Education Chat

The State of Science Education

Michael Padilla, president of the National Science Teachers Association, and Sean Cavanagh, Education Week science reporter, discussed the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress science results.

Chat Editors


  • Michael Padilla, president of the National Science Teachers Association; and
  • Sean Cavanagh, staff writer for Education Week

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s chat about the release of the NAEP science results and what they tell us about the state of science education in the United States. The results have generated concern among educators and policymakers and raised a number of questions about how the nation’s schools can improve science education. Many of those questions will be addressed in this chat, so let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center (ACC), Little Rock School District:
Please summarize what the NAEP science test results tell us about science education in the USA? What can we do better?

Sean Cavanagh:
In sum, the scores show 4th grade students making progress in science achievement, while scores among 8th grade students were relatively flat. Gains among 4th graders were strongest among the lowest-performing students, and the increases among minority students -- particularly Latinos -- were especially strong.

The most discouraging results for many school officials are shown among 12th graders, whose scores rose by a point from 2000 to 2005 -- but whose overall performance has fallen since 1996. Since 1996, the percentage of 12th grade students who could deemed “proficient” in science has fallen; the portion of high schoolers whose skills meet even the “basic” level also fell. Keep in mind that to meet the basic threshold, a student need only to be able to demonstrate “some knowledge and certain reasoning abilities” for understanding Earth, life, and physical science.

Comment from Bonnie Coppola, retired, Orange, CT, Elementary School System:
According to the most recent national data, the greatest gains in science education have been made at the fourth grade level. I submit to you that this is so because the push to improve the instruction of science in the U.S. has occurred at the elementary school level,as well it should, and that this early exposure/emphasis on science will “bump up” to the higher grades as these children go through. It will also force changes to the science programs at the secondary level in order to accommodate these science savvy children. It seems to me that the solution has already been set in motion. It should bear fruit and provide measurable results when the fourth graders reach 8th and 12th grade.

Question from Patrick OConnor, Professor, Worcester State College:
Aristotle stated that wonder is the basis of knowledge.Given the fierce climate of testing in schools, how can science teachers keep this essential quality alive in students?

Michael Padilla:
Excellent point. That reminds me of the joke about a farmer who, in attempt to increase the weight of his pig, emulates educators by weighing the pig daily. Sounds silly for agriculture, but to a certain extent that is what we are doing in education. So where is the balance? What is just enough testing so that we can know what students understand and how well our policies and practices are producing better achievement? The key to me is understanding that testing is NOT a measure that will in itself improve achievement. Testing is only a way to find out what students know. If we don’t innovate with our curriculum and our teaching methods, students will not improve.

Comment from John Stiles, Science Consultant, Heartland Area Education Agency, Johnston, Iowa:
I am surprised that 4th graders show improvement. Here in Iowa, as well as in many other states, teachers are actively discouraged from teaching science, as reading and math have received increased instructional time.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center (ACC), Little Rock School District:
How is USA science education competing with the Japanese science education?

Sean Cavanagh:
By one prominent measure, Japanese students consistently outperform their U.S. counterparts on tests of science ability.

The latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) show U.S. 4th graders ranking 9th out of 25 countries in science knowledge, with a score of 518, while Japanese students ranked third, with a 565. Japanese students also outperformed U.S. students at the 8th grade level, too, though the gap was narrower. That trend on TIMMS dates as far back as 1995, and while U.S. students have made greater gains in scores than Japanese students in the eight years since then, the gap persists. (Singapore, by the way, tops all participating nations at 4th and 8th grade.)

Question from Nancy Vawter, Education Specialist, Montgomery Public Schools:
Is there anything in the research that states that students do not receive their first science class until 6th grade? Science and Social studies are the classes that are exempted in Elementary School when students are having trouble with math or reading.

Michael Padilla:
NSTA and most science educators believe that the elementary grades are critical to the scientific development of children. So no—I know of no research or competent educators who believe that science should be ignored until 6th grade. One reason that both reading and mathematics have taken precedence in elementary grades is that these are the subjects that have been tested and counted for AYP. The stakes are high and principals and teachers have focused time and attention on these two subjects. BUT, this is about to change. Beginning next year, science will also be tested, and, while it is unclear whether science results will count for AYP, just the very act of testing it and making the scores public should change the attention and time science will get in the curriculum.

