The Worrying State of Science Education

The future of U.S. science education

The state of science education in the United States may seem grim, but some in the field are optimistic that science may actually be poised to enter a new golden age. A recent report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology argued that “despite troubling signs,” the country also has some strengths to draw on, including both a body of research that now explains how children learn science and bipartisan support for expanding and improving science education. The report’s recommendations ranged from recruiting 100,000 new STEM teachers in the next decade to developing more magnet schools that focus on science education.

From legislators to parents, “there’s been this increase in interest, in people talking about the importance of science education,” said Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

Bronx Community College (Photo by Ryan Brenizer)

At the federal level, the recent reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act bodes well for American science classrooms. Along with its previous support for science in high-needs districts, the law now calls for money to replicate UTeach, a successful University of Texas program that prepares science teachers. Candidates in the program take both education and science classes, but their undergraduate coursework is condensed so that they can graduate as highly qualified teachers in four years.

Improving the quality of science teachers is the focus of several smaller programs as well. The Kenan Fellows Program in North Carolina, started in 2000, pairs science teachers with researchers to enhance teachers’ knowledge of the field, and the New York Academy of Sciences is sponsoring a similar initiative to help science teachers collaborate and learn both from one another and from scientists involved in research.

“I think we actually are in the best time for STEM that we’ve been in in years,” said Thomas Keller, a senior program officer at the National Academy of Sciences Board on Science Education. Keller cites new science standards that are under development, a movement to create new, improved science assessments, and several state-level efforts.

Educators hope the standards for science will gain as much momentum as did the Common Core State Standards in English and math that were adopted by 43 states and Washington, D.C. in 2010. The National Academy of Sciences convened a group of experts to create a “conceptual framework” based on what scientists believe are the most important ideas in the field. The framework, slated for release in Spring 2011, will guide the development of the actual standards. Achieve, a nonprofit education reform group, is taking the lead on developing the standards, in collaboration with states and groups such as the National Science Teachers Association.

Along with the creation of new standards, a movement to improve science assessments also seems to be taking root, says Keller. Rigorous science assessments can be expensive because they are often hands-on and involve more higher-order thinking than typical multiple-choice tests, he says. Minnesota is currently trying out online assessments as a part of a wider effort to improve STEM education there. Such a model could become a prototype as other states look for better testing systems that aren’t prohibitively expensive.

Eberle says that the eventual reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act could also bring good news for science if the law emphasizes the importance of science education, as many science educators expect it to. “We’re hopeful,” Eberle said.

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Sarah Garland

Sarah Garland is the executive editor of The Hechinger Report. She started out in journalism reporting on murders and mayhem in New York City for… See Archive

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