As California rolls out new K-12 science standards, some educators believe the new curriculum will spark a love of science and boost test scores among African Americans and Latinos, and ultimately lead to a more diverse STEM workforce.
“I think there’s a great deal of optimism that the new standards will make a dent” in the achievement gap, said Kathy DiRanna, K-12 Alliance statewide director for WestEd, which is overseeing the early implementation of the new standards in eight California school districts and two charter organizations. “That’s because it’s hands-on, helps build language skills, includes reading and writing. This is really a way to get science to all kids.”
The new standards, called the Next Generation Science Standards, include a 21-page appendix that offers guidelines for teachers on how to reach students who are English learners, economically disadvantaged, racial or ethnic minorities, who have disabilities or are otherwise in demographic groups that are underrepresented in the science fields.
“On one hand, student demographics across the nation are changing rapidly, as teachers have seen the steady increase of student diversity in the classrooms. Yet, achievement gaps in science and other key academic indicators among demographic subgroups have persisted,” according to the appendix.
“The NGSS are building on the National Research Council’s consensus reports in recent years, (which) consistently highlight that, when provided with equitable learning opportunities, students from diverse backgrounds are capable of engaging in scientific practices and constructing meaning in both science classrooms and informal settings.”
Advocates of the Common Core state standards in math and English have expressed similar hopes that their standards will help narrow the achievement gap between African-American and Latino students and their higher-performing peers as measured by test scores.
But for the science standards, several obstacles stand in the way of narrowing the science achievement gap, including lack of resources in schools that serve low-income populations, deficiencies in teacher preparation programs, and the fact that most states have yet to adopt the standards.
The new standards emphasize broad scientific concepts and connections between scientific disciplines, such as life science and physical science. The standards also include “core ideas,” such as energy, climate and space systems, to be taught at all grade levels, including elementary school.
African-American and Latino students have generally not performed as well as their white and Asian peers in math and science, and make up only a small percentage of workers in science, technology, engineering and math careers. According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, white 12th-graders scored an average of 35 points higher, on a scale of 1 to 300, on physical science tests than African-American students. Asian students scored 43 points higher. White students scored 24 points higher than Latinos.
And these differences have contributed to the small percentage of blacks and Latinos who end up working in science-related careers.
In the workforce, African Americans made up only 4 percent of the country’s 1.7 million engineers in 2015, according to the National Science Foundation. Whites made up 71 percent. In the science field generally, African Americans make up 5 percent although they comprise 13 percent of the overall population. Latinos make up only 6 percent, although they represent 17 percent of the U.S. population and 39 percent of the California population.
If California is to meet the future demand for scientists and engineers and have a more equitable society generally, those figures need to change, education advocacy groups like Education Trust–West have said. Much of the state’s economy is driven by jobs in computer science, biotechnology and other science-related sectors, and a shortfall of qualified workers could harm those industries and potentially the state’s economy.
The State Board of Education adopted the new science standards in 2013, and the standards are gradually being implemented in schools around the state. Students in 5th and 8th grade and a sampling of 10th- through 12th-graders will take a pilot test this spring, then a fully operational test in spring 2019.
But how well students from all demographic groups perform academically under the new standards will depend, at least in part, on how well the standards are implemented, said Laura Prival, elementary science coordinator for Oakland Unified.
While some schools already have fully equipped science labs, plenty of money for field trips and materials, some schools – especially in low-income communities – do not, she said.
“The new standards themselves cannot close the achievement gap,” she said. “Part of equitable education is ensuring that schools are funded to address the strengths and challenges of each student. We need to close the gap in resource allocation and the gap in opportunity before we can close the achievement gap.”
For example, some classrooms lack sinks, so teachers are limited to science experiments that aren’t particularly messy and don’t require water. And at schools without strong parent associations that can help financially, teachers must apply for grants or pay out-of-pocket for science supplies or field trips.
Another challenge is that not all students will be exposed to the new standards. So far, only 19 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them, although more are considering it. Some states, such as Louisiana, Idaho and Wyoming, have encountered pushback due to the standards’ inclusion of human-caused climate change.
“The good news is that California has adopted NGSS,” said Gary Nakagiri, a longtime educational consultant who presented a class on equity issues at the recent National Science Teachers Association conference in Los Angeles. “The bad news is that there’s a whole bunch of kids who might not be getting NGSS. That’s a huge problem.”
Improving the science component in teacher credentialing programs will be important for the standards to succeed, he said. Elementary teachers, many of whom were liberal arts majors in college, need better science preparation, and high school science teachers need training to teach the subjects they might not have taught before, such as earth science, space science and engineering.
The effort will be worth it in the long run, Nakagiri said.
