May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Whither or Wither Science Ed?

Posted: Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

by Christine Bertrand

As you will read elsewhere in this issue of CCS, I will be retiring from CSTA at the end of this month, after a truly wonderful 15 years with the organization.  When I was hired, lo those many years ago, I had no expectation of remaining with the association so long.  Indeed, I wasn’t sure just how far we, collectively, could take the organization which is, after all, made up solely of teacher-volunteers, and we all know how much extra time teachers have to dedicate to their own extracurricular activities.  What I found within a very short while, however, was that this organization and its leadership and members are dynamic, dedicated, and almost rabid about quality science education. Okay—no “almost” about it.  So I can say with a lot of melancholy but with no hesitation that it has been an absolute joy to have worked with all of you over these past 15 years.  I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

But this editorial isn’t really about me; it is about CSTA and its members—you.

As I was going through my old papers and deciding which ones to chuck and which ones might be useful to my successor, Jessica Sawko, I came across, quite randomly, a report to our board of directors which I had written in 2001.  Please allow me to share an excerpt from that report.

The [Curriculum Commission] had a discussion about the many comments [on the draft of the science framework] from the field lamenting that science is not being taught in elementary grades.  Most of the commissioners agreed that science is not being taught in grades K-3 and that that is a problem, but many rejected the notion that science is not being taught in grades 4-6.  I commented to them that, indeed, science is not being taught in grades K-5 in many schools and that it is a real problem, particularly as the state has issued K-5 standards which are expected to form the foundation for continued science education in subsequent grades.  A couple of the commissioners tried to convince me otherwise, as though some great consequence depends on everyone agreeing that K-3 is a problem but not 4-6.  There appears to be some agenda on the part of many commissioners to deny the problem, perhaps (I’m speculating here) in preparation for the poor test results which are likely to ensue when science is finally tested in grade 5.  They want to be able to say that, even though students didn’t learn science in grades K-3, they’ve been getting lots of science in grades 4 and 5, so the poor test results must be someone else’s fault, not theirs or the State Board of Ed. who’ve focused exclusively on reading.

Just the day before I read this, we had been greeted by the following headlines regarding the latest NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) science test: “Low scores, low priority for science”; “Low science scores should shock state at the center of technology universe.”  Now, I’m not claiming any kind of clairvoyance or prescience here; most of us predicted what the outcome of the “no science in elementary school” mandate would be ten years down the road.  But that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach the blame game that is now ensuing—nationwide, actually—wherein teachers are getting the brunt of the criticism for low test scores.

What the non-educator public doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t understand, is the impact a decade’s worth of poor policy decisions at the state level has had on science education in our public schools.  Let me enumerate.

Our science standards were adopted in 1998, and there is nothing in California law that requires them ever to be reviewed and updated.  In fact, during his tenure, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed at least two bills that would have required the review and revision, as necessary, of the science standards, something that would seem to be eminently sensible to most people.  The science standards themselves are extensive; indeed many argue they are too extensive, as they do not permit teaching any scientific concept in enough depth for true understanding.  The standards appear as a list of facts to be memorized and able to be tested via multiple choice tests rather than concepts to be understood.  The NAEP, on the other hand, includes expositive questions requiring analysis and description.  So the first issue to explore in a discussion of why California students do poorly on the NAEP is the possible disconnect between our standards, which are now 13 years old, and what is tested on the NAEP and how it is tested.

Although we have science standards for Kindergarten through grade 12, science is only tested in grades 5, 8, and 9-11.  As we know, science teaching at the elementary level is all but nonexistent, with many administrators directing teachers not to teach science, but to concentrate on math and reading.  Even at the fifth grade level, where students are tested only on the fourth and fifth grade standards, the test counts for a paltry 6 percent of a school’s K-5 API (Academic Performance Index), whereas English language arts (ELA) counts for 56 percent and math for 38 percent.  For a school administrator being held accountable for meeting performance goals, what, then, is the incentive to encourage teaching science at the elementary school level, particularly when pressure to increase ELA and math scores is as extreme as it has become?

The standards are predicated upon the assumption that the scientific concepts taught at one grade level are built upon in subsequent grades, so that, for instance, when students enter sixth or seventh grade, the teacher should be able to assume that they will have at least been introduced to the information contained in the K-5 standards, if not having mastered them.  However, if science is not taught until fourth grade, and then what is taught is only what will be on the fifth grade test, teachers in middle school have a larger job than just teaching what is contained in the grades 6-8 standards; they must provide remediation first.  Furthermore, middle school (grades 6-8) science counts for only 7 percent of a district’s API, whereas ELA counts for 52 percent and math for 34 percent; again, what is the incentive for teaching science at the middle school level?

In 2009, the state was in the middle of revising the science framework, in anticipation of adopting new science instructional materials in 2012, when the governor unceremoniously suspended the required textbook adoption schedule and halted all work on curriculum frameworks.  This suspension has pushed the date for the next science adoption to 2017—yes, 2017.  That means that California’s students will be using instructional materials that are over 11 years old before new materials will be required.  And more concerning yet, if we are not able to convince the legislature and governor to require a review and revision of the state science standards, those materials adopted in 2017 will be based on standards that are almost 20 years old!  Can there possibly be a parent in the state who would be happy with their child learning science that is 20 years old?  (CSTA is sponsoring (yet another) bill that would require the review and revision of the standards: SB 300.  Check out the legislative update in this issue of CCS for more information.)

It is more than annoying when pundits jump on the “blame-the-teacher” bandwagon; it would behoove them to take some time to understand how our policy leaders have devised a system that is out of whack with our state’s economic and technological priorities and with the nation’s expectations.  Perhaps they like it that way.  But if they don’t like it that way, they should put the responsibility where it really belongs.

If I leave CSTA with one wish, it’s that all of you become or stay engaged in the struggle to see science education reinstated to its proper and essential role in the education of our state’s students.  They really have only you to depend on.

Christine Bertrand is (until March 31) the executive director of CSTA.

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.

2 Responses

  1. I will stay engaged. I am. Chipping away within a school, a district, friends, parents, through conferences, the children coming into class every day. A few letters to editors, doing what I can each day. This must change, it has to.

  2. Thanks, Christine,
    That’s a useful summation. Historical perspectives can be forgotten or set aside. CSTA will build on them.

    Enjoy the next stage of your life.

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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

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.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 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.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

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