September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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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