Question from Junlei Li, Researcher, Carnegie Mellon Univ:
In the past, NSTA has joined the chorus of alarm-sounding following each dismal NAEP reports. Does NSTA accept or challenge the validity of NAEP tests? Does NSTA generally agree with the content, structure, scope, and criteria of NAEP tests?

Michael Padilla:
I cannot speak for the entire NSTA organization. Personally, as someone who has done a substantial amount of research and who has tried to develop valid test items, I believe that the NAEP test is about as good as our technology, know-how, time and money can buy. Is it a 100% accurate measure of student scientific knowledge—No. But I don’t know how we could do much better.

Question from Paul:
How soon do you think it will be until the NAEP tests and other tests can be given/scored without paper on computers? Is there any movement in that direction?

Sean Cavanagh:
I have punted this question to folks at the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. The following answer is provided by Mary Crovo, deputy executive director for the board:

“NAEP conducted several small-scale special studies of computer based testing in the early 2000’s in mathematics, writing, and science/technology. The purpose of these studies was to examine the feasibility of moving NAEP to computer-based assessments. Overall results of the studies indicated that such assessments were feasible for NAEP.

For 2009, the Governing Board’s new Science Framework includes a section on interactive computer tasks (ICTs). A sample of students in the main assessment will take a 30-minute ICT in addition to the 50-minute paper and pencil portion of the exam. Examples of science ICTs include simulated experiments and information search/analysis tasks. Students will respond on the computer and their responses will be scored electronically. ICTs will be given to subsamples of students in grades 4, 8, and 12. This will be the first time that a main NAEP assessment will contain a computer-based component.

For the new 2011 NAEP in Writing, the Governing Board is considering a completely computer-based assessment. The current recommendation from the Board’s contractor, ACT, and the Writing Project Committees is to administer the 2011 writing assessment via computer at grades 4, 8, and 12. Student responses would be scored electronically as well. The Board is currently gathering feedback on this and other 2011 Writing Framework recommendations (see

Additional computer-based NAEP assessments are being planned for the future.”

From Sean Cavanagh: For more information on the various issues to consider with regard computer-based testing on NAEP, look at a study published in 2003 by the National Center for Education Statistics. It is titled, “NAEP Validity Studies: Implications of Electronic Technology for the NAEP Assessment.”

Question from Rose Snyder, Science Teacher Leader Associate:
Has there been any effort made to convince textbook publishers to create textbooks that are limited to the focus of the National Science Standards but that create opportunities for learning in depth?

Michael Padilla:
That’s an excellent question. It doesn’t take an acute observer to see that student textbooks are getting larger and heavier each year. But there is an insidious cycle that causes this. Most states and districts create their frameworks based upon the National Education Standards and the AAAS Benchmark. What I have observed is that nothing is ever left out and oftentimes topics are added to this list. Textbook companies, in response to the marketplace, create books that match the frameworks. The consequences of leaving anything out of your text is not getting it adopted, so they make sure that does not happen. So, the books get bigger and bigger. The textbook companies blame the schools and the schools blame the companies.

At some point we are going to have to figure out what needs to be eliminated. As the amount of scientific knowledge increases, we cannot continue simply to add more to the curriculum.

Question from John Shacter, consultant and teacher, Kingston, TN:
Aren’t there two problems? 1: We have a very boring way to teach a “dry, somewhat theoretical “science”. Why not get into actual cases and demonstrate how breakthroughs occurred? 2. Why not teach practical applications of science (engineering..) along with science?

(I teach in these ways, and have never had a problem with lack of interest. Kids eat it up.)

John Shacter Kingston, TN

Michael Padilla:
I wouldn’t call them problems, but rather issues or challenges. Trying to keep young children and adolescents interested is a challenge to all science teachers. I agree that treating science as a dry and somewhat boring topic is a recipe for boredom. I also like your notion of looking at the practical applications of science as a way to grab interest. There are numerous other ways including getting students actively involved, making sure students have an opportunity to voice their own opinions, teaching in a manner that gets students intellectually engaged (inquiry) and using the outdoors whenever possible. The list could go on and on. I am delighted you are so positive and are having such success.

Question from Ric Seager, Asst. HS Principal, Bronson, MI:
Of much concern to me is the politicization of science that currently seems so fashionable. From Dover, PA, to Cobb County, GA; Kansas to California; even here in Michigan, we are experiencing a new attitude from many that what constitutes scientific ‘facts’ should be left to the political process, and not to the ‘ivory towers.’

