Sunday, November 04, 2007

IT'S TIME TO MAKE SCIENCE A PRIORITY IN SCHOOLS: Focus on Standardized Testing is Partly to Blame

San Jose Mercury News Editorial

10/28/2007 - High-tech chief executives have been warning for years that America is not turning out enough scientists and engineers to compete in a knowledge-based economy. So if there's any place where science and math education should thrive, it's Silicon Valley, home of wealth, big brains and pre-eminent institutions of higher learning.

Not so. A survey commissioned by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation found a deplorable state of science education in Bay Area elementary schools.

The knowledge gap starts when kids walk in the door. Students are barely studying any science. Many teachers acknowledge they're poorly prepared to teach the subject. And most are not getting the professional training they need to inspire students.

These developments are not accidental. There is a relationship between the withering of science education and the pressures from standardized testing. And until the state's testing and textbook bureaucracy - education's military industrial complex - changes the rules of the game, science education will lag.

Researchers found that 80 percent of kindergarten-through-fifth-grade teachers spend only an hour a week on science. In that time, there's no way they can plow through the state's content standards, covering life, physical and earth sciences, let alone help students develop skills in the scientific method. An additional 16 percent report teaching no science at all. Sixty percent of 147 districts in Santa Clara and other Bay Area counties responded to the survey.

In a 2000 national survey, elementary school teachers reported two hours of science - nothing to brag about, but twice the valley average.

The state does not require elementary school teachers to take professional development in science. Faced with other requirements, most don't. Two-thirds of teachers report less than six hours of training in the last three years. One-third say they took none.

More than a quarter of Bay Area school districts offer no professional development in science. Some have eliminated science coordinators.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act tends to be a whipping boy for all gripes, and in this case, it is partly to blame. Both it and the state Academic Performance Index for elementary schools foster neglect of science by focusing almost exclusively on scores in math and English language arts.

The state starts testing students in science in fifth grade, but the results count for less than 10 percent of a school's API score - a disincentive for teaching it. Low-performing schools facing state and federal sanctions have been forced to drop science altogether.

Dropping science for more scripted reading and math time punishes children and reflects weaknesses in curricula and failures of adult imaginations.

It needn't be like this. There are isolated programs of excellence, and several emerging science and math education initiatives could make an impact.

An encouraging alternative is Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading, a new program developed by the University of California-Berkeley. It integrates literacy training and science teaching at every grade level. The feds and the State Board of Education should be funding more programs like this ( and encouraging poorly performing schools to try them.

This could be a watershed year. Most K-8 districts are choosing science textbooks. For the first time in seven years, thanks to another curriculum developed by the University of California's Lawrence Hall of Science, districts have the option of inquiry-based, hands-on learning materials that can foster a rich understanding of science. The Lawrence Hall of Science is also offering extensive training in their use (

Some scientists we've spoken with are enthusiastic about FOSS (Full Option Science System) compared with traditional science texts. But there's a catch: Project-based science requires that teachers have a deeper understanding of scientific methods and take more class time for this approach than teaching facts alone.

To produce the next generation of scientists, districts must make the commitment.

The full research brief is available on the web at

A short video summarizing the findings is available here.

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