“It’ll be nice to walk into a biotech office and see a workforce that reflects the diversity of our state. It’ll be nice to walk into an AP physics class and see it look the same” as a freshman biology class, he said. “I’m hopeful. There are some amazing teachers and administrators who are making a world of difference.”
At the International Community School, a public school in Oakland where nearly all the students are English learners and classes are taught in English and Spanish, teachers say the new science standards are already having a big impact on increasing students’ scientific knowledge and improving their English skills. Kindergarten teacher Micaela Morse, who spends about an hour a day, four days a week, teaching science under the new standards, said her students’ English skills have improved significantly and, most notably, her students seem self-confident and engaged when learning science, she said.
One recent morning, Morse gave each table of children an aquarium filled with goldfish. She asked them to observe the fish with magnifying glasses, then showed them vocabulary cards with the words “gill,” “fin,” “tail” and “scales.” She asked if they observed whether goldfish have teeth, and if they breath air. Then, in their science notebooks, the students drew pictures of goldfish and identified the parts.
“Right now you are scientists,” she told her class. “So we want the goldfish to look like what a goldfish actually looks like. So what color will it be? Purple?”
“No! Orange!” the students said as they started cutting, coloring and pasting into their notebooks.
For the rest of the week, the students learned what goldfish need to survive and what kind of environments they live in. The next week, Morse planned to do the same project with guppies and have her students compare their results. After that, they’ll do projects comparing red worms and night crawlers, and land snails and water snails. Later this spring, they’ll hatch chicken eggs.
Ninety percent of Morse’s students started the year with beginner-level English skills, but by mid-year were intermediate, a leap she thinks is partially due to the new science standards, she said.
“I can see their language skills developing as they do these projects,” she said. “The projects are fun, they’re real, they’re not abstract. Because they work in groups, it’s a shared experience they can talk about. They’re motivated. It’s easy for them to internalize the vocabulary as we go along.”
But the primary benefit, she said, is that by doing actual science experiments the students begin to think of themselves as scientists. She hopes that mindset carries over into their later career choices, she said.
“Historically, women and people of color have not been well represented in science,” Morse said. “This helps switch that around. We’re in a moment, globally, when we need people – all people – who can think critically and think scientifically, and care about the environment. So I’m really excited to see the impact here.”
Group projects like Morse’s and shared experiences promoted by the new standards are a key to how the standards can “level the playing field,” said Rich Hedman, director of math and science education at Sacramento State University.
The new standards do not necessarily favor students who have done a lot of memorization or have prior scientific knowledge, he said.
To succeed under the standards, students need to focus on the project they’re working on, make connections to broader theories and other disciplines, be able to argue based on evidence, and develop a curiosity about the natural world.
“Instead of having a teacher standing up there lecturing, now you have everyone in the room participating, everyone in the room using the same set of data, everyone in the room asking what patterns they notice,” he said. “All the students have experienced the same thing. What I’ve noticed, actually, is that more traditional students struggle a little with this at first because they’re not used to it. But in the end, that kind of challenge is good.”
The new standards’ appendix focusing on equity suggests that teachers create a respectful but less formal atmosphere in their classrooms, listen to students’ experiences outside the classroom as they relate to science, bring in diverse guest speakers who are scientists, and make the lessons relevant to students’ daily lives.
The stakes are enormous, said Alejandro Gallard, an education professor at Georgia Southern University who has extensively studied achieving equity in science education.
“It is difficult to have a nation grow if it does not take advantage of all of its resources, which includes our future scientists,” he said. “Our inequity structures have put our nation at risk.”
For the new science standards to reduce inequities in science education, teachers should have the freedom to consider the cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds of their students when teaching science, he said. For example, if most students live in a city, or in apartments, it makes sense to skip the composting lesson and focus instead on garbage and landfill when teaching about sustainability. A teacher in Boston uses the subway system to teach math, he said.
Districts should make more of an effort to hire bilingual teachers and teachers of color, Gallard said, and reconsider cultural stereotypes of how students learn. For example, some Latinas in STEM fields said they had received a lot of support from their families and communities, even though they felt school leaders perceived their families as uninvolved because the families rarely showed up for school events, Gallard and his colleagues found in their research.
Hiring bilingual teachers and teachers of color has been a priority for many California districts, but those efforts have been hampered by a general teacher shortage. Fewer people of all ethnicities are pursuing teaching, at the same time that teacher job openings are increasing.
Changes like those Gallard recommended, along with the new science standards themselves, will help narrow disparities in student performance, said DiRanna of WestEd.
“The goal is to reach all kids,” she said. “It’s important because if you’re going to be a literate member of society, you need a strong grounding in science. We need a population that understands what vaccinations are, what climate change is, how to make a (scientific) claim and have evidence to back it up. To be honest, our future depends on it.”