Is NSTA doing anything to chronicle the impact this phenomenon is having on teacher preparation, textbook content, pedagogy and/or student readiness?

What does NSTA recommend that those of us ‘in the trenches’ do to stand up to those who bully local school boards regarding these issues?

Sean Cavanagh:
Mike may want to weigh in on this one, too. But I know that NSTA has taken a strong position, reiterated over the past year, about the basic ground rules of science, with respect to the entire debate over evolution. In general, NSTA said public school science classes were not appropriate venues for ideas such as intelligent design and creationism, concepts that the teachers’ association -- and the vast majority of scientists -- consider unscientific.

In terms of chronicling the problem, as you see it, NSTA conducted a survey in 2005 on the experiences of teachers in covering the topic of evolution, specifically. We cited it in a recent story:

The National Science Teachers Association conducted an informal poll of its members on the pressure they face to teach alternatives to evolution in their classes. The survey of 1,050 respondents found:

• 31 percent said they felt pressured to teach creationism, intelligent design, or other alternatives to evolution that the NSTA deems “nonscientific.”

• 22 percent of those teachers indicated that the pressure came from students, and 20 percent said it came from parents.

• Only 5 percent said pressure to omit evolution came from administrators or principals.

• 85 percent said they felt prepared to explain to students the importance of understanding evolution.

• 62 percent said they believed they were successful at helping parents and others understand why teaching evolution is important.

SOURCE: National Science Teachers Association, March 2005

Question from Miles A. Myers:
At what grade should K-12 school courses shift from general science to specific disciplines in science (chemistry, physics, biology, and so on)? Explain, please.

Michael Padilla:
This is a matter of debate, Miles. There are those who deplore the “layer cake” model, where we teach biology followed by chemistry and then physics. They see science as a unified whole and the traditional disciplines as arbitrary, man-made divisions that only help students to compartmentalize. Others believe that the traditional disciplines allow us to focus attention on one or another aspect of science in depth. Personally, I take the middle of the road approach for school science. I believe the traditional disciplines have their place, but must be taught so that important underlying scientific principles from other disciplines are integrated into the disciplinary content. So if you are going to teach life, earth and physical science in middle grades, make sure that each unit in these disciplines integrates content from the other sciences. The same would be true at the secondary level. At elementary, I think the integrated approach should be followed. For children of this age science should be thought of as a whole and taught in that manner. One caution is that sometimes we kid ourselves that we are teaching an integrated approach by mixing and matching units from the various sciences. However, I think true integration occurs only when each and every unit contains integration.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center (ACC), Little Rock School District:
How can computers/Internet help science teachers?

Michael Padilla:
Personally, I think technology can be a great asset, but not the total answer in the science classroom. There is not space here to list all the ways that technology can help, but just considering the advantages for collecting, organizing and displaying data gets me excited as a science teacher. To me the combination of science and technology is a natural. Let’s be careful though. Nothing will replace a thoughtful and skillful science teacher who can motivate and challenge students.

Question from Joe Petrosino-Mid Career Doctoral Student @Penn:
The National Assessment of Educational Progress in science is a document that will have a definitive impact on the educational community. How can the results of that survey be infused into a school in an effort to develop a culture of trust within the faculty and administrative team?

Michael Padilla:
There are several ways that the results and processes used in NAEP can help schools. Many states follow a mandated state curriculum framework. So you can look at your state scores to see if that framework is producing results. Are you seeing improvement? Where does your state stand relative to peers? If you are not happy with your state’s results then ask questions of your state officials. Second, schools can use the released NAEP test questions as models of well designed items. The NAEP items are excellent examples of what a good paper and pencil test item can be. Analyzing released items will help teachers write better items for their own students. In addition, released items can also be used for student practice. Third, I believe that both the NAEP framework and released items can give teachers a better vision of what the target should be in science. These tools can be used by teachers as they work together to improve their school’s performance.

Question from Erick Archer, Concerned Parent, Former Science Teacher:
How do you see the upcoming NCLB requirements affecting science education in terms of amount of time spent on hands-on/lab/field-based activities?

Sean Cavanagh:
I have written a bit about this in the past. By the 2007-2008 school year, schools will be required to test students in science at three different grade spans in science. Some science educators fear that in order to improve test scores, teachers may be forced to strip lab works and investigations from their courses, and focus more on “direct instruction,” in general, more straightforward presentation of scientific facts -- which in turn, will result in lecture-type teaching and rote memorization of facts.

