If Schools Aren't Teaching Science, Where Will the Next Generation of Scientists Come From?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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When President Obama launched his initiative to encourage students to embrace science and math, he said STEM fields are "more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than ever before." On the other side of the political spectrum, Florida Governor Rick Scott said recently that he wants to shift higher education funding away from liberal arts disciplines toward technology and science. But despite such broad acceptance that the nation's economy needs more professionals in the hard sciences, a new report reveals that elementary schools in the nation's most populated state are barely teaching the subject.

"Children in California’s elementary schools rarely have the opportunity to engage in high-quality science learning because the conditions that would support such opportunities are rarely in place," says Rena Dorph, a researcher at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Dorph and her colleagues found that although 90 percent of school principals and parents say science education is very important and should begin early, 40 percent of elementary teachers said they spent an hour or less per week teaching science last year. Thirteen percent taught the subject for less than 30 minutes a week.

The bulk of science instruction in California begins in fifth grade because that is the year state standardized tests begin measuring science knowledge. This means that by the time they get there, students are already behind in the fundamental science content they should know. This makes them less likely to perform well in their science classes, which discourages them from pursuing science academically or as a career.

Teachers told researchers that they love teaching science and their students enjoy it, but because of the pressure to meet federal and state accountability targets, they're forced to spend the bulk of their time teaching English and math. More than 90 percent of teachers say they have limited time to teach science, and 81 percent cited the emphasis on English language arts and math as a contributing factor.  

Even if they did have time to tackle the subject, 85 percent of teachers say they haven't had any professional development in science education over the past three years. And thanks to budget cuts, 70 percent say they have limited funds to purchase the supplies they need to properly teach the content. Schools serving low-income students are hit the hardest: Only 33 percent of the state's poorest schools host science education initiatives, compared to 68 percent of schools in wealthier areas.

Although the report's scope is limited to California schools, what's happening in the Golden State isn't an anomaly. The pressure of high-stakes testing is felt nationwide, so teachers in other places are just as likely to spend all day only teaching reading and math. And with budget shortfalls predicted to cause even deeper cuts in the coming year, classrooms aren't likely to be stocked with more science resources anytime soon.

The irony is that educators, parents, and politicians agree that science education should be a priority, yet it's still not happening in our schools. If schools don't fix science education, it threatens the creation of the next generation of scientists. And that's a real problem for the American economy

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Franklin Park Library