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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