In his recent State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama spoke of the importance of science education to our country's future. Without a scientifically literate citizenry, America will continue to lose its competitive edge to industries overseas and jobs will go to those who are better prepared.
The same could be said of our state. As a report by the California Space Education and Workforce Institute put it, education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is the "essential ingredient for California competitiveness."
Hidden behind the rhetoric regarding the importance of science education, however, is the reality of what is happening in classrooms. Given student performance in the subject, science looks more like a missing ingredient than the centerpiece of our children's education.
The recent National Assessment of Educational Progress results make this reality disturbingly clear. The findings show that less than half of U.S. students are proficient in science. Just over one-fifth of 12th-grade students—21 percent—perform at or above proficient levels, and the results are little better for younger students, with 34 percent of fourth-graders and 30 percent of eighth-grade students performing at or above proficient levels. Only 1 percent of students scored at advanced levels.
In California, the results of the NAEP testing are particularly grim. Students in the Golden State scored among the bottom of all states participating in the NAEP science assessment. Just 22 percent of California fourth-grade students tested scored at the proficient level. More than half of eighth-grade students scored below basic.
California's own assessment of student learning in science underscores these findings. In 2010, just over half—55 percent—of fifth-grade students scored at proficient levels or above on the state's standards test. Perhaps most troubling, there is a 30-point gap in achievement between the state's largest and fastest growing bloc of students—Latinos—and their white and Asian peers. Just 43 percent of Latino students scored at proficient levels or above in science compared with 75 percent of white and 77 percent of Asian fifth-grade students. African American students fared no better, with just 42 percent at proficient levels or above.
Sadly, these findings come as little surprise. While some schools have exemplary science programs, many others with low student-achievement scores in mathematics and English have little time for science at all. But even if more time were devoted to the subject, teachers report they lack the preparation, training and resources needed to teach it effectively.
A 2007 survey of school districts in the Bay Area conducted by the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 80 percent of K-5 teachers who responded to the survey said they spent 60 minutes or less teaching science each week. Sixteen percent said they spent no time at all. These teachers also said they felt less prepared to teach science compared with other subjects, and more than two-thirds said they had fewer than six hours of professional development in science education over the last three years. More than a third—36 percent—said they received none at all.
If there is a bright spot amid this alarming news, it is in the public's interest in and strong support for better science instruction. New public opinion research finds that Californians believe science education should be a priority for the state's schools. They believe that the knowledge and understanding of science is key to keeping California and America at the forefront of technology and innovation, and essential to young people as they prepare to compete for jobs in a rapidly changing world.
The state's residents believe that science teaching should start early in order to prepare students to succeed in high school and beyond, and they want science taught at every grade level. Labs and equipment that allow students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and better teacher training are essential to student success as well.
The public's current interest in and support for efforts to strengthen this critical subject area present an important and timely opportunity to improve scientific learning. With support ranging from the nation's capital to its neighborhoods, we can help our students to become scientifically literate by ensuring the quality of their teachers. Boosting enrollment in teacher preparation programs featuring science and taking specific steps to strengthen science teaching practice for those already in the classroom are good places to start. Making sure our teachers have the knowledge and skill to impart this important subject powerfully and well remains the best chance of ensuring our students will be prepared for postsecondary education, the workplace and civic life.