STEMbeats Blog

Will Elementary Science Remain the Forgotten Stepchild of School Reform?

May 8, 2017

Great science standards can help schools accomplish great things, but only if those schools spend time teaching them. That may sound like a truism, but that simple fact could hamstring efforts to improve science education across the country.

Change the Equation dug into survey data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for fourth-grade science and found that many of the nation’s elementary school children were on a starvation diet of thin and infrequent science instruction. Elementary teachers received precious little professional development in the kinds of science instruction favored by new science standards adopted by dozens of states, including the Next Generation Science Standards.

If these conditions do not change, the new standards may not fulfill their promise, and states may squander a vital chance to give children a strong foundation for achievement in middle school science and beyond.1

Fortunately, states can adopt policies to encourage much more robust science teaching in elementary schools. By including elementary science in their school accountability systems and supporting better professional development, they can counter the forces that drive science out of elementary classrooms.

Hands-on, inquiry-based science is scarce in elementary school

Only about half of the nation’s fourth-graders do hands-on science activities at least once a week, and only one in four have teachers who focus on inquiry skills:

Few 4th-graders engage in hands-on or learn inquiry skills

To put it bluntly, most fourth-graders don’t experience very good science instruction. (And, as we’ll see later, their teachers aren’t really to blame.) Decades of research support the value of hands-on science experiences that develop students’ ability to engage in sustained scientific inquiry. In fact, that research informs the animating vision behind the Next Generation Science Standards, which aim to transform science education in states across the country. That vision is still far from reality.

Few elementary students spend much time on science

One major constraint on elementary science is time. Students who spend little time on science will have less exposure to hands-on, inquiry-based science.

Unfortunately, time for science is a scarce commodity for most U.S. fourth-graders:

Many fourth-graders in in the United States spend little time on science

Most U.S. fourth-graders spend less than three hours a week in science—and one in five don’t even get two hours. A mere 14 percent spend at least five hours a week, or one hour a day, on science. In 12 states, at least two thirds of students fall below the three-hour threshold (To learn where your state stands, visit our Vital Signs website and select your state from the drop-down menu.)

How much time is enough?

Those looking for ironclad consensus on just how much time elementary schools should spend on the subject will look in vain, but few would consider three hours a week a very ambitious target. The National Research Council advises schools to provide enough time for “sustained investigations,”2 and notes that “opportunities to engage in the practices of science require…more time than the 30-45 minute session that elementary schools typically allocate to a science lesson.”3  

After all, children need time to define problems, carry out investigations, analyze data, explain results, design solutions—all priorities inscribed in the Next Generation Science Standards. Children cannot develop scientific habits of mind on the margins of the school day.

Expanding time for elementary science can make a difference

Time is no panacea, but it does clear space for better science teaching. The NAEP data we examined bear this out.

Students who have more time for science in school are more likely to do hands-on activities:4

The more time fourth-graders spend on science, the more often they do hands-on activitie

Their teachers are more likely to emphasize inquiry skills:

The more time fourth-graders spend on science, the more often they practice inquiry skills

And it should surprise no one that they also tend to earn higher science scores on NAEP:

Fourth-graders whose teachers spend more time on science tend to score higher in the subject

No, time alone will not work miracles. If it did, rising time for science would prompt even faster gains in scores. Still, the evidence points to time as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for student success.

When and why did elementary science become a forgotten stepchild?

States used to recommend more time for science. As far back as 1986, states commonly counseled schools and elementary teachers to devote a minimum of 175 to 225 minutes per week to the subject. Teacher surveys at the time suggested that the average teacher cleared the lower bar, spending roughly 190 minutes on science.

How times have changed. The few states that still make recommendations set the minimum bar higher than three hours, but these days those recommendations are about as binding as a New Year’s resolution:

State recommendations on instruction for elementary science have little effect

Beginning in the late 1980s, states ramped up pressure on schools to lift students’ performance in reading and math, while science tumbled down the priority list. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act codified accountability for reading and math results in federal law, before The Every Student Succeeds Act replaced it in 2015.

One national teacher survey found that, between 1994 and 2008, the average time for science in grades one through four fell from 3.0 to 2.3 hours, before rebounding somewhat to 2.6 hours by 2012.5 Early in the new millennium, school and district leaders attributed similar trends to No Child Left Behind.

Another reason for the elementary science drought: scant support for teachers

Teachers who aren’t confident in science are probably not inclined to spend much time on it. Many elementary teachers would be among the first to admit self-doubt when it comes to science. In a 2012 survey, only 39 percent said they felt “very well prepared” to teach science.

Small wonder. Few receive much professional development:

Fourth-grade teachers receive little or no good professional development in science

Such lack of support for elementary teachers compounds another problem: few have a strong background in science to begin with. In 2012, only 36 percent of K-5 teachers said they had taken courses in all three of the areas the National Science Teachers Association recommends for every elementary teacher: life, earth, and physical science.

Lack of accountability for science may fuel this dynamic as well. Districts and schools have little incentive to spend precious professional development dollars on elementary science as long as the subject does not count in any school performance ratings.

