California must prioritize science education to stay competitive

CREDIT: Stephanie Pollick / Partnership for Children and Youth

A student from the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation’s Lion’s Pride after-school program during a science lesson.

Experiencing a global pandemic while dealing with the consequences of climate change has underscored the need for science literacy. Moreover, a solid and equitable science education is not only essential to a well-functioning democracy, it is also crucial in preparing our future workforce and paving the way for well-paying employment. However, science has long been a low priority in California K-12 schools, and the Covid pandemic has disrupted efforts to ensure all students receive a quality science education.

The United States lags behind other developed nations in science education, and California ranks among the bottom states in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science. On the 2015 NAEP (the latest available state comparisons), California’s average science test scores were well below the national average. Only one in four 4th and 8th graders was proficient – ​​a proportion that has remained unchanged for years. California also has the largest science achievement gaps by race/ethnicity and household income.

In 2013, the State Board of Education laid the foundation for transforming science education by adopting the California Next Generation Science Standards (CA NGSS). These standards have the potential to improve students’ conceptual understanding of science, promote science literacy, and strengthen the global competitiveness of the California workforce.

Districts were in the early stages of implementing the new science standards when Covid-19 hit, abruptly changing every facet of the educational landscape. A recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) shows that disruptions from the pandemic could affect science education for years to come. This report finds that:

Prior to spring 2020, implementation of the California Science Standards was moving forward, although progress was uneven.

More than 90% of districts surveyed said they were implementing the new science standards in the 2019-20 school year, up from 78% in 2016-17. Implementation was uneven across grade levels: districts were more likely to implement the new science standards in K-8 than in high schools. There were also geographic variations, with only 38% of rural school districts implementing the standards in secondary schools.

Covid-19 has derailed science education.

Science education became a lower priority for a large majority of districts (62%) in the 2020-2021 school year. This has delayed key implementation activities, such as aligning course materials and course models with next-generation science standards.

Several factors have contributed to the deprioritization of science, such as the continued focus on English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics – which predated the pandemic – staff shortages, teacher burnout and the lack funding dedicated to science education.

Overall, districts have provided limited support for science education during the pandemic. In the 2020-2021 school year, 60% of districts provided additional instructional materials, 43% offered summer science programs, and 40% addressed social-emotional learning in support of the science education. Only a quarter of the districts offered small group instruction and very few offered extended science learning time during the regular school year. Only 40% of districts provided additional support for English language learners in science education.

One good thing was that some needy districts, including those with large populations of English learners, continued to use science content to engage students in ELA and math. This has helped ensure that science education continues in these districts during the pandemic.

Most school districts do not plan to prioritize science education during recovery

Only one in four districts (27%) say science education is a high priority in their recovery plans, compared to 80% who prioritize ELA and math. Additionally, our review of local control and accountability plans (LCAPs) from more than 800 districts shows that less than half plan to adopt, develop, or purchase new science education materials in the next few years, while about a third plan to provide training for science teachers or set targets for student performance on standardized tests.

Our research suggests that science education in California is far from the priority it might have. And as schools continue to recover from the pandemic, educators and policymakers must keep in mind the need to invest in science literacy.

The 2022-2023 state budget includes $85 million to support professional learning in math and science – an important milestone. The state could also include science indicators in district accountability requirements and encourage districts to devote more resources to science education. Additionally, the state could support science education during the recovery by providing teachers and districts with guidance on evidence-based strategies that produce stronger and more equitable school outcomes.

Going forward, all education partners will need to come together to build urgency among policy makers and secure the resources and support that enable California to realize its vision for science education and culture. scientific.


Niu Gao is a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Kathy DiRanna is the statewide director of the K-12 Alliance at WestEd.

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