Reading & Literacy

NRC Wants Science Put on Par With Math, Reading

By Nora Fleming — June 23, 2011 4 min read
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The National Research Council, in a report released Thursday, recommends that science learning be tested as frequently and taught as rigorously as math and reading to ensure a high status in the nation’s classrooms.

The report also urges policymakers to craft new assessments for all the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—that test students to probe for a deeper understanding of the material, and for states to hold their districts accountable to high standards for those subjects.

The congressionally chartered NRC plans to release recommendations for a new standards framework for 21st-century science education later this summer. The framework will be developed further by Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit group that focuses on improving state academic standards and assessments. New assessments for science based on the new standards should be crafted by states and organizations, the NRC suggests.

The NRC produced the report in response to a congressional request to the National Science Foundation to identify the nation’s most successful K-12 STEM schools and programs, given growing concerns that the United States is not providing sufficient education in those subjects to move students into careers in STEM-related fields.

“An increasing number of jobs at all levels—not just for professional scientists—require knowledge of STEM,” the report says. “In addition, individual and societal decisions increasingly require some understanding of STEM, from comprehending medical diagnoses to evaluating competing claims about the environment to managing daily activities with a wide variety of computer-based applications.”

Future Priority

The National Research Council set up a committee to assess existing research on STEM programs and specialty schools and to recommend criteria for determining which are most successful in teaching those subjects and what led to their best practices. Because of limited available research on best practices in technology and engineering instruction and program development, the report’s findings highlight science and mathematics.

In addition to making improvements in standards and assessments and devoting equal instructional time to science, the report encourages policymakers to forge policies and target funding toward enhancing teacher proficiency and knowledge in STEM subjects, and to work toward eliminating the gaps in access to high-quality STEM instruction between underprivileged and advantaged students.

According to Adam Gamoran, the chairman of the NRC committee and a professor of sociology and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its requirement of annual testing of math and reading, the same amount of investment, instructional time, or curriculum development has not gone into science.

That was not the intent of the NCLB legislation, however, said Eugene W. Hickok, a former deputy U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush, who signed the measure into law in 2002. Mr. Hickok, who helped craft the policy behind NCLB, said extending the main federal education law’s emphasis on reading and math to science was always considered a priority for the future.

“There is a need to instill in younger students an interest in science so that they will be more likely to pursue [that subject]. in secondary and postsecondary years,” said Mr. Hickok, who added that a lack of skilled science teachers is part of the reason students aren’t up to par in science.

“Merely calling for a curriculum focus on science and more assessments in science will not solve the problem, [but] it may well call greater attention to it and provide a better sense of just how much of a challenge the nation confronts,” he said.

In line with the report’s recommendations, the standards framework expected to be issued this summer is supposed to emphasize building students’ deeper understanding of science starting in the early grades and adding to it successively year to year. The corresponding assessments, the NRC says, should do the same, rather than just test rote memorization. The success in implementing new curriculum standards for science, and high standards for other STEM subjects, will be tied to improving teaching in those subjects, the report says.

More Research

Kati Haycock, the president of the Washington-based advocacy group the Education Trust, hadn’t yet read the report, but she expressed support for some of the NRC’s recommendations. According to Ms. Haycock, teachers, particularly at the elementary level, are weak in science and math instruction, and as a result, students are underperforming in those subjects.

“Having science taught regularly and frequently and testing it more often would help this, but it’s not the only way to make sure science is taught better, “ she said. “Certainly, supporting our teachers is an important step in the right direction.”

Ms. Haycock said the nation needs to “beef up the knowledge of our existing science teaching force” through devising new science curricula, deepening teachers’ knowledge, and encouraging teachers to use more engaging methods of instruction.

The report’s authors urge continued research into best practices for STEM instruction.

“STEM education is vital to our nation’s continued growth, leadership, and development, but this report has documented some important shortcomings that could hinder our progress,” the report says. It recommends further studies that “disentangle school effects from the characteristics of students that attend them, identify and describe distinctive aspects of their educational practices, and measure the broad effectiveness relative to the broad goals for U.S. STEM education.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week

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