Special Report
Science

6 Challenges for Science Educators

By Debra Viadero & Sarah D. Sparks — November 23, 2021 3 min read
Conceptual illustration of woman reading book in a paper storm
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
What is it About Math? Making Math Figure-Out-Able
Join Pam Harris for an engaging session challenging how we approach math, resulting in real world math that is “figure-out-able” for anyone.
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Science The NAEP Science Exam Is Getting a Major Update. Here's What to Expect
For the first time in 20 years, "the nation's report card" is updating how it gauges students' understanding of science.
4 min read
Yuma Police Department forensic technician Heidi Heck shows students in Jonathan Bailey's fifth grade science class at Barbara Hall Elementary School how fingerprints show up under a special light during a presentation about forensic science on March 1, 2023.
Yuma Police Department forensic technician Heidi Heck shows students in Jonathan Bailey's fifth grade science class at Barbara Hall Elementary School how fingerprints show up under a special light during a presentation about forensic science on March 1, 2023.
Randy Hoeft/The Yuma Sun via AP
Science Opinion STEM Is Failing People of Color. What Educators Can Do
Students, especially students of color, need fresh incentives to pursue the fields, explains a STEM professor.
Ebony O. McGee
5 min read
Illustration of a scientist holding a giant test tube.
iStock/Getty + Vanessa Solis/Education Week
Science This District Hopes Seeing What AI Can Do Will Spur More Students to Take Computer Science
Districts including Florida's Broward County put an AI twist on coding activities during an annual computer science event.
2 min read
Students creating programs while using laptop
E+ / Getty
Science Aligned Science Curriculum, Better Scores? Research Finds a Connection
A WestEd evaluation of the Amplify Science curriculum found it raised student performance on NGSS-aligned assessment questions.
4 min read
Tele Phillips, left, and Saniyah Sims react as they cut into a bullfrog they are dissecting during a hands-on learning experience for students from the Malone Center on April 19, 2023, at the Lincoln Children's Zoo in Lincoln, Neb. The Science Focus Program Student Council arranged two days of a hands-on learning experience for elementary students from the Malone Center.
Tele Phillips, left, and Saniyah Sims react as they cut into a bullfrog they are dissecting during a hands-on learning experience for students on April 19, 2023, at the Lincoln Children's Zoo in Lincoln, Neb.
Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star via AP