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Elementary schools fail to provide high-quality science instruction, report says

October 25, 2011 |  6:00 am

California, home to Silicon Valley and world-class research institutions, is largely failing to provide high-quality science instruction in public elementary schools, a new survey released Tuesday found.

Only 10% of elementary students regularly experience hands-on science practices, according to the survey of more than 1,100 teachers, principals and district administrators in some 300 California public schools. The top obstacles cited included a lack of funds for supplies and not enough time or teacher training. The intense pressure to improve reading and math test scores, teachers said, too often crowded out time for science.

“California does not have a coherent system that enables teachers and schools to consistently provide students with high-quality science learning experiences,” said the report, which was funded by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation.

The research, conducted during the 2010-11 school year, found that 40% of elementary teachers spent 60 minutes or less teaching science every week, even as many experts suggest 90 to 135 minutes. Just one-third of elementary teachers said they feel prepared to teach science, but 85% of teachers said they have not received any training in science during the last three years, according to the survey 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 report also identified top-quality science programs in various schools, which used science to teach math and reading skills. Many successful schools also tapped outside partners, including the Audubon Society and a local marine research institute, to provide training and materials for hands-on lessons using such scientific practices as posing questions, making observations and predictions, crafting experiments and analyzing data.

Rena Dorph, a researcher at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, said improving elementary school science education was key to helping develop young students’ critical thinking skills and put them on a path to higher education and good jobs.

“If we want kids to stay engaged in science, we need to get them excited at an early age,” she said.

The report can be found at www.cftl.org/science.

--Teresa Watanabe

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