last year at a San Francisco middle school that was part of the study said they liked the features and found them helpful. (HMH has since then improved the note-taking capability, after students complained about its limitations.)

The study found no particular iPad feature directly contributed to math improvement, but collectively they kept  students more engaged; there were also indications – though no hard numbers – that students with iPads did more math at home and after class. The students using the software who did outscore other students tended to have better attitudes, said Denis Newman, president of Empirical Education, the Palo Alto firm that did the research.

Riverside Unified students using Houghten Mifflin Harcourt's Algebra program on an iPad scored 9 percentile points higher than students using the company's Algebra textbooks, an impressive difference. Source: research by Empirical Education, Inc. (Click to enlarge.)
Riverside Unified students using Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Algebra program on an iPad scored 9 percentile points higher than students using the company's Algebra textbooks, an impressive difference. Source: research by Empirical Education, Inc. (Click to enlarge.)

But overall scores on the California standardized tests and the publisher’s year-end course exam averaged nearly the same for students using iPads and textbooks, after controlling for pretest and demographic differences – except for Riverside, where there was a 9 point increase in the percentile ranking, a significant amount, for those using an iPad. Put another way, by the district’s analysis, 78  percent of students using iPads scored proficient or above on the Algebra CST; 59 percent scored proficient using textbooks.

78 percent of Riverside students using an iPad to learn Algebra I scored proficient or advanced on the state Algebra CST, compared with 59 percent using a standard texbook by the same publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Source: research by Empirical Education.  (Click to enlarge.)
78 percent of Riverside students at the Amelia Earhart Middle School using an iPad to learn Algebra I scored proficient or advanced on the state Algebra CST, compared with 59 percent using a standard textbook by the same publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Source: Houghton Mifflin. (Click to enlarge.)

Empirical Education did a rigorous analysis, using 11 teachers in six schools across four districts: San Francisco Unified, Fresno Unified, Long Beach Unified, and Riverside. They taught a combined 34 classes ­­– 23 sections with textbooks and 11 sections with iPads, chosen at random. Most of the teachers volunteered to be part of the iPad study, but at least one teacher who proved to be a Luddite was assigned to the study. By the end of the year, nine of the 11 teachers said they would continue to use the iPad if given the choice (sorry, but HMH took them back).

Why the big difference with Riverside? Empirical Education found that the two teachers in Riverside used the iPads as a teaching tool much more extensively than the other nine teachers in the study, and the students used the iPads many more minutes per week in class than all but one of the others – a possible connection.

‘Personalized learning devices’

But Riverside Superintendent Rick Miller has another explanation.  The district has been proactive in deploying mobile technologies among its 42,000 students; it has learned that the best strategy is to encourage students to make iPads and tablets their personalized learning devices, as indispensable as cell phones. Allow students to download their own applications, including music, and they’ll be more prone to access math videos and use the technology for learning. Others districts adopted more restrictive policies, at least at first: They reportedly locked up iPads when they weren’t in use and didn’t allow students to take them home.

The other difference, Miller said, is how the teachers used the iPads. Riverside’s two teachers who volunteered for the study weren’t chosen because they were tech-savvy; they hadn’t owned Apple products. But, Miller  said, they were good math teachers who came to recognize opportunities for differentiating instruction and for assigning  videos at home to introduce concepts.

John Sipe, HMH senior vice president and national sales manager, concurred. “In Riverside, teachers were more comfortable from the beginning. They let the technology organically change the classroom structure and front-load instruction.”

In retrospect, said Sipe said, the company should have done a two-year study, because there was a learning curve to the new technology. And it would spend less time at the start of the year teaching teachers on using the device and more time on classroom strategies with the software.

This year, Riverside has expanded its use of HMH’s iPad Algebra program to four classes in the middle school that participated in the study. However, without the free iPads, students have to supply their own, which has led fewer low-income students to participate. (Parents can buy inexpensive insurance to cover theft or damage.) Meanwhile, Riverside is charging ahead with going digital, experimenting with multiple devices and free and proprietary software in multiple subjects.

HMH Fuse sells for $59 retail; districts can buy it for $49 with a six-year use. It’s also now available for  $19 for a use of one year. Miller said that if  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt releases an app that can run on cheaper Android-based tablets, which will soon sell for under $200, then Riverside would deploy the HMH Fuse program much more extensively. Sipe said an Android app might be available this fall.

