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Science Missing From California Elementary Schools

Aired 10/25/11 on KPBS News.

A new report finds California elementary school students are not getting high-quality science instruction.

A survey of California educators found that only about 10 percent of the state’s elementary school students get high-quality science lessons.

A national focus on math and reading squeezes out time for science instruction, according to the report released Tuesday.

Commissioned by Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, the report found California kids are not being prepared for the math and science-heavy careers of the future. It concludes that many elementary school teachers lack the time, training and resources to give their students high-quality science instruction.

Elementary school may seem like an early time to worry if students are getting enough exposure to scientific concepts, but researchers said giving students the chance to develop their own hypotheses and experiments is key to generating life-long interest.

“It’s during the middle school years that students start to get disaffected with school and turn off – especially to mathematics and science," said Patrick Shields, a director with SRI International, who led the study. "So it’s very important to build a strong basis in elementary school so that they move into their older years and they perceive themselves as capable in math and science.”

The report, based on a statewide survey of principals, school district administrators and teachers, found that more than half of teachers spend less than an hour on science instruction each week. Shields said that's roughly half the time needed to cover the science concepts that are already part of the state's curriculum standards.

He said science instruction gets put on the back burner because school accountability systems under No Child Left Behind have focused on math and reading.

“As a school you’re going to put your efforts into English language arts and mathematics to get those scores up because having lower scores on science doesn’t really hurt you,” he said.

Just 16 percent of San Diego Unified survey respondents said they thought it was very likely the district’s elementary school students were getting high-quality science instruction. They also said limited time and a focus on math and reading were the biggest challenges in teaching science.

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