Will We Make Time for Science and Engineering in our Elementary Schools?

For years, STEM education advocates have wanted to introduce fundamental principles of engineering as early as the elementary grades. Many have embraced the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for aiming to do just that. Are the NGSS living up to their billing so far? In elementary schools, the answer is…yes and no.

As we noted last month, states adopting NGSS are already devoting more attention to engineering and technology in eighth-grade classrooms. In fourth grade, by contrast, the picture is mixed, with most NGSS states surging ahead in those areas but others staying stagnant. Why? Odds are, the answer has to do with time. States where elementary schools spend little time on science will probably not fulfill the promise of NGSS.

We analyzed survey data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science to see how teachers are spending their instructional time, focusing on states that adopted the standards before 2014.[1]

We found mostly good news, but with a glaring exception:

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Most NGSS states ramp up engineering & tech in 4th grade--but not CA

California started low and ended low, falling well short of the national average for growth.

When we explored how often fourth graders discussed engineering challenges in school, we saw similar patterns:

Elementary students tackle engineering in most NGSS states--except CA & WA

California and Washington State both saw little change since 2009, and both remained significantly behind the national average for students who frequently discuss the kinds of problems engineers solve.[2]

What do these two states have in common? Elementary schools in both spend little time teaching science in fourth grade:

Some states spend less time on science

In 2015, fourth-graders in Washington State and California were much less likely to devote time to science than peers in any other state on the list of NGSS early adopters. Science is almost the only vehicle for engineering in most elementary schools, so if schools don’t attend to science, they won’t attend to engineering.

The relationship between time for science and time for engineering seems to hold for all the states we examined:

Scatterplot--relation between time for engineering & time for science

Things may still look up for California and Washington State. All NGSS states were just starting to implement the new standards in 2015, when NAEP collected these data. In fact, California remains in the early stages of implementation.

As states build their new science tests and adopt new accountability plans, they may yet create more incentives for elementary teachers to teach science. After all, most elementary teachers don’t decide on their own to give science short shift. They take their cues from states or districts that do not include science in their accountability plans, offer meager professional development in the subject, or skimp on teaching materials.

NGSS can achieve only so much if science—and thus engineering--remains the forgotten stepchild of elementary education.


[1] Our findings represent correlations (though strong ones) in a relatively small number of states. Three states that adopted NGSS before 2014 were not part of our analysis, because we did not have data on them: Kansas and Vermont (which did not participate in 2009 NAEP science), and Washington, DC (which did not participate in 2015 NAEP science). We examined results for the following survey questions: “In this class, about how much time do you spend on engineering and technology? (teacher-reported)” (None, a little, some, a lot); “In a typical week, how much time do you spend teaching science to the students in the class? (teacher reported)” (<1 hour, 1-1.9 hours, 2-2.9 hours, 3-3.9 hours, 4-4.9 hours, 5-5.9 hours, 6-6.9 hours, 7 hours or more); “About how often do your science students discuss the kinds of problems that engineers can solve? (teacher reported)” (Never or hardly ever, Once or twice a month, Once or twice a week, Every day or almost every day).

[2] From the evidence at hand, Washington State seemed to do somewhat better in technology than in engineering. The data don’t tell us why, but fourth-grade teachers may have found time for technology content in subjects other than science.