STEMing the minority gap

The gap starts early in elementary school, widens in middle school, and continues, through filters and barriers, on a trajectory of low achievement and missed opportunities. By the end of college, the number of Latinos and African Americans who graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math is a trickle: an estimated 1,688 from the University of California and California State University in 2008.

“The vast disparities in STEM preparation existing between underrepresented students of color and their peers in California are problematic in both the limited future opportunities afforded to these students and the significant loss of a large pool of talent for the state,” concludes Dissecting the Data 2012: Examining STEM Opportunities and Outcomes for Underrepresented Students in California. The report is from the Level Playing Field Institute, a nonprofit that offers intensive STEM summer programs at top-ranked colleges for promising minority high school students. The report is an update from 2010; the data haven’t changed much, which makes the statistics all the more compelling.

The Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University projects that California will need to fill 1.1 million STEM jobs in six years, with 93 percent of those requiring postsecondary degrees. Experts have fretted about the lack of students going into many STEM areas, including computer science, physics, and engineering. The scarcity of African American and Latino students in STEM heightens the problem. The two comprise 59 percent of California students, yet in 2010 comprised 15 percent of STEM enrollment in UC and 26 percent in CSU for a systemwide total of 21 percent.

Proficiency rates in math plummeted in 6th grade. Source: Dissecting the data: 2012. (Click to enlarge.)
Proficiency rates in math plummeted in 6th grade. Source: Dissecting The Data 2012. (Click to enlarge.)

The narrowing of the pipeline begins early, the study notes.

  • In second grade in 2011, 51 percent of African American students and 57 percent of Latino students were proficient in math, compared with 78 percent of white and 86 percent of Asian students; in fourth grade, the gap narrowed a bit as all groups upped proficiency. But by sixth grade, the slide began: 42 percent proficiency for Latinos and 35 percent for African Americans, 33 percentage points below whites and 46 percentage points below Asians (see chart).
  • The pattern has been set for algebra in 8th grade, considered a gatekeeper for students in California who want to major in STEM in college; most African American and Latino students take Algebra  in 9th grade, but of those who took  it in 8th grade last year, 29 percent of of African American and 37 percent of Latino students tested proficient, far below whites (58 percent) and Asians (76 percent). On the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, African American students in 19 states and Latino students in 34 states scored significantly higher than their peers in California.
  • Rates for proficiency and above on state standardized tests get worse for those who take Geometry (13 percent African American, 18 percent Latino, 42 percent white, and 60 percent Asian) and Algebra II (16 percent African American, 21 percent Latino, 39 percent white, and 61 percent Asian).
  • In fifth grade, where science is first tested, 43 percent of African American and 45 percent of Latino students reached proficiency and above, compared with 80 percent of white and Asian students.
  • The data for high school science becomes bleaker. On state Biology, Chemistry, and Physics standardized tests, African American and Latino proficiency rates were between one-half and one-third of white and Asian students’ rates (see chart).
Low-income students did substantially worse by race and ethnicity, but scores of low-income Asians exceeded those of high-income African American and Latino students. Click to enlarge. (Source: Dissecting the Data: 2012)
Low-income students did substantially worse by race and ethnicity, but scores of low-income Asians exceeded those of high-income African American and Latino students. Click to enlarge. (Source: Dissecting the Data: 2012)

There is a strong correlation between race and poverty; most Latino and African American families have low incomes, and low-income students on average do far worse than high-income students of the same race. But that’s not the full story. Low-income Asian students score higher than high-income African American and Latino students in 5th grade science and about equally in 4th grade math,  suggesting factors such as home or school expectations. (Low-income whites do better than high-income Latinos and African Americans in 4th grade math as well.)

The study suggested reasons for the gaps in scores among the races:

  • Fewer financial resources in minority schools;
  • Less experienced and less qualified teachers; 25 percent of math classes in low-income secondary schools are taught by teachers without a credential or college major in the subject, compared with 11 percent in non-poverty schools;
  • Fewer high-level science courses in high-poverty, high-minority schools;
  • Tracking of capable minority students into less-rigorous courses;
  • Psychological barriers: a lack of role models in STEM fields and the perception that the fields are too challenging or unwelcoming to them (this gets worse in college).

Not mentioned, although documented in a recent study by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, was the lack of engaging science instruction in many low-achieving districts, where pressure to raise English language arts and math scores have crowded out science instruction in elementary schools.

