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Study: elementary school science education neglected

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OCTOBER 26, 2011

Researchers found that only 10 percent of California’s public elementary schools receive high-quality science-based education, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study found that the state’s public elementary schools neglect the sciences in their attempts to improve scores on statewide testing, which focuses on mathematics and English.

Conducted by the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley and SRI International, the report was a combination of case studies of multiple elementary schools across the state and surveys conducted with principals, teachers and district administrators.

According to Holly Jacobson, executive director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd — which commissioned the study — 40 percent of elementary teachers said they spend no more than one hour teaching science each week.

According to Jacobson,  teachers are required to spend 50 to 60 minutes per day on mathematics and, for first, second and third graders, more than two hours on English.

“English and math are the only two subject matters that have instructional minute guidelines,” Jacobson said. “This leaves little time for other subjects.”

She said that when schools are in danger of budget cuts, takeovers or firing administrators, they tend to focus on improving things that are measurable and visible, like test scores.

But even when students are learning science in the classroom, it is not necessarily “high-quality,” according to Rena Dorph, a researcher at the Lawrence Hall of Science. She defines high-quality education as not only learning core concepts but also being hands-on and learning language and procedures.

“While educators and the public value it, children rarely have the opportunity to engage in high-quality science education because conditions that support such learning are not in place,” she said. “Equipment, materials and facilities needed to perform well are in short supply.”

Mark Coplan, spokesperson for the Berkeley Unified School District, said the teachers in the district simply follow the state curriculum and do not necessarily neglect science.

“Our fourth- and fifth-grade teachers teach science to the state standard in order to prepare kids for middle school, where they have science labs and a specified science teacher,” he said. “Rosa Parks Elementary School even has its own science lab.”

Because most elementary schools have only one teacher per grade, they must specialize in all subjects. Jacobson said the study found that only one-third of teachers said they feel prepared to teach science.

The study also showed that 85 percent of elementary school teachers have not received professional development in science in the past three years, limiting their knowledge of new science-related discoveries.

“Teacher comfort level with teaching science is also a problem,” she said. “Research shows that they are comfortable with English and math but not science, and they are getting very little professional development to support them.”

Coplan said that while this may be a statewide issue, it is not problematic in Berkeley.

“I do not think our teachers are any less qualified to teach science than math and English,” he said. “They are qualified for all subjects.”

According to Dorph, the study offers recommendations including having a comprehensive curriculum for students that incorporates ample time for science, as well as investing in professional development for teachers to become more prepared in teaching the subject.

“Science education needs to be a priority,” she said. “Policymakers need to revise the state accountability system and restore a full and balanced curriculum that includes science for every student.”

Contact Jasmine Mausner at 


OCTOBER 26, 2011