COMMENTARY: Science instruction needs the same attention as … – EdSource

When the state’s standardized test scores were released in October, there was little reporting on or discussion of students’ performance on the California Science Test. Yet, fewer than 3 in 10 of California’s children met state standards for science — both before and after the pandemic.
Is the lack of interest in the science scores due to the fact there is only a 0.48% decline from the 2018-19 school year to the latest 2021-22 results, compared with much larger drops in English and math? Is it because science education has been overlooked and underprioritized for more than two decades? Or is it because there is still no accountability for science education as a part of our state or federal school accountability systems?
The answer is likely all three.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, more commonly referred to as STEM education, play a critical role in equipping the next generation with the capacity to navigate the 21st century’s challenges and opportunities. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Education launched the You Belong in STEM initiative to promote STEM education and careers, largely to audiences who are often underrepresented, particularly women and people of color. It can also easily be argued that without the advances in science and technology over the past few decades, we would not be where we are today with Covid-19 vaccines and at-home testing kits available in every pharmacy. However, here in California, CAASPP scores show that these subjects, particularly science and math, continue to be a struggle for most students.
Across the state, science became a lower priority in most schools and districts during the pandemic, according to a recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California. Lockdowns reduced teacher professional development, and lack of student engagement and other barriers during remote instruction had a big impact on science instruction. Most of the science teachers surveyed for the PPIC report said they had covered less than half of their science curriculum during the 2020-21 school year.
School districts largely delayed or suspended their science instructional materials adoption as well as their implementation of new middle school and high school science course sequences. The impact of the failure to prioritize science education is reflected in our statewide test scores.
With 70% of our kids not meeting standards in science, and just over 30% meeting or exceeding standards in math, how are we expected to fill the new demand for science and technology positions in our increasingly STEM-dependent economy? Even for careers that are not STEM-specific, these courses help students develop critical and creative thinking, problem-solving and exploratory learning skills that help fuel innovation. These benefits reach far beyond the STEM fields alone.
How can we fix this? If California is to stay globally competitive, we need STEM courses that teach evidence-based decision-making, foster collaboration skills and provide students with the tools to investigate, discover, engineer, design and otherwise make sense of the world around them. These courses require well-prepared teachers. In recent years, the California state budget included critical investments to target our state’s teacher shortage, including STEM teachers.
Unfortunately, these are one-time investments, and as a result, their impact will be limited, rather than systemic. Effective utilization of these funds depends heavily on the capacity of school districts and their teacher preparation program partners. School districts are still grappling with the impact of the pandemic, and there have been few targeted investments in our state’s teacher preparation programs. Consequently, according to data from the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, there has been a decline in new credentials for teaching science in the last five years and anemic growth in new mathematics credentials. Looking ahead, the state must find ways to shore up the STEM teacher pipeline by increasing starting teacher salaries and reducing or eliminating the cost of teacher preparation, making the profession more appealing and accessible. However, preparing high-quality teachers is only one piece of the puzzle.
The second piece is acknowledging science and math test scores have remained dishearteningly low for years. One way to improve them is to make student outcomes in science more visible by including them on the California School Dashboard alongside mathematics and incorporating them into our statewide accountability system. This will help make the information more visible and therefore, actionable. Data is a pivotal tool in forming a baseline understanding of where our schools, students and educators need the most support. Once communities know where the weak points are, they can use data-driven insight to form steps forward, particularly through the local control and accountability plan (LCAP) planning process.
Finally, there are a multitude of state and federal pandemic relief funds that have been allocated to schools and districts with quite a bit of discretion on how these funds can be spent. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for those interested in advocating for increased investments in STEM education at the local level. Key investments that can support and advance STEM education locally include:
We cannot afford to be silent about the fact that less than one-third of California students are meeting standards in science. There’s a lot we can do to bring our students up to speed. We just need the will to do it.
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Jessica Sawko is the statewide director of the California STEM Network, a project of Children Now, a statewide nonprofit advocacy organization.
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Thoughts? I have some. As a Science/STEAM teacher, I understand the importance of STEM education on the U.S. economy as a whole and the economic benefits to the individual.YES!Science is crucial. But so is reading, specifically reading comprehension. I often feel like a Reading Teacher in an elementary fifth grade Science classroom. Why? Reading comprehension is so low and needs such support that at times it overrides science content. Merging language and … Read More
Thoughts? I have some. As a Science/STEAM teacher, I understand the importance of STEM education on the U.S. economy as a whole and the economic benefits to the individual.YES!Science is crucial. But so is reading, specifically reading comprehension. I often feel like a Reading Teacher in an elementary fifth grade Science classroom. Why? Reading comprehension is so low and needs such support that at times it overrides science content.
Merging language and content is not as easy as one might think, especially with high-stakes tests looming overhead. The lack of reading for comprehension is one of the biggest obstacles in the classroom. I can give students the performance task of sorting objects that are magnetic from those that are not; however, switch that same task from 3D to 2D, pencil to paper with text and the success rate goes way down due to a lack of reading comprehension. The model for reading in most districts is in pre-K-2 – learning to read, then in 3-5 reading to learn. If students haven’t fully mastered learning to read, then using reading to learn becomes problematic for all subjects. Again, STEM is crucial, but reading is fundamental.
