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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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. 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 NGSS 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.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.