Solutions: Outreach and bridge programs

In high school, disadvantaged minorities are underrepresented in AP STEM courses; Latinos, with 49 percent of the K-12 population, took 18 percent of AP science courses, while Asians, with 9 percent of student enrollment, took 38 percent. Latinos and African American students scored considerably lower on SAT tests and the state’s Early Assessment Program: Only 5 percent of African Americans and 7 percent of Latinos were ready for college-level math by the end of their junior year.

The numbers of minority students majoring, then graduating with a STEM major, is low. Source: Dissecting the Data 2012. (Click to enlarge.)
The numbers of minority students majoring, then graduating with a STEM major, is low. Source: Dissecting the Data 2012. (Click to enlarge.)

The deficits these students face in high school limit their opportunity for a STEM major in college. In 2010, about a quarter of students at CSU and UC – 152,643 undergraduates and graduates – were in STEM majors; 3 percent were African American and 18 percent were Latino. For the freshman CSU class of 2004, only 13 percent of African American and 22 percent of Latino students graduated with a degree in STEM within six years, compared with 39 percent of whites and 31 percent of Asians.

So, what to do to widen the STEM pipeline? The study suggests better teacher training for STEM teachers, more hands-on science activities in elementary and middle schools, mentorships and activities like  robotics in high school, and increased access to AP courses.

The report also urges the expansion of summer bridge programs that prepare minority students with an interest in and grades for STEM careers to take challenging courses and prepare for college. The Level Playing Field Institute’s SMASH Academy, which I wrote about last year, is one such program, and, with private donations, plans to expand this summer to UCLA. But public dollars are getting scarcer for outreaches like MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement, funded by the president’s office at UC. And Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to eliminate $11 million in state funding for AVID, one of the more effective college guidance and preparation programs for minority students.

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.


  • 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.

Torlakson, Brown differ on mandates

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has taken issue with Gov. Brown’s plan to eliminate half of K-12 mandates this year and to fund the remaining half through a block grant.

“We have some grave concerns on his selection of some critical mandated programs to be eliminated,” Erin Gabel, Torlakson’s director of the Legislative Affairs and Fiscal Policy Division at the state Department of Education, testified during a Senate Budget Committee last week.

Once the Legislature mandates programs or requirements, the state must in turn fund them. In his 2012-13 budget, Brown proposes to drop two dozen mandates that he considers unnecessary, that are funded by the federal government, or that local districts are likely to provide on their own.

But Gabel said that eliminating mandates on the assumption that districts will continue to do them anyway constitutes a budget cut in this fiscal environment, and leaves districts with what she called a “Sophie’s choice” of paying for the mandate or cutting other vital programs.

Btrown is proposing to eliminate two dozen mandates (top) and place the rest in a block grant. Click to enlarge. (Soucre: Legislative Analyst's Office).
Brown is proposing to eliminate two dozen mandates (top) and place the rest in a block grant. Click to enlarge. (Source: Legislative Analyst's Office).

Like the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which has long been calling for mandate reform, Torlakson agrees that the list of mandates should be reviewed and the process for reimbursement should be changed.

“Many mandates proposed for elimination do not serve a compelling, statewide purpose, such as ensuring accountability or protecting public health and safety,” the LAO concluded in a presentation to the Budget Committee. Torlakson doesn’t disagree, but maintains that it’s up to the Legislature to determine, one by one, which mandates should be dropped.

Gabel cited several mandates on Brown’s hit list as ones that should probably be retained and fully funded. Two deal with truancy: the requirements that school districts notify parents if their child is truant and then hold conferences with them. Enforcement of truancy laws is a state responsibility, Gabel said. Even though it’s in districts’ financial interest to be on top of truancy, since the state funds districts for students only when they’re in school, many districts are lax in enforcing the mandate.

Brown also wants to eliminate the mandates for a second year of high school science and for a physical education test. At a time when state leaders are pressing for college and career readiness standards, the state would be “going in the wrong direction” by dropping the science requirement, Gabel said. The increase in childhood obesity also is a state concern, Gabel said. Physical education isn’t covered by state standardized tests, so there’s no incentive for districts to continue the test, Gabel said. Perhaps the State Board will create new accountability measures, but until it does, the mandate should continue, she said.

