Reading & Literacy

Common Core Reaches Into Science Classes, Survey Finds

By Erik W. Robelen — September 24, 2012 6 min read
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The Common Core State Standards aren’t just changing instruction in math and English language/arts, new survey data suggest. They’re also finding their way into a lot of science classrooms.

A majority of science teachers surveyed see some benefit coming out of this intersection, even as some worry that pressure from administrators to infuse science lessons with math and literacy takes time away from the core content of their disciplines.

The new data, collected by the National Science Teachers Association, provide an early glimpse into how the common core is touching science teachers (grades 6-12) and their students. As some readers may be aware, the intersection is quite explicit with the ELA standards, which include a section at the end titled “Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.”

My favorite part of the NSTA survey results comes with a few questions that invite teachers to share open-ended responses. The reactions reveal diverse impressions about the early days of the common-core era, how their classrooms are being affected, and what science teachers think about changes being asked of them.

“Students have to improve their reading skills to find the reasons in the research to support their claims and evidence,” one teacher in the anonymous survey said.

“I am concerned that science may become another literacy block,” another laments.

“You cannot do good science without math,” says another teacher.

To be clear, the data collected through the NSTA survey do not reflect a nationally representative sampling of science teachers. Even so, the results offer helpful clues as to what’s happening on the ground. Nearly 400 science teachers from 34 states responded to the online survey, though response rates varied from question to question.

At the big-picture level, the survey probed the extent to which school administrators are asking science teachers to devote class time to the math and ELA standards, including the section of the ELA standards that explicitly targets the teaching of literacy in science.

First off, the ELA standards appear to be reaching more science classrooms than the math standards, based on the data. Nearly two-thirds of science teachers said they’re being asked to devote class time to the ELA standards for reading in science and technical subjects, compared with about one-third who said the same of the new math standards.

(You can find the section of the common-core on Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects here, by scrolling down to page 59. It includes standards for both reading and writing. Examples include citing specific evidence to support analysis of science and technical subjects, following precisely a complex, multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, and writing informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures, or technical processes.)

Of those science teachers who said they’re being asked to teach the reading standards for science literacy, 62 percent said they were devoting “some class time” to the issue and 26 percent a “significant amount of time.” (One teacher reported spending a majority of class time on the issue.)

About one-third of teachers said they have collaborated with ELA teachers or coaches on the reading standards.

Most teachers surveyed found at least some value in the science/literacy intersection, suggesting that the reading standards complement and improve science instruction. Here’s a breakdown:

• Helps a great deal (27 percent)
Helps somewhat (36 percent)
• Helps a little (20 percent)
• Neither helps nor hurts (12 percent)
• Hurts (5 percent)

The survey also asked teachers about implementation of the common ELA standards more generally. Nearly half of science teachers said they’re being asked to spend class time on them. Again, many said this helps improve science instruction.

As for the math standards, about one-third of science teachers said they’re being asked to devote class time to them. Here’s a breakdown of how much time they devote to the math standards:

• Very little (20 percent)
Some class time (69 percent)
• A significant amount (8 percent)
• A majority (3 percent)

And most seem to see at least some benefit in complementing and improving science instruction:

• Helps a great deal (17 percent)
Helps somewhat (38 percent)
• Helps a little bit (22 percent)
• Neither helps nor hurts (19 percent)
• Hurts (5 percent)

Teachers Speak Out

Beyond the data, the survey gives voice to individual teachers who describe, in their own words, the impact of the new standards and what they think about it. Here’s a sampling of teacher responses about the ELA standards for teaching reading literacy in science:

• “I am concerned that science may become another literacy block class. Science classes can SUPPORT literacy, but they are NOT literacy classes.”

• “As science teachers we must communicate—communication skills in writing about labs are part of science.”

• “It has not affected it much since I do some of these practices anyway.”

• “Students have to strengthen their reading skills for science. When we do investigations, there is research on the topic that needs to be done. Students have to improve their reading skills to find the reasons in the research to support their claims and evidence.”

• “Less time and money are being devoted to science instruction.”

• “Same as math, have seen an increase in closer work with the ELA teachers.”

• “I now assign a series of readings throughout the year that are pertinent to science and to students’ lives which students have to summarize, relate to real life, and to all topics in science.”

• “We were instructed to spend the first two weeks of school teaching text structures, meaning very little science. We also have to focus on math and writing.”

• “The labs, assessments, and other activities have been modified to be more writing based.”

• “Let’s face it: The science standardized tests are just really ‘reading’ tests. So if we can improve students’ reading skills, we will also improve science scores. Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave as much time for inquiry-based science, which is another great research-based strategy for improving science understanding.”

• “It helps students learn content better.”

• “We have not had any top-down requirements about implementing these standards. On the other hand, we also have not gotten any professional development in these areas, other than a 10-minute video we were required to watch last spring on using text features to improve understanding.

• “Yes... Science is actually being taught in ELA now too!”

Influence of Math Standards

The survey also asked science teachers how the implementation of the common-core math standards is affecting their science program. Here’s what some teachers had to say.

• “It hasn’t—yet.”

• “I spend a lot of time using math in science which helps students in their math class and I partner with the math teachers/coaches already. It currently has no effect on my class or instruction style.”

• “It helps with science because we collect a lot of data when we do investigations and have to analyze it.”

• “Just one more thing to deviate from hard core life science.”

• “Uses more of my planning time. Not much impact on class time, as I cover some math anyway.”

• “Negligible.”

• “Has reinforced the connection between math and science.”

• “You cannot do good science without math, so I think spending more time on math skills will ultimately benefit their science understanding.”

• “Helps me to use the same ‘language’ that the math teachers are using so that the students are hearing the same ideas and can connect them in meaningful ways (i.e. math models—science models, patterns & trends etc.)”

• “I am concerned because we have not had any direction about the common core in math.”

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