Alison Yin/EdSource
The new science standards emphasize hands-on classroom projects and broad scientific concepts.

Most teachers are embracing California’s new science standards, but the rollout has been hampered by teacher shortages, lackluster elementary science education, lack of supplies and other obstacles, according to a new report.

The report by the Public Policy Institute of California surveyed 204 school districts across California at the end of the 2016-17 school year about their progress in implementing the Next Generation Science Standards, which were adopted in 2013 and which schools are currently introducing.

“The upshot is that the vast majority of districts have high hopes for Next Generation Science Standards and believe the standards will improve students’ performance in science,” said Niu Gao, report co-author and research fellow at the institute. “But districts are facing a variety of challenges.”

The report found that some districts, especially those that are low-income or low-performing, are struggling to implement the new standards because of inadequate science labs, lack of materials and a shortage of credentialed science teachers, which has led to larger class sizes.

In addition, 60 percent of districts require only two years of high school science for graduation, even though the new standards call for three. The Legislature should change graduation requirements statewide to match the Next Generation Science Standards, the report recommends. California State University and the University of California should also update their admission requirements from two to three years of science, the report said.

The new standards, which have been adopted by 18 other states, focus on hands-on science projects and large scientific concepts that cross multiple disciplines, such as cause and effect, motion and stability, and matter and interactions.

Jessica Sawko, executive director of the California Science Teachers Association, said the report draws attention to some important challenges schools are facing as they implement the new standards.

“It takes more than educational standards to transform student learning. That is absolutely true. You need to build systems of support to make change happen,” she said, adding that the expansion of high school science requirements should be a priority.

“Requiring three or even four years of high school science would help California students compete against students from other states, a lot of which do require three years,” she said. “Our students deserve the opportunity to be competitive with all students nationwide.”

The report found that 78 percent of districts are currently implementing the new standards, and 91 percent of respondents were either very familiar or somewhat familiar with the standards overall. But nearly a quarter of respondents from low-performing districts said they were only slightly familiar with the standards, suggesting that the California Department of Education should do a better job reaching those schools, according to the report.

Science education has long languished in some elementary schools, where students are not tested until fifth grade and teachers often emphasize math and reading over science. The report recommends that elementary schools prioritize science education and that students be tested on science as often as they’re tested on math and reading, which is in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade.

State Board of Education member Trish Williams said districts can pay for teacher training through their Local Control Funding Formulas and one-time allotments from the state education budget. Pilot tests for students continue this year, and fully operational tests are expected to begin next year.

“The PPIC report is a good reminder of how long major education policy reforms take to fully implement in a state the size and complexity of California,” she said.

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  1. Dr. Brad Huff 8 months ago8 months ago

    Harry Keller is right on the money. In today's world of "fake news," students need to learn that objective reality is discovered by testing how nature responds to probing in the lab. Today a post by WestEd points out the need for computer simulations. Ouch! As I commented to them, simulations carry with them the biases and knowledge gaps of the programmers. Simulations illustrate how the natural world should behave, but not how it does … Read More

    Harry Keller is right on the money. In today’s world of “fake news,” students need to learn that objective reality is discovered by testing how nature responds to probing in the lab.

    Today a post by WestEd points out the need for computer simulations. Ouch! As I commented to them, simulations carry with them the biases and knowledge gaps of the programmers. Simulations illustrate how the natural world should behave, but not how it does behave when investigated by hands-on activities and labs. No one will make a new discovery using a simulation!

  2. Harry Keller 8 months ago8 months ago

    I grew up in California. I live here now. My company is headquartered here. School was different way back then in the post-war and Sputnik era. Today, we all face a different world in which we must compete globally and in which we absolutely must train a much larger segment of our population in innovation and communication, which requires that we provide exercises in thinking skills rather than the old memory-based instruction. Of all … Read More

    I grew up in California. I live here now. My company is headquartered here. School was different way back then in the post-war and Sputnik era.

    Today, we all face a different world in which we must compete globally and in which we absolutely must train a much larger segment of our population in innovation and communication, which requires that we provide exercises in thinking skills rather than the old memory-based instruction.

    Of all core subjects, science has the greatest potential to boost thinking but only if taught well. Improving science instruction was the goal of “America’s Lab Report” and is the goal of the Next Generation Science Standards. Neither is perfect, but both have the right ideas and point in the right direction.

    To compensate for decades of neglect, beginning in the 1980s, our schools must have great support from parents, communities, and our state government. They are seriously underfunded. Fortunately, new developments in technology have the potential to overcome our school deficits at least partway. Our students can overcome overcrowded classrooms, untrained teachers, and lack of materials and supplies. They can succeed in science. Making three years of science a statewide requirement will help, except for the aforementioned problems.

    The heart of every decent science course lies in its science investigations, its “labs.” When combined with a well-led discussion afterward, students begin to understand the nature of science; they develop scientific thinking skills; and they gain an appreciation for the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work — the basis of any science investigation. In any school with sufficient computer and Internet access, these things can be delivered today. Chromebooks make this possible without great cost.

    You can have online science investigations with real experiments (yes, actual experiments, not simulations) and hands-on measurement (again, not data handed to you, measurements you make with your own hands). These can fill in for the missing resources, the incompletely trained teachers, and for the problems of too many students in a class. Results in districts using this approach have been striking.

    We should not despair. Neither should we stop working to increase science graduation requirements and to gain more funding for our schools. However, some relief is available today. We can do better right away.