Those advocates also note that creating tests that measure students’ abilities to conduct sound investigations, through lab work, isn’t easy. If that sort of investigative work is not tested, they say, it won’t be taught. Whether these worries play out remain to be seen.

One note: Under No Child Left Behind, states’ science tests do not currently factor into schools’ adequate yearly progress results, as is the case with reading and math scores. Member of the Congress, and the Bush Administration, have voiced support for including science in that “yearly progress” mix, reasoning that it will encourage schools to take that subject seriously.

Question from MIles A. Myers:
Michael, at one time your organization was stressing the importance of Hands-on Science, giving a high priority to Science Fairs in each school and involvement with some of the many national science projects for young people. Is this priority reflected in the NAEP assessment of science?

Michael Padilla:
NSTA promotes a hand-on, minds-on approach to teaching science. We believe that students must fully experience science concepts if they are to truly understand them. I am not sure about the extent of use of performance tasks in NAEP, however. I believe there is a hand-on component that some students take, but I am unsure of how many students take it.

Question from Dale Rosene, teacher, Marshall MS Marshall, MI:
Though a set of National Science Standards was developed, every state sets its own standards. How is this reflected in the scores you are discussing? While our local scores continue to rise, I am not sure this would be reflected in the NEAP scores.

Sean Cavanagh:
In general, state science standards have a big influence on what gets taught in classes these days, because the content of state tests is supposed to be based on them. Some state officials that didn’t score well on the science NAEP would no doubt argue that the content of their standards, and what gets taught at various grade levels -- is different that what is tested on the 4th, 8th, and 12th grade levels.

That aside, if you’re interested in investigating this further, you might look at some of the work on the topic of state science standards conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, in Washington. In December of 2005, Fordham published an analysis of various state standards, and found that two-thirds of science standards earned a “C” grade or worse. In general Fordham has found that too many of science standards are unorganized and incoherent; and that they wrongly emphasize that students acquire knowledge through in-class experimentation, rather than through building understanding of core scientific facts and content.

In that Fordham review, just seven states scores an “A” grade: California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, and Virginia.

In the NAEP results, a few of those states -- CA, VA, and SC -- saw significant score increases at 4th and 8th grade levels. Not all of those states saw jumps on their scores, though, so it might be unwise to draw too many hard-and-fast conclusions. release

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center (ACC), Little Rock School District:
Do you think that year-round education might help allowing more pay for those teachers who might opt to teach on a year-round calendar (thus drawing more qualified science teachers into the field)?

Michael Padilla:
I think year-round education could resolve a lot of problems. We have had an on-going experiment in two local elementary schools here in Georgia over the last 5 years. As a result of adopting a year-round calendar, student achievement improved and parental involvement increased. However, the experiment has run into problems, because these 2 schools are the only ones on that particular schedule and that causes problems for parents with children in different schools.

The teachers involved in the experiment were pleased with the results and the calendar. It allowed time for shorter, more frequent breaks during the year and helped teachers stay refreshed. An increase in salary was not one of the options because teachers and students were in class for about the same number of days.

I would be concerned if we extended the school year without addressing other workplace issues like number of preps or increased planning time.

Question from Ana Hitri, Ph.D. George Wasington University, Washington , DC:
To what degree does teacher’s knowledge base influence students’ performance? I would like to know if there are any data on the correlation between teachers’ knowledge base and students’science performance.

Sean Cavanagh:
Ms. Hitri,

You’re in luck, there is data that looks at this issue, which is available online. I got there with some help from some folks at the National Assessment Governing Board, and I’ll try to get you started. There is information on the correlation between teacher experience and student performance, teacher demographics, and so so.

Go to the home page for the results:

Then go to “analyze data.” Then the “data explorer,” function, then click on “go to advanced.” After that, you will be asked to specify info on what grade level you’re interested in, what subject, what testing year, and the teacher information you want. It takes a while to sort through it, but I believe the info is there if you search it out.

Question from Miles A. Myers:
Does the NAEP assessment of science adequately reflect the science standards of your organization or the National Academy of Science? What are the differences, if any?

Michael Padilla:
That’s a good question. I believe that the NAEP test is as good as we have. It is based upon a framework or outline of what students should know and be able to do. On the NAEP website ( this framework is described as “a broadly accepted outline of what hundreds of educators, curriculum experts, policy makers, and members of the general public thought the assessment should test.” That said, the framework is several years old (I believe from the 1990’s) and will be replaced for the next NAEP science assessment. While the present framework broadly reflects the National Science Education Standards, the new one to be used in 2009 will provide a better match.

