Make Science Education Better, More Equitable, Says National Panel

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 13, 2021 3 min read
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Without stronger and more equitable science education, the United States could lose its competitive place in the global economy and struggle to cope with future crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was the consensus in a new report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which calls for both federal and local efforts to overhaul K-12 science instruction across the nation. Among other recommendations, the report calls for federal and state policymakers to include science in state and federal accountability systems with reading and math and to develop “STEM opportunity” maps and report cards to pinpoint inequities between communities in funding, teachers, and other resources for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The report echoes other recent national studies that have found shrinking time for science instruction in schools, particularly in low-income and high-minority communities. Nationwide, the report notes, elementary students spend on average only 20 minutes per day on science instruction, compared to 60 minutes daily for math and 90 minutes each day for reading and language arts. And from school to school, students have unequal access to entire courses of core science topics.

That may be one reason for the results on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress in science. As of 2019, more than a quarter of 4th graders, a third of 8th graders, and more than 40 percent of 12th graders failed to meet even basic achievement on the science test.

Nancy Hopkins-Evans, a member of the report committee, said efforts to increase the number of students going into STEM fields have often focused on developing programs to get students excited about the field, “but I think we’ve neglected the foundational importance of science,” Hopkins-Evans said.

“The framework for K-12 science education sets out for us a coherent set of concepts that are supposed to be taught from K to 12 that build in rigor and complexity over years and years of education,” she said. “But without that foundational and fundamental education in science, it makes it very difficult ... for people to end up having STEM careers and for having a democracy that functions on being able to use evidence, to be able to use arguments, to be able to think critically and make decisions that are either related to science or science-based.”

More than a year of the public watching scientists’ evolving understanding of the pandemic and the current effort to develop and distribute vaccines to fight it might help policymakers gain momentum to improve support and accountability for science education, said Margaret Honey, the chairwoman of the committee that wrote the report.

“I think for so many people ... we’ve learned a lot about how science works—that science is very much a process that builds on knowledge and information, and as information increases, it is validated or not over time, and your assertions are going to change based on that,” Honey said. “For better or for worse, we’ve seen all that play out in real time over the last year.”

Among the committee’s recommendations:

  • Science achievement should be included as an accountability measure both in the next iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the federal level and in state accountability systems.
  • STEM advocates, including scientists, industry groups, and professional organizations, should partner with education groups to push for more support for science education.
  • The federal government should release an annual report card to highlight both the state of K-16 science education and differences in achievement, resources, and opportunities provided for science instruction from state to state, based on income and race.
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