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Every day brings more reminders of the importance of math and science in our lives. From understanding how communicable viruses spread and how vaccines work to combating the impacts of climate change on our communities, knowledge of math and science are essential.
While we absolutely need more scientists, mathematicians and data analysts, having a solid foundation in these fields is necessary for all of us to make good decisions for ourselves, our communities and our planet, regardless of our professions.
Yet in California, only 1 in 3 students met the state’s standards on the most recent state tests in both math and science, and for some student groups, gaps widened, stalling years of slow progress toward closing equity gaps. California scored better than only three other states on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress’s math test of eighth graders. Significant gaps between student groups have remained stubbornly persistent for more than 20 years.
Despite being a state at the forefront of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, industry and innovation and — this year — with an overwhelming state budget surplus, our math and science student outcomes make one thing alarmingly clear: California, we have a problem.
Fortunately, California has a crucial chance to support improved STEM instruction in this year’s budget. While there are many possible ways for young people to learn, research shows that the single greatest in-school factor in students’ learning is the quality of their classroom instruction.
Over the last several years, California has adopted world-class standards in mathematics and science that present significant new ways of teaching that weave together content and career skills in rigorous and relevant ways. But these standards and new instructional approaches can only be effective if teachers and those who support teachers understand how to implement them. These new instructional approaches include research-based strategies for designing lessons that show students how concepts and skills can be used to solve challenging problems in the world. They also include strategies to integrate language development in math and science so that all students — including those still gaining English proficiency — can access grade-level content.
Math and science educators in California have been asking for this type of support for years and are now imploring the state to invest in a coherent state infrastructure to develop high-quality professional development and networks of educators to work together to improve their instruction. Our proposal, which was introduced to the Legislature as Assembly Bill 2565 and reflected in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised May budget, is designed to build on existing initiatives to expand access to high-quality and sustained professional learning for educators throughout the state. The proposal would expand the California Statewide Early Math Initiative and the California Partnership for Math and Science Education to ensure coherence across California’s TK-12 system by bringing together providers of professional development, teacher leaders, community-based organizations and experts in math, science, English language development and special education to learn together in statewide and regional communities of practice. Participants in these communities of practice would then help to lead and support professional learning in their own counties, districts and schools.
While the governor’s May budget included $85 million for this statewide network and an additional $300 million to school districts to fund educators’ participation in science and math professional learning, the California Legislature’s budget has reallocated this funding into a very large discretionary block grant to be used for salaries only.
We support the governor’s proposed budget which includes funding for educators’ salaries and an investment in professional learning for educators. If funding for the state infrastructure is not included in the budget, districts may have funds to spend on staff, but there would not be sufficient professional learning or a statewide network to support educators’ ongoing professional development and growth. Districts will be left on their own to try to find or develop appropriate professional learning — as was the case after the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards — which is particularly challenging for the many small, remote and under-resourced districts across the state, further exacerbating equity gaps in the quality of instruction that students receive. The May budget revision addresses this need and targets funding directly to regional consortia to build this infrastructure.
If we don’t invest in what educators need and research shows works, we are setting up our students and our schools to fail. There is a clear opportunity on the table to give California districts the world-class, collaborative support they deserve to continue our state’s leadership in innovation and technology. Please join us in urging the California Legislature to work with the governor to ensure that California’s teachers have the support they need to equip our next generation to be the skilled and innovative problem-solvers that our state desperately needs.
Christopher J. Nellum is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a research and advocacy organization advocating for educational justice and the high academic achievement of all California students, pre-K through college, particularly those of color and living in poverty.
Peter A’Hearn is president of the California Association of Science Educators, which leads the promotion of high-quality, equitable science education through advocacy, collaboration and communication.
Shari Dickstein-Staub is director of the California Partnership for Math and Science Education, which uses the communities of practice model to build educators’ capacity to advance access to meaningful mathematics and science teaching and learning statewide.
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