Torlakson does agree that the current reimbursement system is flawed, however. The state is about $3 billion in arrears for repayment of mandates to districts. More than half of districts – particularly small districts – don’t file claims for most mandates, and those that do seek amounts that are all over the map. The state audits only 5 percent of the claims and rejects 75 percent of the amounts sought, according to the LAO, which said there’s no incentive for districts to be efficient or effective in carrying out mandates.

Brown proposes to put 22 mandates into a $178 million optional block grant, which works out to $30 per student. In order to get that amount, a district would have to carry out all of the mandates, which include AIDS instruction, the high school exit exam, health screenings, and school accountability report cards. Districts would still have the option of going through the laborious reimbursement request process, but the governor is betting that they’ll find it simpler to get a flat sum.

The LAO agreed with Brown that $178 million should be more than adequate to cover all of the mandates, but Torlakson and the California School Boards Association aren’t convinced and are doing their own calculations. What the CSBA opposes, Assistant Executive Director Dennis Meyers said, is suspending mandates one year and then enforcing them the next, in order to avoid reimbursements.

Brown wants his mandate proposal passed this spring, but Gabel said that Torlakson favors a deliberate process, without an immediate deadline. The Legislature must define “pivotal issues” and retain those mandates that ensure they are carried out equitably and consistently, she said.

A rush of new technologies

A combination of forces is creating an inflection point for technology to redefine the process of learning and the structure of schools, Ted Mitchell, CEO of a venture philanthropy organization and former president of the State Board of Education, told a conference on math and technology at Stanford University on Thursday. “The market is ripe for disruptive innovation.”

Because they offer a new potential for personalized learning, the new tools can be an antidote to budget cuts that have increased class sizes and made it much more difficult to respond to the needs of individual students, Mitchell said. “Teachers are working hard with what they have. They need help, and (the new) tools are part of the solution.”

A dozen of the new math tools were featured at the conference, sponsored by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, and Mitchell’s NewSchools Venture Fund. (See Kathy Baron’s accompanying story on the renewed debate over Algebra I.) They included everything from engaging games for elementary students to open source digital textbooks and networking platforms for teachers.

Some of the new technologies, Mitchell observed, are diagnostic, detecting individual students’ weaknesses and then assigning content to fill in gaps in knowledge. “They recognize that kids come to school with unequal levels of preparation,” he said. That’s why “personalized learning is essential.”

NewSchools Venture Fund has shifted its funding from charter schools to new technologies that he described as “synergistc innovations that make school systems more effective.” Of the dozen and a half startups that NewSchools funds, Mitchell cited two that have gone farthest in challenging the structure of learning. At the School of One, encompassing three schools in New York City, students work individually on their own “learning map” and don’t attend classes per se. Software algorithms schedule what students learn daily, based on individual needs. It’s a fundamentally different school structure that demands a different approach to teaching.

Contrasting the School of One is the force of one, Salman Khan, whose 2,700 instructional YouTube videos in the online library of Khan Academy have gone viral; an estimated 4,000 schools are independently using the videos in the classroom. NewSchools is funding pilot programs in 20 California schools, helping teachers in diverse combinations of schools weave Khan into their curriculum. Because they enable students to progress at their own pace, the videos are changing the nature of teachers’ relationship with students, Mitchell said.

The conditions are ripe for new technologies. Three-quarters of students have access to tools connected to the Internet; between cell phones and cheaper computers, tools are “ubiquitous,” he said. Reflecting a generational shift, new teachers are arriving competent with new technologies and anxious to use them. And Common Core standards, which California has adopted, have created a national market for technology developers. The new standards have created a new opportunity to engage teachers in developing curriculums around robust and intellectually challenging  material, Mitchell said. “This is a moment of real difference.”

Obstacles to implementation

Other conference speakers  tempered Mitchell’s enthusiasm with caution while acknowledging technology’s potential impact.

If districts had $100,000, they should put it not into technology but into improving content, said Jeremy Roschelle, director of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International. “There is no magic to the use of technology; studies prove that.” Technology must be integrated into the curriculum and must be accompanied by training of teachers, he said. “Isolated buckets of money don’t work.”

Pat Sabo, a math teacher for 35 years and a National Education Assn. delegate, warned of a “reality gap between what the state and local agencies say we’re going to do and what we’re prepared to do.” Noting that there is one computer for every four students in California schools, with most of those four years old and without technical support at the schools, she warned policy makers, “Do not set policies with ideals that cannot be met.”