A tale of two states: making elementary science a priority in schools

The good news is that states can have a dramatic impact on the amount of time elementary teachers spend on science. The difference between Texas and Oregon is instructive:

Texas teachers are much more likely than their Oregon peers to spend time on science

What is Texas doing that Oregon isn’t? Unlike Oregon, Texas makes elementary students’ performance in science count towards schools’ overall accountability ratings. (Schools in states that do so generally devote more time to science.)6 In addition, its elementary teachers are much more likely to receive professional development in science.7 

Both options for bringing elementary science back into the fold are within every state’s grasp. As states submit their plans for holding schools accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), they have the option to add science to the list of indicators on which they will judge schools. States can also provide funds for professional development in elementary science.

It is too early to tell how many states will follow this path—their ESSA plans are still rolling in—but Oregon is making some promising motions. The state’s draft plan says state leaders will consider “including science in the accountability system” after its new science assessment launches in 2018. It also cites the state’s STEM plan, which explicitly aims to boost “time for inquiry-based science” to “at least 3-4 hours per week in elementary school.”

The national data on elementary science may look grim, but advocates for science education should still take heart. As more states adopt new science standards that focus on inquiry and build new science tests to match them, they may yet create more incentives for elementary teachers to teach science—especially if advocates continue to make the case.

Post-script: Take advantage of afterschool!

The troubling data on elementary science should also fan the flames of afterschool advocacy. The fact that millions of children get such a thin diet of science at school provides ample reason to support hands-on science outside of the school day. Research by The Afterschool Alliance finds that millions of U.S. children would participate in afterschool programs if such programs were available to them. At a time when so many elementary schools neglect science, afterschool offers a largely untapped strategy for fueling children’s interest in the subject.

Updated on 5/9/2017 to correct the percentage of teachers who said they felt “very well prepared” to teach science.


1 Decades of research hold that elementary-age students can grasp sophisticated concepts and practices in science. Surveys suggest that many scientists choose to pursue the field by middle school or even earlier.

2 National Research Council, Framework

3 National Research Council, Monitoring Progress Toward Successful K-12 STEM Education: A Nation Advancing?  https://www.nap.edu/read/13509/chapter/1#iv.

4 These and other NAEP data in this report do not prove causal relationships or tell us about the direction of cause and effect, but they do suggest a logical story. Hands-on activities and sustained inquiry take time, and so do the kinds of teaching that improve students’ performance.

5 U.S. Department of Education, Schools and Staffing Survey, 1994-2012.

6 Eugene Judson, The Relationship Between Time Allocated for Science in Elementary Schools and State Accountability Policies, Science Education, 97 (4), 621-636. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.21058/abstract

7 Fifty-four percent of Texas fourth-graders had teachers who, to a “large” or “moderate extent,” received professional development for instructional methods in science. Only 15 percent of their peers in Oregon had such teachers. Forty percent of Texas fourth-graders had teachers who, to a “large” or “moderate extent,” learned about effective lab activities in science. A mere six percent in Oregon did. (National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade science assessment, 2015.)

Tags: science, Next Generation Science Standards, infographic

New Vital Signs Data: Access to Challenging STEM Courses

May 4, 2017

Do high schoolers in your state have access to challenging courses in math and science? Change the Equation has just released new data on high school students' access to classes like calculus or physics. We found that few states offer anything approaching universal access to such courses. Millions of students attend high schools that do not even offer those courses. As is so often the case, students of color fare worst.

Nationally, one in four Latino students and nearly one third of black high schoolers attend schools that did not offer calculus in the 2013/14 school year. American Indian students faced even worse odds. Access to physics classes was only moderately better.

Students in schools that do not offer calculus and physics

Many students across the country couldn't take a calculus of physics class even if they wanted to. That's a problem. Watch this space in the coming weeks for more analysis of this problem and how states can tackle it.

In the meantime, head over to our Vital Signs website to see where your state stands.

Tags: math, science, standards

Eyes on Indiana: Turning Data Into Action

April 13, 2017

Last month, the Indiana Senate passed a bill to bridge the gap between school curriculum and workforce demands. Their data-based solution hopes to fill one million jobs over the next 10 years--with an emphasis on high-paying STEM jobs that don't require a 2-year or 4-year degree.

According to our Vital Signs data, STEM jobs in Indiana will grow 17 percent from 2014-2024, compared with 11 percent for non-STEM jobs. Although many Indiana students seem to aspire to 4-year degrees, only 28 percent of the state's degrees and certificates are awarded in STEM fields. Our data as well as data from the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) certainly make the case for a state-wide focus on STEM skills. And it seems like state leaders have answered the call.

Indiana takes data-based innovation to new heights with the creation of the Indiana Career Explorer. This digital program gives students an aptitude test that identifies strengths and uses that as a basis for exploring an entire career pipeline from coursework to credentials. For example, an assessment might determine that a student would excel in manufacturing.

“Then the student would next begin to assess what particular area of manufacturing they might like or be best suited for," said Senator Doug Eckerty to The Star Press. "So let's just say that would be a [computer numerically controlled] machine operator. Then the student would be presented with all of the education requirements to become a CNC operator. Do they need certificates? If so, how many? Do they need an industry-certified credential? Do they need an associate degree or a four-year degree?”

