The following is a reasonable accounting of the content of my presentation at the Science Matters Town Hall Meeting at the NSTA Conference in San Francisco in early March.
In science, we often talk of things in pairs, action-reaction, oxidation-reduction, dominant and recessive, predator and prey, S-waves and P-waves, Adenine and Thymine, Guanine and Cytocine, and I guess, when asked to comment on the state of science education in California, from the teachers’ perspective, I would have to say that it could be better and it could be worse.
In California, we have a desire and a goal to prepare more students to enter science and, or STEM related fields in college, yet our state only requires two years of science for graduation from high school. This lack of commitment to the importance of science as a part of the core curriculum results in a wide range of science achievement amongst high school students. For example, The Sacramento Bee recently reported dramatic gains in test scores for students in some California schools, yet statewide CST and NAEP test data clearly show that many California students are lagging behind in science proficiency. That same NAEP data reveals that there is no longer a significant difference in the performance of males and females on national assessments, yet African American and Latino students as well as students of poverty score as much as 32 points lower than their white and Asian peers on these same tests. Clearly, dramatic gains in test scores are not universal. There are still large populations of students struggling to achieve in science.
Part of the discrepancy in achievement levels lies in the structural treatment of science as a component of the curriculum. With the onset of the State Assessment Program, California developed a set of gold-level science content standards outlining the content for all grade levels. Unfortunately, in the implementation of those standards, we only assess science for all students in grades 5, 8, and 10. The implication of this testing format is that little science is taught in elementary schools before grade 5. At a critical, formative time in their developmental lives, many children in California are not receiving any science instruction or, at best, woefully inadequate instruction for a few minutes each week. In essence, the statewide focus on math and literacy, both in curricula and assessment, results in an early childhood curricula that is devoid of the rich, thought-provoking experiences that science provides. This dearth of quality science instruction at an early age robs students of the foundational knowledge and curiosity necessary for accessing more advanced studies in science and technology.
As science teachers, we want our students to propose experiments, collect and analyze data, and draw evidence based conclusions – yet the policy makers increase class size, decrease budgets, and expect teachers to cover all of the standards associated with content-rich areas and to do this in less than 85% of the instructional days in any given academic year.
To say that science teachers in California are confused and perplexed by the mixture of messages that they are receiving about what, how much, and how to teach science would be an understatement. When the California science content standards were adopted and implemented in 1998, teachers’ first comments focused on the number of standards to be covered, the age appropriateness of the content, and the vast amount of detail that students were expected to “know”. Their sense of being overwhelmed was only exacerbated when teachers realized, and in many cases were told, that science instruction was not considered a core content area. The significance of this decision lay in the fact that that if science was not considered part of the core curriculum, and if it was not going to be tested at every grade level, then it would not be taught at those levels. Unfortunately, this is exactly what we are seeing in many, if not most, elementary schools today. Science has been de-emphasized or eliminated from the core curriculum due to the fact that science test scores represent only 7 percent of an elementary school’s measure of Academic Progress Indicators (API).
The ultimate result of these factors is only now becoming clear. Students are beginning their first real exposures to science in the seventh grade. By this late date, they universally lack the six years of foundational science that is described in the standards, and that would engage students in thinking critically about the world, how it works, and how it applies to their lives.
In California, we talk about our technology-based economy. Our leaders promote the idea that a reinvestment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics will encourage more people to pursue STEM-based studies and careers, and that this reinvestment will ultimately return California and the nation to a leadership role in new and emerging fields of science, medicine, and technology. Yet current policies and practices have resulted in exactly the opposite effect. Enrollment in STEM majors, and the pursuit of science or STEM-based careers has failed to keep up with the national and worldwide demand for a scientifically literate population.
In California, we must explore ways to challenge the status quo and to promote more science instruction in schools. We must work to convince the decision makers and stakeholders that science is a key part of our future. We must be ready to invest the time and energy to promote high-quality instruction and assessment of science at all grade levels. Finally we must be willing to make the sacrifices that will be necessary to ensure that this vision of a return to a leadership role for California, and the nation, happens. To quote a friend, “The current emphasis on STEM careers and the emerging conversation about the need to regain our economic vigor has opened the door for science education by just a crack. As science education professionals, we can push the door open and enter the new age of science education in California or we can let the door shut. One moves us forward into the 21st century and the other will maintain a status quo born in the 1990s.”