Commentary: Well-trained teachers, hands-on lessons, quality tests: Fixing science education
Margaret Honey | March 13, 2023
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Americans are skeptical of science. Public ambivalence has shown itself clearly in concerns over the safety and necessity of vaccines and in the dismissal of public health guidance designed to curtail the spread of COVID-19. None of this is surprising, given the anemic state of science education in the U.S. Far too many young people encounter science only as a memorization exercise — not as a field of inquiry that requires exploration, investigation and problem solving. In addition, deep and enduring inequities have shut too many students out of quality science learning experiences for too long.
That is why science education must be a national priority.
As a nation, America needs to get serious about improving the state of science education through strategic policies and investments. A 2021 call to action report from the National Academies details the systemic improvements needed to ensure science is taught in ways that make it relatable and relevant to all, and to ensure that students of all races, ethnicities and financial circumstances have the opportunity to shape the future.
While there is tremendous demand for a skilled science workforce, the benefits of science education go far beyond the job market. A scientific mindset is essential for solving tomorrow’s problems; the country must commit resources to create high-quality learning opportunities that will enable science to be taught as a foundational subject for future generations.
Here are three key ways to bolster science education:
High-quality, well-trained, diverse teachers
Strengthening science education requires having well-trained, well-supported and diverse teachers in the classroom. Countries like China and India have made remarkable gains in science education by investing in their educators. But in the U.S., a recent survey found 69% of elementary school teachers and over 20% of secondary teachers do not feel they are well-prepared to teach science. These sentiments are felt more acutely by teachers in high-needs districts that serve high percentages of students of color. To foster continued professional growth, K-16 science educators deserve consistent professional development opportunities that build their knowledge and skills.
There must also be proactive and sustained efforts to attract and retain educators of color. Currently, 80% of public elementary, middle school and high school science teachers are white. The nation must strengthen pathways to incentivize individuals of all backgrounds to become science educators while providing the proper supports to retain diverse talent in schools.
Creative, student-centric materials
One of the greatest travesties, particularly in the elementary grades, is that science instruction is not a regular part of the curriculum. On average, elementary students spent just 20 minutes per day on science, compared with 90 minutes on English Language Arts. And when they do have exposure — meaning appropriate time and materials applied to learning science inside and outside of school — many students still experience a version that falls short of the vibrant, fascinating, hands-on experiences that are the hallmarks of excellent science education. Science is largely taught as a memorization exercise — for example, asking students to memorize the parts of a cell without understanding what they do — even though, in reality, it is a highly experiential discipline.
The country must embrace a vision aligned with A Framework for K-12 Science Education, the foundation for the Next Generation Science Standards, in which science instruction comes alive. For instance, the standards discourage lectures in favor of student-guided questions, problem solving and discussions of scientific principles, under the teacher’s guidance. Catalyzing a lasting interest in science means all instruction and materials should support students’ natural curiosity and be anchored in solving problems and asking questions, not regurgitating facts. To keep students engaged, educators must be equipped with high-quality materials that enliven and support scientific exploration.
Quality evaluation tools that measure performance
Science learning is assessed in pretty much the same way it is taught: as a memorization exercise. The very basis of science is exploration — asking questions and challenging accepted theories — rather than correct answers. It is time for evaluation tools to reflect that ethos, challenging students to use their thinking skills in a way that nurtures a scientific mindset and provides them with tools that can be used throughout their lifetimes.
Focusing efforts, policies and investments on getting these three core ingredients — people, resources and creative evaluation tools — correct can change the trajectory of science education in the U.S. It is the responsibility of education advocates and champions for learners to build on and scale up these best practices so quality science education is accessible to all children and finally treated as a national priority.