“They would also be presented with information as to where they could obtain the certificates, credentials, or degrees and what exactly each would cost,” Eckerty continued. “Then they would be able to search the DWD database to see if in fact there were any employers in their county who needed trained people in the student's area of interest, along with current and projected employer demand and the wages associated with this job. Next the student will complete a 'pathway to completion,' which will lay out classes, certificates and credentials on a timeline for completion.”

Many corporate and education institution have long struggled to agree on curriculum and coursework that correlates to future job skills. So Indiana is among the first states to try providing the DWD data directly to students to promote the changes they want to see.

This Indiana Career Explore bill includes a year-long pilot for eighth-graders in 15 school districts. After the pilot, Indiana Career Explorer will be fully integrated into the state-wide eighth grade program. This bill holds promise for many other states hoping to turn the tide of the career and technical education skills gaps at home. Keep your eyes on Indiana!

Tags: Career Technical Education

Could a Shortage of Career and Technical Educators Slow Progress on Career Readiness?

April 12, 2017

A recent headline at hartfordbusiness.com caught our attention: “Vo-tech instructor shortage is manufacturing’s biggest test.” The story warned of a rising shortage of career and technical instructors to help prepare a new generation of talent to replace retiring workers at Connecticut manufacturing plants.

Hmm, we wondered, is this a regional blip or a national trend? It didn’t take much digging to unearth similar stories all over the country:

In California, “Supply lags booming demand for career technical teachers.” In Minnesota, “Where are all the career and technical educators?” and “Career and technical education shortage must be addressed with a sense of urgency.” In Michigan, “Shortage of qualified instructors a challenge for school CTE programs.” In North Dakota, “Career, tech ed struggle with teacher shortages.”

National indicators bear out the headlines. In a 2016 U.S. Department of Education listing, many states projected teacher shortages in career and technical (CTE) education, among other subject areas. 

What’s Going On?

Several factors appear to be at play. Schools have been rolling out new, robust CTE programs—and student interest in CTE is growing. CTE is replacing traditional vocational–technical education, which has fallen out of favor. That’s because vo-tech typically did not prepare students for education after high school, which is now essential for most middle and high-skilled jobs. Today, the best CTE programs provide rigorous academics, applied learning experiences and, in some cases, recognized credentials. CTE also offers pathways to both postsecondary education and attractive careers in high-demand, fast-growing fields such as advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, engineering, environmental services, health informatics, information technology and finance.

The bench of qualified teachers is inadequate to meet this demand. As vo-tech programs declined, many postsecondary institutions eliminated teacher education programs focused on this specialty. To boost the supply of teachers, some states are offering alternative certification or relaxing CTE teacher licensing requirements, which may require specialized skills and even years of industry experience. Teacher salaries, meanwhile, don’t come close to compensating for this level of expertise, but lowering standards risks hurting students.

Looking to the Business Community for Solutions

Licensing changes alone will not be enough to staff up CTE programs. Instead, states are looking to new approaches and new collaboration with industry, which benefits from workforce preparation by CTE programs.

There seems to be overwhelming interest nationwide in closer collaboration with the business community. In a 2016 report by Advance CTE and the Council of Chief State School Officers, 98 percent of 47 state CTE directors surveyed said that increasing access to “industry experts”—people with both knowledge and experience in a specific industry and the knowledge, skills and abilities to support students and collaborate with teachers—is a key priority area today in high schools. Moreover, 100 percent said that it will be an increasing priority in the future. This report champions the role of industry in supporting CTE, and suggests that industry experts could serve as part-time or adjunct high school instructors, career advisors or counselors, mentors and career coaches, and advisors for school CTE organizations.

In California, a recent policy brief offers a similar set of solutions to the “severe” shortage of CTE teachers, where 67 percent of high schools with career pathways programs reported that recruiting and retaining instructors with appropriate credentials is challenging or very challenging. “Industry partners are crucial to addressing this shortage,” according to this policy brief. Among other recommended solutions: more funding for CTE teacher preparation, pathways to teaching for employees within industry sectors, pre-service and in-service CTE teacher preparation in industry, and industry mentorship to support new CTE teachers. 

States and corporate organizations up for the challenge will need to tap into their repertoires of evidence--like state Vital Signs reports or local workforce data--to illuminate weak areas and build better strategies for connecting CTE teachers and industry partners with eager students.

Tags: Career Technical Education, teachers

Business/Education Partnerships Can Thrive in California

April 5, 2017

Companies are often wary of collaborating with school districts, because they worry that education bureaucracies will hamstring their efforts. Fortunately, big changes have been afoot in the nation's largest state for some time now. California is urging its school districts to forge stronger partnerships with school districts, and the state is even putting its money where its mouth is.

Businesses have more opportnities to join school district leaders at the planning table, and the state continues to put serious money behind efforts to promote school-based learning. for more information, check out our new guide to help California companies take advantage of these incentives.   

New Opportunities to work with schools

Tags: Career Technical Education, jobs & workforce

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