Special Report

6 Challenges for Science Educators

By Debra Viadero & Sarah D. Sparks — November 23, 2021 3 min read
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From time to time, science education rises to the forefront of national consciousness.

That happened most prominently in the late 1950s and early 1960s after the Russians beat the United States into space with the launch of Sputnik. But science education became a national concern again, in the early aughts, when a panel of businesspeople, scientists, and educators warned of a “gathering storm” as the United States stood to lose its economic, scientific, and technological edge over the rest of the world and called for investing billions of dollars in science education to head off the problem.

This isn’t one of those times.

In fact, science is having a bit of a public relations crisis now. Hefty segments of the public mistrust the scientific consensus, whether it’s on the causes of climate change, the safety and efficacy of the vaccines created to combat COVID-19, or the seriousness of the threat posed by the virus. And misperceptions and falsehoods about science flood the internet.

K-12 science education has a role to play in solving this problem. By teaching students to think like scientists as they weigh information and grounding them in scientific concepts and processes, teachers can help build credibility and trust for the field over time. That challenge is a focus of this special report.

But the crisis of confidence that confronts the field now is just the latest 21st-century challenge for science education. Here are more:

  • Flat or declining science achievement. Results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress in science, given in 2019, showed that 4th graders’ performance in that subject declined, while average scores flatlined in grades 8 and 12 since the last assessment in 2015. More than a third of all 8th graders—including nearly 60 percent of all Black students and nearly half of Hispanic and Native American students—performed below even the “basic” level of science competency.
  • A shrinking share of the curriculum. Elementary students spend on average only 20 minutes per day on science instruction, compared with 60 minutes daily for math and 90 minutes each day for reading and language arts, says a report released this year by another call-to-action national panel of scientists and educators. (This report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine attracted less attention, however, than the organization’s 2005 report warning about the gathering storm.)
  • Instructional inequities. Too many students lack access to a full complement of advanced science courses, and many of those students are in schools with high concentrations of Black and brown students. Physics, for instance, is not offered as a course in 59 percent of high-minority high schools and 31 percent of low-minority high schools. No chemistry class is taught in 42 percent of high-minority high schools, and 18 percent of those with mostly white students, according to the National Academies.
  • Teacher preparation. Only 31 percent of educators say they feel prepared to teach general science. At the high school level, the national science panel says, 58 percent of biology teachers felt prepared to teach about ecology and ecosystems.
  • Lack of diversity among teachers. The general lack of diversity that characterizes the nation’s teaching force is amplified among teachers of science. Eight of 10 public elementary, middle school, and high school science teachers are white, according to the National Academies report.

Then, of course, there’s the pandemic. The COVID-19 school shutdowns put a crimp in instruction across the board, but anecdotally at least, there is some evidence to show that science took a particularly hard hit as schools focused on the basics and remote learning made hands-on scientific inquiry more difficult to do.

The irony is that COVID-19 presents a perfect opportunity to explore science in a way that touches students’ lives. But the polarized politics gripping the country over both scientific and nonscientific issues has made some reluctant to try.

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as 6 Challenges for Science Educators


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