Question from :
What is the number one thing that pre-service programs can do to help address the performance levels of k-12 students?

Michael Padilla:
Good pre-service programs are critical to the development of new teachers. I have spent my life working to improve education at this level. So, for what its worth, here’s my opinion on the few things (couldn’t keep it at just one!) we need to do.

1. Make sure prospective teachers major in a discipline. Having content expertise is critical for becoming a good teacher. At secondary, this would be a science discipline. For elementary and middle grades, it might be any of a handful of fields. 2. Make sure prospective teachers know how to teach. They need to have knowledge of students, the curriculum, teaching strategies, and most importantly, subject matter pedagogy. This latter area of knowledge is critical in science. Teachers must know what problems students will have with certain concepts—genetics, for example—and what teaching strategies can be utilized to remediate the problems. 3. Follow new teachers into the workplace. We know that the dropout rate for new teachers is high (30-35%) in the first 5 years. We also know that almost any help and support we can give to these teachers helps them stay in the profession. Universities must step up to the plate in providing some of this support.

There’s probably a lot more, but those ore the top ideas for now.

Question from Kay Fincher, teacher, Amarillo High School:
What do you think teachers in middle and high schools need to do to keep students interested in science and encourage more of them to take higher-level science courses? What should administrators and teachers do to assure a quality science education without scaring students away from challenging coursework?

Sean Cavanagh:
It’s a big question, and I can only offer an opinion based on what I’ve heard, from teachers and others who seem to be having success keeping students hooked on the subject. One of the most obvious problems everybody from teachers to national leaders identify in math and science education is students’ losing interest in those subjects as they grow older and move farther through the K-12 pipeline. This problem is especially noticeable among girls, who, according to some surveys, are keen on science at early grades but seem to grow bored or discouraged with it by middle and high school -- and are thus unlikely to choose it as a career.

Having teachers with strong content knowledge in science is a key, as many experts have said. It’s hard for a teacher at any grade level to cover scientific material with the sort of flair that will engage students, if that teacher’s content knowledge is shaky to begin with. This is especially true in middle and high school, where the scientific material becomes more demanding. Many effective teachers have said they were able to keep students interested in potentially daunting scientific material by drawing connections to applications in the world outside the classroom -- through ongoing activities and projects, discussions of scientific topics in the news, that are directly linked to specific content.

Question from Deborah Perkins-Gough, Senior Editor, Educational Leadership, ASCD:
Have any schools, districts, or states revamped the traditional secondary school science curriculum, and if so what have the results been?

Sean Cavanagh:
While a lot of attention at the state and district level has been paid to reading and math in recent years (partly because of testing demands in that area), there’s been considerable work in science, too.

I worked on a project last fall that examined how the topic of evolution is treated in state’s science standards (answer: very unevenly). One thing that become obvious in my review was that state science standards are in in constant flux -- and that many have become much more detailed in their expectations for what students know in all scientific disciplines. In the last five years or so, many states have also published far more detailed secondary materials for teachers, aimed at providing more minute detail on what should be taught in particular areas of science -- and what types of questions students will face on state assessments. (Some of this is detailed in a story published on Nov. 9, 2005.)

Question from Monique Bell, Curriculum Coordinator, Milwaukee College Prep School:
I will be teaching and developing a science program next year for our K-8 school. What are your recommendations on a model that will help students make significant gains in skills and knowledge. This will simultaneously be a research project for dissertation. Recommendations of organizations who are committed to assisting in the development of a science program would be helpful.

Michael Padilla:
Good luck to you next year, Monique. You have a big job ahead of you. I would suggest that you work first on developing a curriculum framework for each grade that mirrors the National Science Education Standards and spirals from grade to grade. If you can get the teachers who will be teaching each grade to help you in that process, it will go more smoothly. Make sure that as you develop the framework that you place emphasis on student inquiry—i.e., getting students to think in science. This would include having students observe, classify, infer and experiment. Next you need to find teaching materials that will help you implement this framework. I have always found it best to have a basic, core set of materials and then supplement these with other resources. In terms of resources, you will need copies of the National Science Education Standards and Benchmarks for Scientific literacy. Also look at the NSTA Press publications for materials. There is a wealth of stuff there.

