Despite widespread media and public attention to the need for U.S. students to be globally competitive in science-related fields, remarkably little emphasis is placed on improving elementary science in U.S. public schools. Yet, it is effective elementary science programs that provide the foundation for a sound K-12 education in science. In a new report, Opportunity to Learn: Elementary Science, the Rennie Center analyzes whether students in high- and low-performing schools receive equitable opportunities to learn in science and, importantly, profiles the promising practices of schools that are beating the odds and succeeding at educating students to high levels in science. This report is the first in a two-part study that the Rennie Center is producing on Massachusetts students' opportunity to learn science. The second report, to be released in late Fall 2008, is being developed in partnership with the Education Development Center and will highlight opportunities to learn science at the high school level (9-12).
The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation and state accountability systems have created external incentives to improve student achievement in science in addition to English language arts (ELA) and math. In 2010, Massachusetts will require all 10th graders to pass one of the science MCAS tests (in biology, physics, chemistry or technology/engineering) in order to receive a diploma. Yet, to date, schools have increasingly placed their emphasis on math and ELA, to the detriment of science. There also exists a substantial racial/ethnic achievement gap in the sciences, just as there is in math and ELA. English language learners, those who are African American or Hispanic, and students from low-income homes are all falling well below the standards for proficiency set by the state. Given that the state holds all students accountable for their performance in science, it is necessary to examine whether all students are receiving equitable opportunities to learn and succeed at science. This report seeks to identify concretely what top-performing schools do to support science instruction and to draw out considerations for policymakers at the district and state levels.
Themes across the Schools
The following is a description of greater opportunities to learn science that are present in top-performing schools, compared to low-performing schools:
- More time on science.
- Teachers who specialize in science.
- Regularly scheduled support from district science coordinators.
- Science materials housed at the schools (rather than at the district).
- Professional development in science
- School budgets for science.
- High levels of parent involvement in and advocacy for science.
- Accessibility to natural resources.
- School leadership focused on science.
For school and district leaders:
- Make science a high priority in schools and across the district.
- Promote the integration of science with math and literacy.
- Set and monitor guidelines for time on science.
- Develop and monitor adherence to science curriculum that is mapped to state frameworks.
- Support, document, and -- if necessary -- mandate science-related professional development for elementary school teachers.
- Identify teachers with high levels of interest in science.
- Solicit engagement of local business and community leaders in science.
For state policymakers:
Providing more resources and ensuring that all elementary students in Massachusetts have opportunities to learn science and to achieve at high levels will require coordinated efforts by both state legislators and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The following are recommendations for consideration by both state legislators and the Department.
- Support expanded school day initiatives and encourage more time for subjects like science, especially for low-income and minority students.
- Provide mentoring and support for elementary teachers to become school-based science resource specialists.
- Provide broad, fundamental professional development that is aligned with state frameworks in science for elementary teachers, giving preference to low-performing schools that agree to send a critical number of teachers.
- Provide technical assistance and training on integrating science, literacy and mathematics instruction.
- Support enrichment opportunities for low-performing schools that lack active parent and community engagement in science.
- Provide a supplementary materials budget to under-resourced schools.