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California teachers lack the resources and time to teach science

A statewide survey and interviews with LAUSD elementary school teachers and administrators find that students are receiving little hands-on science instruction.

October 31, 2011|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Jestin Banks, left, Jacob Campo, and Marvin Garcia Jr., all 6, conduct an experiment with dry ice. They were learning about the states of matter at Alexander Science Center School in Los Angeles.
Jestin Banks, left, Jacob Campo, and Marvin Garcia Jr., all 6, conduct an… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

At some Los Angeles elementary schools, teachers have drastically cut time for science because of pressure to focus on reading and math. If they can incorporate science into class time, they say they mostly have to buy their own supplies.

And educators from the state's high-tech epicenter of Silicon Valley say some students come to high school having never once conducted an experiment in earlier grades.

California, known as a global symbol of scientific and technological excellence, is failing to invest enough time, money and training to teach science well, according to interviews and a new survey of more than 1,100 elementary school teachers and administrators.

Only 10% of elementary students regularly receive hands-on science lessons, the report found. Just one-third of elementary teachers said they feel prepared to teach science, and 85% said they have not received any training during the last three years, according to the survey conducted by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, SRI International and others.

The squeeze on science instruction is reflected in predominantly low science test scores. On the most recent fourth-grade science exams compiled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, California students ranked at the bottom level along with Arizona, Mississippi and Hawaii.

Federal, state and local education officials agree that science education must be improved — in California and nationwide. The Obama administration is calling for 100,000 new science and math teachers following bipartisan studies showing that the nation is losing its competitive technological edge. And even Elmo is getting into the act, with "Sesame Street" launching science segments on the popular public television show.

"I want to see a renaissance of science education in California, which has been slowly diminishing, and bring it to a new, higher level," said Tom Torlakson, the state Supt. of Public Instruction.

Torlakson said that students well-trained in science, technology, engineering and math — the disciplines known as STEM — are critical to the state's economic prosperity. Fifteen of every 20 new jobs in the state require such skills, he said.

Torlakson and others have launched a flurry of initiatives. They include plans to rewrite the state's 13-year-old science content standards to focus more on hands-on learning and a new statewide network of educators, scientists, philanthropists and business leaders to push STEM education. The California STEM Learning Network brought science instruction to 300 after-school programs this fall and plans to more than triple that number next year.

"There is a sense of alarm, particularly in the business community, over our low achievement scores in math and science," said Christopher Roe, head of the STEM network. "For a state that depends on science and technology as we do with Silicon Valley and Hollywood, we can't afford to be on the bottom. We have a history in years past as a leader, and we have to get there again."

Some educators are pushing to give science test scores greater weight alongside those for English and math in measuring a school's academic performance. The current Academic Performance Index, which is used to assess schools' progress in meeting state and federal achievement goals, currently gives science a weight of 5.9%.

At Los Angeles Elementary School, teachers J.C. Smyth and Maria Duarte say that pressures to prepare students for English and math tests have drastically encroached on science instruction. Smyth estimates that he's cut his fifth-grade science classes from three days a week to one over the last several years; Duarte's fourth-grade classes have gone from four days to two.

In addition, those educators and others said, money for science supplies and teacher training has dried up. Duarte, for instance, buys her own soil, marigold seeds and magnets for classroom projects and is no longer able to attend the many training workshops she once did. Statewide, the California Science Project's funding to train teachers has shrunk to $1.2 million from $9 million in 2002-03 — half of which were state funds.

But Smyth noted that the focus on math and reading has reaped its own rewards: the school, in the Harvard Heights neighborhood of largely low-income immigrant families, hit the state's API target of 800 for the first time this year.

"It's a moral quandary," Smyth said. "You see the improvement in math and reading scores but you also know the kids aren't getting what they should have in other subjects."

Not all is bleak. The elementary school report, funded by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, also identified top quality science programs in various schools. Many of those use science to teach math and reading skills and tap outside partners to provide training and materials for hands-on lessons.

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