An Unintended Consequence of Policy: Low-Quality Elementary Science Education

Nov 7, 2011 by

Anne O’Brien –

According to a recent report on science education in California, more than half of elementary school principals do NOT believe it is likely that a student receives high-quality science instruction at his or her school.

If anything, I would expect principals to be optimistic about the strength of their schools, so this finding really drives home longstanding concerns about the state of elementary science education.

And it makes sense when one looks at teacher responses to the survey. Forty percent of elementary teachers reported spending less than 60 minutes a week on science instruction. Thirteen percent reported spending less than 30 minutes a week on it.

These findings come as not only California stakeholders but the President, governors across the nation and the business community are all stressing the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education to our nation’s economy and future competitiveness.

If everyone recognizes the importance of it, why isn’t science education better?

The survey offers some explanations around a general theme: The conditions to support high-quality elementary science instruction are rarely in place. Elementary teachers are unprepared to teach the subject (only about a third feel very prepared to do so). Fewer than 21% of districts provide science-related professional development for elementary teachers, and over 85% of teachers reported not getting any in the past three years. Schools lack the funds needed for the equipment and supplies necessary for science instruction – 66% of elementary teachers said this was a major or moderate challenge to providing science instruction.

It may all come down to the fact that while political rhetoric supports science education, policy doesn’t prioritize it. Current federal accountability policy has been widely criticized for years for its emphasis on reading and math to the exclusion of science, social studies and other subjects (and in this survey, 81% of teachers cite the emphasis on English and mathematics education as a challenge to science instruction). And in California as elsewhere, state policies were designed to meet federal criteria.

According to the LA Times, California’s tool for measuring school progress in meeting state and federal achievement goals – Academic Performance Index (API) – gives science a weight of just 5.9%. Whittier Daily News points out science is not assessed by standardized tests until 5th grade, and that while the state provides recommended amounts of time that teachers should spend on language arts and math, it does not for science.

In its story on these findings, the LA Times talked with two Los Angeles Elementary School teachers about the state of elementary science education. Both have cut down on science due to pressures to prepare students for English and math tests. Both said that money for science supplies and professional development has dried up.

These teachers do see some benefits to a strong focus on reading and math, but they question whether the sacrifice of science is worth it. To quote the article:

Smyth noted that the focus on math and reading has reaped its own rewards: the school, in the Harvard Heights neighborhood of largely immigrant families, hit the state’s API target of 800 for the first time this year.

“It’s a moral quandary,” Smyth said. “You see the improvement in math and reading scores but you also know the kids aren’t getting what they should have in other subjects.”

Particularly for communities where access to science education outside the classroom may be lacking, one might wonder whether short shifting kids on the subject will have longer-term consequences with wider equity implications. The ideal solution: Schools won’t have to choose between providing science education and meeting accountability targets.

Education officials in California are rushing to improve the policy environment for science in their state. And as discussions over the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act heat up and politicians debate new accountability structures, we can hope they too work to create a policy environment that supports all schools in providing all students with a rich, well-rounded education.

Anne O’Brien – Bio


Anne O’Brien is the deputy director of the Learning First Alliance (LFA). LFA is a partnership of 17 major national education associations that collectively represent some 10 million parents, educators, and policymakers. LFA members work together to find common ground and create shared strategies for giving every child a chance for success in work, in life, and as citizens. Among her duties with the organization, Anne maintains the LFA blog, Public School Insights, which promotes what is working in our public schools and discussion of how to make them work for all children. She also blogs for Edutopia on school reform issues.


Anne brings a practitioner’s lens to her work, having taught high school biology, physical science, and remedial math in southeastern Louisiana while serving as a Teach For America corps member. She also helped rebuild one of the area’s mentoring agencies after Hurricane Katrina. Anne holds a Master’s degree from George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development and is an alumna of the Education Policy Fellowship Program.


About The Learning First Alliance

The Learning First Alliance is a partnership of 16 leading education associations with more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America’s public schools. Alliance members include: the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Association of School Administrators, American Association of School Personnel Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American School Counselor Association, International Society for Technology in Education, Learning Forward (formerly National Staff Development Council), National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, National Middle School Association, National School Public Relations Association, National PTA, National School Boards Association and Phi Delta Kappa International. The Alliance maintains, a website that features what’s working in public schools and districts across the country.


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