Friday, October 26, 2007

Science Nearly Eliminated from Bay Area Government-Run Schools

In a state where so much of the economy is powered by science and technology, California's government-run schools are abysmally failing to prepare the next generation in these domains.
California 8th graders scored 49th in the nation on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science. On the 2007 state standardized tests, a whopping 63% of 5th graders failed to demonstrate basic proficiency in the subject.

The Lawrence Hall of Science, a science museum run by the University of California-Berkeley, recently surveyed nearly 1000 teachers at government-run elementary schools here in the Bay Area. According to the survey, the barriers to offering a high quality elementary science program include a severe lack of time devoted to science instruction, poor teacher preparation, and little administration & political support for teaching science.

80% of teachers surveyed spent less than 60 minutes per week teaching science and 16% did not teach it at all. This was particularly a problem in the early grades. Of K-2 teachers, 22% taught no science and another 21% spent less than 30 minutes per week on it. A mere 7% reported spending more than 60 minutes per week.

The elementary teachers surveyed felt the least prepared to teach science of all the core subjects. While only 4% felt unprepared to teach reading & math, 41% felt unprepared to teach science. This was particularly a problem for inexperienced teachers, who comprise 1 in 7 of Bay Area teachers. Many districts had rates approaching 1 in 3. Few teachers had the opportunity for professional development (PD) in science. 71% of districts offered less than 5 hours' worth of science PD and 28% offered none whatsoever. 92% of the respondents wanted more PD in science.

The LHS survey also found a lack of administration support for teaching science. 52% responded that their districts did not offer any support for science education. Nor is there much funding on the state or Federal level for science education. Of the $325.4 million California spent on teacher PD in the 2006-2007 school year, a mere $1.2 million (0.37%) was for science. Notably, the funding for the California Science Project has been cut by 75% since 2002 (the first year the No Child Left Behind act applied). Of the $342.8 million in Federal funding, only roughly $9 million (2.6%) was for science.

As someone who studied biology in college, I find these numbers extremely depressing. Yes, the primary focus in the earliest grades will be the 3 R's, but science still has an important place in the curriculum. Some parents (typically affluent ones) will be motivated to "afterschool" their children in science to make up for deficiencies but what about all the rest who are too busy and/or disinterested? Their children will grow up at a major disadvantage when it comes to competing in the global economy. Particularly since we all know the premium that Asian cultures place on achieving scientific and technological prowess.

This survey is just one more reinforcement that we made the right decision to homeschool our children.


The Not Quite Crunchy Parent said...

Great post!

I too have noted the scores our students earn in science (and math) abysmal compared to those in other countries. Science gives context to math…so maybe lack of science education is impacting our math scores too. Though my son attends school, we have chosen to after school in two subjects history (to offer a less US-centric curriculum) and science…for the reasons you indicate. We are lucky to be able to do this.

But, to expand a bit on your point…there are not only parents who lack inclination or time but also those, typically in lower income brackets, that may lack the skills as well as the time.

I just finished reading, The Missing Class, by Katherine Newman, which brings up all of the unfair components of The No Child Left Behind Act….i.e. almost mandatory after schooling under the guise of “parent involvement” if a child is expected to remain at grade level. This is obviously undoable, not only for the middle class, two income family but REALLY impossible for two parent, four jobs family in the working class.

Crimson Wife said...

I think you've brought up an interesting point about parents lacking skills. It's not an insurmountable obstacle as parents can make up for it by hiring a tutor and/or enrolling their children in enrichment classes such as those offered by science museums. Outsourcing is how I'm planning to deal with art & music instruction in our homeschool since I am very weak in those domains. But a lack of skills can definitely hurt a parent's ability to judge whether the school is providing adequate education. They may very well assume that the regular school curriculum is fine and therefore not seek out special enrichment classes.

Dana said...

Great post! And I agree that there are certainly parents who are not able to teach these areas, but elementary school? Elementary science is not rocket science.

People seem to have this horrid fear that homeschoolers teaching their children creation is going to jeopardize the future of science somehow, but the secular school system doesn't seem to be doing much better.

We do 120 minutes a week....and that is one on one. : )