Please chime in whether you agree or disagree with me or the article. I’m open to different views.
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I completely agree! Reading to learn as well as basic algebraic knowledge are critical components for success in high school science courses. I have taught physics students who barely passed Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 with a D or C resulting in students who cannot understand how to rearrange an equation to solve for an unknown or even more complicated tasks such as identifying and using multiple equations to solve the physics problem. Even concepts … Read More
I completely agree! Reading to learn as well as basic algebraic knowledge are critical components for success in high school science courses.
I have taught physics students who barely passed Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 with a D or C resulting in students who cannot understand how to rearrange an equation to solve for an unknown or even more complicated tasks such as identifying and using multiple equations to solve the physics problem. Even concepts such as the “order of operations” (PEMDAS) are not understood by many students as they enter the Physics science class. One might wonder, “Why are these students enrolled in Physics anyways?”…Well I asked counselors and admin the same question since these struggling students already passed Biology and Chemistry (sometimes with barely a D) which gives them the minimum of 2 years of science credit to graduate from high school (according to CA). However, per my district’s policy, they want all students to take 3-4 years of science even though they are not prepared. Physics is Fun, but it is challenging.
There are plenty of qualified science and math teachers in California that have Masters degrees and even PhDs. They just don’t have teaching credentials but they teach at community colleges and universities all over California and should be allowed to teach high school without a teaching credential. If they can teach dual enrollment students as young as 15, they are more than competent to teach high school. Relaxing the teacher credentialing requirement is … Read More
There are plenty of qualified science and math teachers in California that have Masters degrees and even PhDs. They just don’t have teaching credentials but they teach at community colleges and universities all over California and should be allowed to teach high school without a teaching credential. If they can teach dual enrollment students as young as 15, they are more than competent to teach high school.
Relaxing the teacher credentialing requirement is essential considering that our high school STEM education is abysmal! The current system isn’t working and hasn’t worked for a very long time. Use the outstanding resources available in our state-the very well educated stem professionals – and the kids test scores will rise dramatically. Many of the STEM classes in high school have no teacher whatsoever or an unqualified substitute. This can easily be remedied by hiring subject matter competent professionals at once to teach these classes. It’s a great use of our resources and a common sense solution to the problem. Let’s hope Newsom and those in government in California see this a solution too, and very soon.
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Good to know Robert. Any idea why the K-12 industry shuts out qualified instructors when our kids are not getting the instruction they need?
Since Science requires both math and language skills to achieve proficiency, it would make sense to prioritize it – As I have been advocating all the years I have taught science! And it needs to be fully funded.
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Thank you, Paula! Science integrates with and strengthens language development, reading, and mathematics – and often gets kids excited to engage in education.
Thank you for writing that piece Jessica. Very much appreciate the light being shed on STEM education. In our supposedly high-performance school district, our California Science Test (CAST) scores in high school are 50% proficiency in three of our four high school. As a parent I’m asking questions and pointing out that this is an issue that should be addressed but it’s a huge push up a tall hill to get our administrators … Read More
Thank you for writing that piece Jessica. Very much appreciate the light being shed on STEM education. In our supposedly high-performance school district, our California Science Test (CAST) scores in high school are 50% proficiency in three of our four high school. As a parent I’m asking questions and pointing out that this is an issue that should be addressed but it’s a huge push up a tall hill to get our administrators to come up with a plan to raise the bar. They are more interested in spending time and money on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The K-12 system is broken in CA when the teacher’s union pays for the election of the people who approve salaries raises and priorities. Locally the “me-too” practices are an obvious conflict of interest that no politician wants to talk about.
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A high-quality science education, along with math and language arts, can be in-service of and advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In fact, our STEM workforce employers are also largely focused on DEI and would like to see more young girls and kids of color gain access to and receive support in high-quality STEM instruction and learning experiences. That is to say, if a district has prioritized DEI, then STEM can easily be a part … Read More
A high-quality science education, along with math and language arts, can be in-service of and advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In fact, our STEM workforce employers are also largely focused on DEI and would like to see more young girls and kids of color gain access to and receive support in high-quality STEM instruction and learning experiences. That is to say, if a district has prioritized DEI, then STEM can easily be a part of that to strengthen the work and engage and improve outcomes for kids.
Completely agree Jessica. Do need to do both and should be able to do both!
I often feel articles in Edsource are slanted toward the fault of the school without looking at other problems or solutions. I appreciate that your article looks at the issue, why it’s an issue, factors that are not working, and how it could be changed. Thank you for your insights.
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Thank you, Mary. I am glad you found my comments useful. Our kids deserve the best from every adult in our education system. Focusing on solutions is part of that.
One of the handicaps to science education is California’s resistance to tracking. Offering Science magnets starting in 6th would be more effective than trying to push this out systemwide.
Labs and lab supplies are expensive so that needs to be considered carefully.
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