“High Hopes – Few Opportunities: the Status of Elementary Science Education in California,” a study released in October 2011 from the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning with the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, illustrates the need for quality science education:
“The globalization of the economy and continued technological advances mean that requirements for all jobs are constantly evolving. Our greatest challenges, from climate change to the lack of an adequate water supply to public health, will require greater innovation and scientific know-how. Those countries and states that respond with the best-prepared workforce and citizenry will assume economic leadership.”
However, at the same time the report also paints a dire portrait of the current reality:
“Few children have the opportunity to engage in high-quality science learning in California elementary schools. Only about 10% of the students in the state experience science instruction that regularly engages them in the practices of science… Moreover, because of the limited time spent on science in California classrooms, elementary school students receive little exposure to any type of science instruction. Disturbingly, 40% of elementary teachers in grades K-5…reported that their students receive 60 minutes or less of science instruction per week.”
For years, teachers participating in the Wildwoods Foundation’s Full Circle program have shared anecdotal reports of students’ improved understanding of scientific principles and “non-traditional” leaners having the opportunity to “shine” during the hands-on learning activities that are part of the program. And as the High Hopes report details, the lack of science education serves to further the “achievement gap” among ethnic groups, reflected by students’ scores on the California Standards Test (CST).
“Seventy-seven percent of white students performed at proficient or above on the fifth-grade science CST in 2011, as compared with 45% of Hispanic or Latino students classified as economically disadvantaged and 43% of African American students.”
However, at Mayberry Elementary School, a long-time participating school where African American and Hispanic or Latino youth currently make up 85.6% of the student body, a review of student test scores flies in the face of those statistics. Since beginning Full Circle programming there in 2005 we have tracked a significant increase in student scores on the science portion of the California standardized test – a more than 200% increase in the number of students scoring “proficient” or “advanced.” In 2004, the year prior to Full Circle programming, the number of students scoring proficient and advanced numbered only 19%. The following year, that number jumped to 34%. By 2008, it was 72%. The 2011 proficient and advanced scores were also 72%.
The Mayberry student performance data is even remarkable when compared to the scores of Logan St. School less than one mile away from Mayberry, with almost identical demographics. During the same period of time, the highest percentage of students that scored proficient and advanced was 33%.
While some fault for poor statewide science performance can be directed at policies and mandated curriculum that emphasizes performance in English language arts and mathematics, the lack of professional development opportunities for elementary school teachers also contributes to the situation. According to the study:
“More than 85% have not received any science-related professional development in the last three years” and “only about one third felt very prepared to teach science.”
It is specifically this aspect of professional development that was raised by former head of research and evaluation for the Los Angeles Unified School District Dr. Julie Slayton during our discussion of the Mayberry test scores. Given that the scores measure the steadily improving performance of different students each year, there is a strong probability that the program’s strongest impact is actually upon the classroom teachers through the continued participation in our hands-on, project-based learning activities.
As Wildwoods continues and expands our programming, exploring Full Circle’s degree of contribution to student’s academic performance remains a focus, whether through direct student interaction or via the teacher professional development component of the program. In an attempt to address the situation described in the High Hopes report, we expect that an independent evaluation will inform our plans to create a stand-alone professional development program to equip and enable Los Angeles teachers to develop an integrated approach to teaching science.
Update: The Full Circle program was named as the 2012 recipient of the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award for Environmental Education.