Thursday, October 27, 2011

California Failing to Provide K-5 Science Education

Only 10% of California’s K-5 students regularly experience hands-on science activities the Los Angeles Times reported this week. The data comes from a 2010-2011 survey of teachers, principals and district administrators at 300 California public schools and was conducted by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, SRI International and others. 

The researchers found that 40% of teachers dedicated 60 minutes or less to science instruction, while 13% spent 30 minutes per week or less teaching science. Only one-third of elementary teachers said they felt prepared to teach science, while 85% said they have not received any recent science training. In addition to inadequate training, many felt there was insufficient class time available for science, as so much class time was now devoted to preparation for the state’s high stakes exams. They also complained of lack of funds for supplies.

The report can be found at

The study indicated that most science instruction in California begins in fifth grade, when the state starts measuring science knowledge on its standardized exams. The absurdity of this policy is that by then it is already too late for most students. Science is not simply a bunch of facts and vocabulary that can be memorized over the course of a single school year, but an entire manner of thinking that requires continuous practice and skill-building over many years. Students who are encouraged to explore and observe natural phenomena starting in kindergarten and who learn how to make hypotheses and collect and analyze data as they get older, are much more likely to enjoy science and take it seriously in school and they are more likely to understand it well enough by fifth grade to perform well on the exams.

The problems of low science literacy and science phobia can grow over time. Each year I have students in my high school biology classes who had little or no science in middle school. I have dozens more who have an irrational fear of or disdain for science, in many cases because of limited or negative experiences with past science classes. Most of these students struggle in a college preparatory high school science course because of their lack of prerequisite knowledge and skills.

The biggest tragedy, however, is not their low test scores or the potential F they could earn, but the lack of curiosity or interest in natural phenomena so many of them exhibit. Science ought to be fun and exciting, and it usually is when taught well. When students have had positive past experiences in science, they tend to be more fully engaged in future science classes, ask more intriguing questions, and desire to understand concepts more deeply. In contrast, students who are tuned out or who lack self-efficacy in science risk growing into adulthood harboring dangerous misconceptions about disease and immunity, human reproduction, nutrition, pollution and climate change.

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