Math, Science Instruction Probed in National Survey of Teachers

By Erik W. Robelen — February 27, 2013 4 min read
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Science is taught daily at just one in five classrooms at the K-3 level, new national data indicate, and less than half of all elementary teachers surveyed feel very well-prepared to teach it. By contrast, almost all elementary classrooms focus daily on mathematics. Even so, students get substantially less classroom time for math than reading/language arts.

Teachers, on average, spend 35 minutes more each day on reading than math at grades K-3, the survey results show. Math makes slight headway in grades 4-6, where it trails reading by 22 minutes. Combined over an entire school year, that’s a lot of minutes.

In fact, across a typical week, students spend more classroom time on reading than math and science combined, the data indicate.

These are just a few findings in a rich set of results from a nationally representative survey of nearly 7,800 math and science teachers, released this month. Conducted last year with support from the National Science Foundation, the report on math and science education provides a host of data on the background of teachers, curriculum and instruction, and the availability of instructional resources.

I’ll only be able to scratch the surface in this blog post, but let’s hope it’ll spark many readers to dig deeper for themselves. And I may well come back later with more analysis.

To be sure, the finding on the relative lack of science instruction at the elementary grades will come as little surprise to many readers. But the survey data help to put a finer point on the matter. For one, science seems to get more attention in the later elementary grades. Although one in five classrooms teach science daily at grades K-3, the figure rises to one in three in grades 4-6.

When converting this to a per-day average, the total is 19 minutes for science at grades K-3, and 24 minutes per day at grades 4-6. (To be clear, this average factors in days when no science instruction is offered.)

These figures actually represent a decline from 2000, when this national survey was last conducted. At that time, the grades K-3 figure was 23 minutes per day, and grades 4-6 was 31 minutes per day, according to Eric Banilower, a senior researcher at Horizon Research Inc., which conducted the study. These differences since 2000, he said, are statistically significant.

As for math and reading/language arts, here are the daily average figures for the 2012 survey:

Grades K-3
• Reading/language arts (89 minutes)
• Math (54 minutes)

Grades 4-6
• Reading/language arts (83 minutes)
• Math (61 minutes)

Meanwhile, virtually all high schools offer at least one biology course, the report says, and nearly all offer chemistry. However, the figures are much lower for environmental science, earth-space science, and engineering (the ‘E’ in STEM). Here’s a breakdown of the percentage of high schools offering these subjects at any level, whether college prep or not.

• Biology/life science (98 percent)
• Chemistry (94 percent)
• Physics (85 percent)
• Environmental science/ecology (48 percent)
• Earth/space science (48 percent)
• Engineering (24 percent)

One finding that may come as a surprise was that more girls (54 percent) than boys take advanced science courses. No such distinction was seen in math, where females and males took college-prep math classes in equal proportions.

Math not only gets more instructional time than science, the data show, but “special instructional arrangements,” such as having subject-matter specialists or pullout instruction for enrichment or remediation is far more common in math than science. At the same time, programs to encourage student interest in math are “strikingly uncommon,” the report finds.

“For example, less than one-third of schools offer mathematics clubs,” the report says. “Such practices are more common in science and tend to increase with grade range.” (However, I wonder if this question does not fully get at activities that may well embed significant math, such as the growing popularity of robotics clubs.)

Also, the study finds that science classes are more likely than math ones to have a heavy emphasis on increasing students’ interest in the subject. However, in both subjects, that objective is less emphasized in high school than at earlier grades.

On textbooks, science classes are more likely than math to use multiple texts, the report finds, especially at the elementary level. However, science classes are likely to use older materials. It finds, for instance, that a full 58 percent of elementary teachers surveyed reported using a textbook for science published before 2007, compared with 30 percent for math.

That said, publishers may be encouraged to hear that most teachers, 70 percent, rate their textbooks as good or better.

One equity finding likely to be of concern is that classes composed mostly of high-achieving students are more likely than those composed of mixed or low-achieving students to have access to microscopes and graphing calculators.

As I say, there’s lots more to mine in the study, the fifth such survey on math and science education conducted since 1977. It includes both public and private school educators.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.