September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

The State of California’s Middle School Science Education

Posted: Sunday, April 1st, 2012

by Laura Henriques

What an interesting cross-roads we are at in science education! On the one hand we are told by the President and other elected officials that STEM careers and STEM education provide opportunities for our country to move forward. “STEM” is on everyone’s lips. The economic engines are going to be fueled by a STEM-literate citizenry. Those countries or states that do the best job developing this workforce will be at the forefront of innovation and economic success.

On the other hand we have shrinking budgets for K-16 education. Stakeholders at all levels are fighting for their piece of an ever-diminishing pool of resources. In an effort to reduce the costs of education, the Governor even proposed reducing the high school science graduation requirements to one year, down from two. If a STEM-literate, well educated workforce helps run the economic engines for the state, wouldn’t we want to have students taking more science?

This disconnect is more than political rhetoric and fodder for budget fights. The disconnect also exists between what the citizens of California want and what they get in K-8 science education.

For the past two years, West Ed has been studying science teaching in California. In October, right after the 2011 Science Education Conference, they published High Hopes – Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California. This report highlighted the state of elementary science education in California. Their findings weren’t surprising to those of us close to elementary science education and science teacher preparation. They found that less than half of elementary principals believe students in their school receive a high-quality science education. Elementary teachers spend little time on science instruction, citing the emphasis on English and mathematics as the primary obstacle. Elementary teachers are underprepared to teach science, most don’t have access to science professional development and they do not have the materials needed to adequately teach science. Those of you who have been members of CSTA for a while will recognize these themes as ones we’ve been talking about for years. We need dedicated time for teaching science, materials to teach science and the professional development/preparation so that teachers can do it well. These are problems CSTA has been working hard to ameliorate through government advocacy, our CSTA publications and conferences.

This past week (March 22, 2012) West Ed released another report, this time about middle school science, Untapped Potential: The Status of Middle School Science Education in California. While middle school science teachers are much more likely to hold a degree or credential in science than their elementary counterparts, there are some similar concerns expressed in this report as the High Hopes report. While elementary teachers and their principals complained about the lack of time and resources to teach science – in large part due to the emphasis on English-Language Arts and math, middle schools are much more likely to have teachers and class periods devoted to the teaching of science. That said, the report indicates that there still isn’t enough time to teach science well. Many teachers teach both math and science, as a core. This results in great pressure for the class to become two periods of math instruction with little or no science instruction. Just as testing at the elementary level emphasizes ELA/math, AYP and API scores at the middle school level do not count science very much.

Challenges to quality middle school science instruction include lack of preparation and interest on the part of students. Based on the data reported in the High Hopes report, we know that most students do not participate in much elementary science. As a result, they come to middle school underprepared. It is unrealistic to think that three years of middle school instruction can make up for six years of missed instruction. Because students have not done science they do not know what it is and are less likely to get intrigued and excited by it. They do not know the rudiments of doing science. This often results in science instruction being reading or worksheet based as opposed to inquiry and field based. The emphasis on testing across the K-12 continuum seems to have taken away the joy of learning and squelched curiosity.

Class sizes at the middle school make doing hands-on, inquiry based science much more difficult. Not only are supplies more difficult to acquire (especially when they are being paid for by the teacher!), the larger classes sizes often make it unsafe to do certain experiments. Management of materials and people is compounded as class sizes grow.

Middle school teachers are more likely to get science professional development than their elementary counterparts. Districts have been providing much of that PD, but as budgets contract the number of district level staff devoted to science instruction is decreasing. Teachers do not get to meet with each other as much as they’d like – either within grade levels or across levels.

What does all this mean to each of us? As members of CSTA we need to band together and make our voices heard. Reports such as the two released by West Ed provide timely data about the current state of science education in our state. We need to be sure that policy makers recognize the importance of quality science instruction at all levels. We cannot ignore the elementary level and assume that we can make up those losses in middle school. Science instruction is important for our students and for our state. A wise use of the data in these reports could help us move forward. Share these reports with your district administrators and your principal. The reports argue for continued professional development, the need for schools and districts to partner with other agencies, and they call for quality science instruction. These are balanced reports without an axe to grind. They may provide us with a starting point to have meaningful, open discussions about what we need to do to improve science instruction in our state.

Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and president-elect of CSTA.

Written by Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and a past-president of CSTA.

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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.