25 November 2007

The Sad State of Elementary Science

A recent study by UC Berkley has lent some weight to a sad suspicion I've had for some time: science courses at the elementary grades are becoming extinct.

About 80 percent of those teachers said they spent less than an hour each week teaching science, according to researchers from the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley and from WestEd, an education think tank based in San Francisco.

In contrast, a national study seven years ago found elementary school science instruction averaged more than two hours per week, said Rena Dorph, the lead researcher on the new study.

  • About 16 percent of the elementary teachers said they spent no time on science at all. (Most taught at schools that had missed the reading and math benchmarks of No Child Left Behind and were trying to catch up.)
  • Most kindergarten to fifth-grade students typically had science instruction no more than twice a week.
  • Ten times as many teachers said they felt unprepared to teach science (41 percent) than felt unprepared to teach math (4 percent) or reading (4 percent).
  • Fewer than half of Bay Area fifth-graders (47 percent) scored at grade level or above on last spring's California Standards Test in science. (Only fifth-graders are tested in science at the elementary level.)
You can read the full report here, if you're interested.

While I don't doubt that the expectations set forth by NCLB are a driving force behind science getting muscled out, my hunch is that other elements may also be at work. I think this is a bigger issue than just blame the feds. If 41% of elementary teachers feel unprepared to teach science---isn't that an issue the ed schools need to tackle? Is it a sign for greater need for elementary science specialists and coaches?

There are repercussions of this lack of science (or experience with bad science) which I see in my classroom all the time. I feel like I'm continually having to teach some basic scientific knowledge and skills...and fight against all manner of misconceived ideas.

I hope that at some point, this overall trend toward less science reverses and children get the kinds of rich experiences they deserve in the elementary classroom. I admit that I'm not sure what it will take to get us there. Any ideas?


Hugh O'Donnell said...

Although I wound up in social science as an undergrad and graduate student, when I was in grades 1-12, science was my favorite subject with very few exceptions.

My Dad subscribed to the Science Book Club in my name, and I even had a big copy of Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia, 3rd Ed., on my desk!

Less science = heresy! That's what we get for overemphasizing testing in math and reading. (Pardon the oversimplification...I rail.)

The Science Goddess said...

I think what is also often forgotten is that children of poverty need experiences in order to build background knowledge. As Reeves is quick to point out, proficiency with expository writing skills is the number one way to raise student achievement---but, you have to give kids something to write about. This is where science can play a much stronger role, but we're so busy compartmentalizing learning into "reading," "math," "writing," "science," etc., that we aren't using our precious time very wisely. I really hope that can change.