Mitchell’s successor as State Board President, Michael Kirst, said that the state must remove obstacles to the adoption of digital textbooks. The seven-year adoption cycle of curriculum materials no longer makes sense, he said. But as for the explosion of new technologies, he said, “There needs to be a system to evaluate what math tools actually raise student achievement.”

Of course, there’s no state money now for computer hardware and new technologies, but Kirst and others expressed optimism  that the explosion of software for cell phones and low prices for stripped-down computers, like the Google Chromebooks, will make access cheaper.

Gerry Shelton, former chief education consultant to the Assembly Education Committee, cautioned against relying on younger teachers – who breathe technology like air – to bring it into the classroom. “In recent years, they’re the ones we’ve be handing pink slips to. I’ve had a feeling that we’re losing a generation of teachers.”

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.”

Ignoring science in schools starts with ignorance of science by the electorate

Anyone looking for big news in the just released report on the teaching of science in California elementary schools may well file it under “dog bites man.”

In a word, elementary school science teaching is lame; it’s taught an average of a little over an hour a week, by teachers most of whom say they’re not well prepared to teach it and have few resources to work with. Some 77 percent of elementary principals say teaching science is essential, but only 44 percent say “that a student would receive high-quality science instruction in his/her school.” Is anyone surprised?

More pertinent, perhaps, is what the report, commissioned by the Center on the Future of Teaching and Learning, doesn’t discuss, and that’s the national environment of willful ignorance and proud denial of all intellectual discipline, science and economics particularly. Even the ablest teachers have a steep hill to climb.

We are witnessing a presidential campaign in which the leading candidates of one major party say that the theory of evolution hasn’t been verified and that they don’t believe there’s a link between human activity and global warming. Fewer than half of us believe in evolution; 40 percent are creationists. In some states the teaching of evolution even in high school is under constant attack.

Some 30 years ago, in “A Nation at Risk,” a presidential commission warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” If that wasn’t all hyperbole, the miseducated graduates of those mediocre schools are now our voters and political leaders. They sit on school boards, in state legislatures, even – as in Texas – in the governor’s office.

The new report, “High Hopes – Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California,” was produced by researchers at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley and SRI International. They found that teachers and principals at many schools put part of the onus for skimpy science teaching on the pressure of time, particularly the heavy emphasis in state and federal accountability programs in reading and math.

Though that, too, is hardly news, it’s undoubtedly correct, as the same thing would be correct, perhaps even more correct, for the teaching of art or music, and maybe even history or literature. But was science ever taught well, or given much time, even before the test-based accountability systems in reading and math were instituted in the past decade or two?

Consistent with their other findings, the researchers also found, in the words of a press announcement, that “the infrastructure support and resources needed for quality science education are scarce. Just one-fifth of school districts provide science related professional development for elementary teachers, and few school districts have science specialists or coordinators.

“More than 60 percent of all school districts have no district staff dedicated to science. Two-thirds of elementary teachers cite limited funds for equipment and supplies as a challenge to teaching science. More than half of teachers say they lack access to needed facilities.” And, as ever, it would be the schools serving poor and minority students that are most severely lacking. How often do we hear this?

But with the possible exception of a small number of classrooms, was it ever different? In 1957, when the Soviet Union beat us into space with Sputnik, there was a loud outcry about the nation’s inadequacies in the teaching of math, science, and engineering. If we didn’t shape up, the Russians would win the Cold War. Similar warnings came in “Nation at Risk.” Only in 1983, it was the Germans and the Japanese who were going to beat our economic brains out.

Neither happened in the way it was predicted – not yet, anyway. But this is a different world and the dangers are far greater. We no longer dominate the world’s economy as we did after Word War II. More and more nations are overtaking us in the percentage of their young men and women who complete college. In the countries that are beating our brains out in education, creationism is not an issue and energy efficiency and the control of global warming are high priorities.

Our historic anti-intellectualism and the ideologies, beliefs, and prejudices that mask it are as powerful as ever. Presumably smart men and women running for president pretend to be morons. In California, as in many other states, as growing numbers of Latinos, Asians, and other immigrants and their children reach school and college age, we seem to become increasingly unwilling to generously fund education at every level. Is that only coincidence?

As always, in such surveys, people say teaching of science should be a high priority in the schools, and that better resources and teacher training would help. So what else is new? Everything the new survey says is correct, but it’s not new and it’s only a fraction of the story.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOPed advisory board.