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Calif. Schools Get Failing Grade for Science, Study Finds

Posted: Dec 18, 2011

Science education in Salinas’ public elementary schools and across California may not be making the grade, according to research announced this week.

Most schools face similar challenges: little time allotted to science instruction, a lack of infrastructure and equipment, and few professional development opportunities in science.

Salinas teachers believe the trends may be related to the academic accountability standards set by the state and the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which aims to bring all children up to grade-level in reading and math by 2014.

“Before No Child Left Behind became more rigorous, we were able to have a more balanced curriculum,” said Esteban Hernandez, the principal at Bardin Elementary School, one of 11 schools in the Alisal Union School District in Salinas.

Other requirements

Now, teachers are unable to give equal attention to science, social sciences, fine arts and even sports because they feel pressured to meet state and federal requirements, he added. Elementary school students are only tested in science in the fifth grade. But starting in second grade, they are tested annually in math and English language arts, which include reading, writing, grammar, spelling and reading comprehension.

Throughout the state, 40 percent of about 540 elementary-school teachers surveyed said they spend 60 minutes or less on science each week. And 81 percent said that the emphasis on English and math makes it difficult to get science into their lesson plans, according to the study, which was sponsored by the Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning, an organization focused on teacher development.

But Lupe Cavazos, 60, a fifth grade teacher at Frank Paul School in Salinas insists on teaching science for 30 minutes, four days a week.

That’s more than the 75 weekly minutes his school carves out for science in grades four through six.

He engages his students with models of the human body, basic chemistry kits and science journals in which the students color and label the body’s organ systems.

Instructors are also incorporating scientific concepts into their language arts and math curricula, a strategy used at Bardin and Frank Paul.

“Teachers are sneaking in science, but it’s very unlikely that it will happen routinely without more support,” said Rena Dorph, a researcher at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley and the lead author of the study.

Earlier this year, Bardin teachers took their fifth-graders to Hartnell College’s Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy to learn about space science and experience the flight simulator.

The school is also getting ready to launch an after school program for kindergartners and fourth- and fifth-graders at the academy, which NASA established in 2011 to promote science in under-represented communities.

“The program is an additional way to keep science alive, but it’s not something that’s available to all students” because it’s not part of the regular school day, said Hernandez, the Bardin principal. But, “it’s something we wish to extend.”

Teachers may also have difficulty because most districts lack science-dedicated staff, according to the study.

Both Cavazos and Warren Samuels, another instructor at Frank Paul, teach more than 30 students each. Some have special needs or don’t speak English fluently, so their teachers’ attention is already spread thin. Preparing laboratory-based activities can be time consuming, and both teachers said their classrooms would benefit from having a designated laboratory technician to help them with hands-on activities.

The study also found that about 66 percent of teachers don’t feel prepared to teach science and 85 percent haven’t had any professional development in the last three years.

Education experts say this could spell trouble as science evolves quickly.

In 2010, there were more than 820,000 new scientific studies globally, according
to PubMed, a government-funded database of scientific publications.

It may also make California less competitive in science-related fields and leave students without the basic knowledge to make educated decisions about issues like stem-cell research and global warming, said Holly Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning.

“They need to know what’s out there, if they’re going to be good custodians of the earth,” said Frank Paul instructor Samuels, 50.

The irony is that more than 90 percent of the 168 elementary school principals and 540 teachers surveyed in the study think science instruction should begin in kindergarten.

Science helps kids to think critically and to be creative, said Toby Boyd, a kindergarten teacher in Sacramento County and a member of the board of directors of the California Teachers Association, a union based in Burlingame.

“It makes them think outside their comfort zone,” he said. “And that’s the joy of science.”

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