Study finds California science education lacking — and teachers aren't surprised

Sacramento BeeNovember 6, 2011 

SACRAMENTO — Few local educators are surprised by a recent UC Berkeley study that says most California children aren't getting a decent science education.

Gretchen Bly, a first-grade teacher at Rancho Cordova Elementary School, generally teaches about 90 minutes of science a week, integrating it into the curriculum as much as possible.

"If I had my druthers, we'd do it three or four hours a week," said Bly, who coordinates the school's annual Science Night and other science programs.

"With 32 students and less help in the classroom, our focus has to be on reading and writing," she said. "It's harder to address things like science."

The Berkeley research blames the pressure to score well on standardized tests in English and math for the little time spent teaching science. Forty percent of the California elementary teachers surveyed for the study say they spend 60 minutes or less teaching science each week.

Sixty-six percent of elementary teachers surveyed said they feel unprepared to teach science and 85 percent say they haven't received any training in the subject in the last three years.

The result: Only about 10 percent of elementary school classes are offering high-quality science instruction, according to the report.

"The entire landscape is looking relatively bleak," said Rena Dorph, director of research evaluation and assessment at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley.

Researchers surveyed district personnel, teachers and principals and also did case studies of six schools known for high-quality programs. "It was quite difficult to actually find schools that were able to field high-quality science programs schoolwide in the current climate," Dorph said.

She said administrators and teachers at those schools were committed to teaching science and providing time and resources for instruction. They also generally partnered with outside experts and science-related businesses and nonprofits.

Science test scores lag

School administrators from the Sacramento/Stockton/Modesto region who took the survey said their students received an average of 19 minutes of science instruction a week and that only 44 percent were likely to get a high-quality science education.

Seventy-one percent of schools surveyed in the local region had no teacher hours dedicated to science education – second only to the Bakersfield area at 73 percent.

"No, it wasn't surprising to me at all, that study," said Rich Hedman, director of the Center for Mathematics and Science Education at Sacramento State. "It goes right along with what we've observed in this region working with elementary districts," he said.

Local school districts contacted by The Bee said their hours of instruction in science were much higher than those reported by the study.

Elk Grove Unified elementary students get 60 to 80 minutes of science instruction a week, depending on age, said Anne Zeman, director of curriculum and professional learning for the district.

The focus on science is in the fourth through sixth grades at Twin Rivers Unified elementary schools. Students in these grades get from 30 minutes to more than four hours a week of science instruction, said Ginna Myers, curriculum instruction coordinator for the district. She said students in kindergarten through third grade get 10 to 20 minutes a week.

Sacramento City Unified students learn about science about 50 minutes a week in kindergarten through third grade and 85 minutes per week in fourth through sixth grade, district officials said.

Scores on California's fifth-grade science test reflect the limited time spent on the subject – with only 55 percent of students testing at or above proficient. The state also ranks among the lowest in science scores of those taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"The idea of California second to worst to Mississippi is unimaginable to me," said David Gordon, Sacramento County superintendent of schools, of the state's ranking. "We've squeezed science out of the curriculum in favor of just teaching literacy and math."

Sacramento and Yolo county fifth-graders score about the same as the rest of the state, with 54 percent and 58 percent at or above proficient, respectively. But Placer and El Dorado county schools have much higher scores – with 72 percent and 76 percent of their students scoring at or above proficient.

Teachers get less help

As a consequence of fewer hours of science education in elementary school, students are showing up in middle and high schools unprepared for STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – programs, said Holly Jacobson of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd in San Francisco. The center commissioned the Berkeley report.

Teachers are finding few resources and little professional development in the subject. Local administrators surveyed for the study said only 41 percent of their teachers are well prepared to teach science.

Teachers used to get help from science resource teachers, science coaches and program specialists, but the few people still in these positions are stretched thin.

In Elk Grove Unified there is one science program specialist for 62 schools. He also is in charge of health and physical education, Zeman said. In Folsom Cordova Unified the science and math coaches were combined into one position, Bly said.

But there is help. Science in the River City, a program of the Center for Mathematics and Science Education, offers monthly workshops at Sacramento State. The workshops teach educators more about science and how to teach it. Last year about 60 teachers attended each of the workshops, Hedman said.

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