The Center in the Media
SI&A Cabinet Report
Study indicates middle school students underprepared for science
By Marc Maloney
Despite a group of well-trained and well-intentioned teachers, science instruction in California’s middle schools is hampered by content standards that overemphasize math and language education.
Analysis released Wednesday by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd found students are entering middle school underprepared for the study of the physical disciplines and teachers are challenged to find class time needed for experimental learning and labs.
Among the report’s recommendations is that California look to adopt new science content standards currently under development by a national consortium. CFTL also suggests the state take steps to ensure science teachers are well-qualified and can access professional development and other support programs.
The report, “Untapped Potential: The Status of Middle School Science Education,” was produced for the center by the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
Researchers say California’s middle schools have a good foundation for making improvements.
“California’s middle schools offer critical strengths for teaching science,” Holly Jacobson, director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, said in a statement. “But too often, their efforts are undermined by difficult challenges that are limiting opportunities for science learning for students.”
The report examined results of a statewide study of science teachers, principals, and district leaders conducted in 2010 and 2011.
California’s middle school science teachers are generally well-qualified; the report notes 75 percent of middle school science teachers have a background in science, having majored in a science discipline in college or obtained a single-subject credential in science.
The preparation of students entering middle school, however, is of concern.
While science is mandatory in California middle school curriculum, there is no requirement on how many educational minutes students must receive in science.
“What is important is not the number of hours of science students receive,” states the report, “but that students leave middle school prepared for success in math and science in high schools.”
In many cases, however, students arrive in middle schools already unprepared for science classes, due at least in part, the report says, to their elementary school science education. While troubling, the situation is not surprising considering 40 percent of elementary teachers say their students receive 60 minutes or less of science instruction per week.
“Students come ill-prepared from elementary schools, and we get a mixed bag of students from five feeder schools,” noted one teacher quoted in the report.
Like their middle school counterparts, elementary students are required to take science, but again, no minimum instructional time guideline has been established, said Ardice Hartry, a researcher at the Lawrence Hall of Science.
“There is no minimum number of hours of instruction the students must receive, and there are no requirements for labs or other hands-on activities,” Hartry said. “So while they may be exposed to the content, they’re not getting the depth they need.”
Teachers themselves report feeling compelled to teach too broadly and to stress book learning over inquiry, which they blame on state standards and assessments that stress math and English skills.
“All the emphasis on education today is in English and math,” one teacher is quoted as saying in the report. “No critical thinking skills are being taught.”
Hartry believes the Next Generation of Science Standards, new national standards now being developed, will help address the issue of pupils getting too much content and too little time to experiment and understand key scientific concepts.
“Existing standards put enormous time pressure on teachers,” she said. “When a teacher gets one hour to teach science, that isn’t nearly enough time to teach all the standards or get into underlying concepts.”
The new standards emphasize basic concepts like similarity and diversity, cause and effect, energy and matter, and stability and change, which span different scientific disciplines.
“Some of the data in this report provide a pretty strong argument for limiting the range of standards and emphasizing the processes of science,” said Hartly. “It shouldn’t be about teaching students a whole bunch of factoids; it should be about how to come up with the proper questions to arrive at an answer.”
Access to instructional materials and opportunities to conduct experimental learning varied widely between schools, researchers noted. While most teachers and students enjoy easy access to basic materials like whiteboards in the classroom, access to more advanced equipment like Bunsen burners and computers can be problematic. Quality hands-on materials and consumable resources are especially hard to come by for teachers; in some cases, teachers spend their own money on materials.
In addition to district-approved instructional materials they use in class, 81 percent of teachers reported developing materials by themselves or with other teachers, usually to accommodate students’ interests or learning levels.
The report also notes a decline in financial support for infrastructure to support science education. While it used to be common for county offices of education and districts to have science coordinators or coaches, these providers are scarce today. And, the California Science Project, which offers teacher professional development, is now funded at $1.2 million, down from $9.09 million in 2002-03.