Question from Colin Purrington, Associate Professor, Swarthmore College:
Were students assessed on understanding of descent with modification and natural selection? If not, when might such questions be added in future years, to emphasize the importance of evolution to all biology education? Thank you very much.

Sean Cavanagh:
While this doesn’t address the language “descent with modification...” specifically, I can answer your question this way:

I wrote a story in December of last year about how often different states test students about the theory of evolution on their assessments. (It varied, with some states asking up to a dozen question about the concept, and others asking none.) By comparison, I looked at how often NAEP covers the question.

NCES officials told me that on the 2005 version of the test, 12th graders were quizzed about four items that referred specifically to evolution and five others that covered related concepts, making up 4 percent of the 209 total questions. (At that time, they would not release the specific language of the 2005 questions. You might look online at the items NAEP released this week, though I didn’t see an evolution-related item on there.)

On the 2000 NAEP science test, 51 percent of 12th graders picked the correct answer on a multiple-choice question from about different aspects of evolution. (I believe the language of this items is available on NAEP’s web site.)

Here’s a sample evolution-related question from the 2000 NAEP, which was released:

Which of the following is NOT a part of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection?

A) Individuals in a population vary in many ways.

B) Some individuals possess features that enable them to survive better than individuals lacking those features.

C) More offspring are produced than can generally survive.

D) Changes in an individual’s genetic material are usually harmful. (correct answer.)


Question from John Stiles, Science Consultant, Heartland Area Education Agency, Johnston, Iowa:
With the NCLB and Standards emphasis on inquiry-based science, why has not NAEP developed an assessment that would better indicate our nation’s children’s progress in critical thinking rather than recall of information?

Sean Cavanagh:

The question of whether to emphasize “inquiry-based” science, as opposed to critical thinking, as you describe it, has been a source of debate when it comes to the NAEP test, as is among the scientific and education community at large.

Officials on the policy-making board for the NAEP have said in the past that they’ve tried to strike a balance between these two approaches on the science test. Last year, the board approved a new “framework,” or basic outline for the next science test, in 2009, that places a greater emphasis on science content. As we reported last fall: “The revamped framework, or outline for science content on NAEP, will increase the proportion of questions focused on factual scientific knowledge and application to 60 percent, up from 45 percent now. The National Assessment Governing Board, the federal panel that sets NAEP policy, approved the framework Nov. 18.”

It should be noted that others, including the Fordham Foundation, have been critical of the NAEP science test for what it saw as the exam’s overemphasis on “discovery learning,” as opposed to basic science facts and content.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center (ACC), Little Rock School District:
Do you have any suggestions for alternative science education, that is, education for secondary students who cannot seem to make the credit they need to graduate from their regular high school?

Michael Padilla:
I am not an expert on alternative education. We have a very successful local program that fulfills the needs of students who, for whatever reasons, cannot seem to make it in regular classes. I think these important programs help students finish high school when in the past they might have dropped out. I do get concerned about the quality of science offered to these students. We have to ensure that they get opportunities to experience real science, not just read about it in books.

Question from Rick Allen, project manager, Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development:
For Michael: The National Science Education Standards appeared in 1996--do the NAEP scores mean that the standards have had no impact on science teaching in the last 10 years? If so, why do you think this is the case?

Michael Padilla:
Rick--I hope this is not the inference drawn from these results. As one of the writers on the 1996 Standards, I feel I have a lot of ownership and pride in the degree to which they have shaped science education in the last 10 years. That said, I think we must admit that the science education “ship” is a bid one that is difficult to steer and that it will take a long time and a lot of effort to get us moving in a new direction.

Question from Andrew Posner, VP, Teachers Support Network:
Do you think that our colleges and universities are doing education students a disservice by not encouraging them to go after science (and math, for that matter) certification rather than, for example, elementary ed, which, while quite popular, limits teaching employment opportunities?

Michael Padilla:
You ask a tough question! If we weren’t human, of course, we could just make all new teachers, science and math teachers. That would certainly solve our shortage. But the reality is that not everyone has the interest or ability to teach science. Somehow we have to find a way to convince those with these abilities to do so. The only way I know to do this is to improve both the work conditions and salary and then go out and sell our profession to those with talent. Finally, don’t forget that we still need great elementary teachers, too, and that all elementary teachers are teachers of science. Our challenge at this level is to give elementary teachers the knowledge and confidence to become good at it so that when students enter middle school, they are ready for the challenge.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center (ACC), Little Rock School District:
What kind of inservice education do you think that science teachers need?

Michael Padilla:
This is a very broad question. Let me just focus on one major point. In recent years we have been experimenting with the notion of having teachers take responsibility for at least part of their own professional development. Many of our local schools have created study groups that meet on a regular basis to read and discuss, analyze student work, revise course plans, and other professional tasks. Some are beginning to use the Japanese lesson study approach as a way to study teaching. In this method, the teachers cooperatively plan a lesson and have one person teach it. The others observe and take notes (the lesson is videotaped for those who cannot attend). In a later session the lesson is reviewed and digested, with criticisms focused on the lesson not on the person who taught it.

Question from LaMoine Motz, Director, Science, Mathematics, Technology Center, Oakland County Schools, Michigan.:
Should the United States have a national science curriculum for ALL students?

Should specific science benchmarks be assigned to certain grade levels for ALL students in our country?

How can the United States become more competitive with other countries in the fields of science and engineering? Have we lost our competitive edge?

Sean Cavanagh:

You’re asking about one of the longest-running debates in education -- one that tends to emerge in force with the release of international comparisons of student skill in math and science. We’re a nation of state and local control over education curriculum, of course, but hen international tests like PISA or TIMSS show U.S. students getting trounced by foreign nations, particularly Asian ones, a lot of math and science researchers are quick to point out that many foreign countries have national standards, and, in general, a stronger alignment between what gets taught in math and science classes, what gets tested, and what’s in textbooks -- compared to the United States, where what gets taught changes from state to state, and sometimes, from school to school.

There are arguments others make against national standards, of course. One that I’ve heard -- especially during recent discussions of ways to improve U.S. students’ math and science skills, and the country’s long-term competitiveness -- is that the entrepreneurship and innovation of the U.S. economy somehow derives in part from the freedom and flexibility given to local schools to shape curricula as they see fit.

Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, has written about the need for national standards in education. Here’s an excerpt from an online chat she did with Ed Week on Jan. 18 of this year:

Q: “How would national standards take into consideration geographical and demographic differences and needs? How would it be unlike a “one size fits all” education and still meet the needs of a widely diverse society?”

Diane Ravitch: “Let’s take math and science as starting points. We should have national standards in both subjects because there are already implicit international standards and our students fall way behind. If we had strong clear explicit national standards in those subjects, then teachers would know what they are expected to teach, textbooks would align their content to match the standards, tests would reflect the standards, and teacher education would embed those standards when preparing future teachers. Would this produce one-size-fits-all? I don’t think so. For one thing, teachers could use whatever teaching style they like best. Instruction could be tailored to meet the needs of students. But the fundamental knowledge and skills that our children need to know in math and science would be laid out clearly for all to see and teach and learn. There is not a different kind of math or science in different parts of the city or state or nation.”

And more from Ms. Ravitch:

“What we have now is a highly decentralized system in which the education children get depends on what district they live in, what school they enroll in, what teacher they happen to get assigned to. How to change it? If we really had national standards, whether privately managed or set by a government entity, I believe that states would feel compelled to teach to those standards, if they are truly the best in the nation. I suppose that states could say, “we don’t want to participate,” but how embarrassing that would be vis a vis the public and teachers!”

Question from Brad King, Division of Education, MidAmerica Nazarene University:
Acknowledging that the ball has been set in motion, how are we to recruit and retain teachers in the field of science education so that when these students get to the middle and high schools they will have highly qualified teachers?

Sean Cavanagh:

A couple points --

This is obviously a major focus on what’s going on at the federal level, where the Bush administration has proposed expanding an existing competitive-grant program that allows states, school districts, and nonprofits to receive federal money for training teachers to lead AP courses. Several congressional proposals are aimed at the recruitment/ retention issue.

Often lost in this discussion is the fact that there’s already a ton of activity occuring at the state level in this area. At least 31 states have financial incentives in place to address subject-area shortages in different topics of K-12 education—including math and science—according to the study, produced by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

That report -- published in April -- also notes that 17 states currently offer monetary incentives to lure teachers to “hard-to-staff” schools.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):

Thank you for joining us for this informative chat about the NAEP science results and what lessons might be learned from them about how to improve science education in the United States. And a special thanks to our guests, who took the time to answer your questions. This chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be posted shortly on

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