California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (CA NGSS) in 2013 with the goal of improving science literacy and increasing the global competitiveness of the state’s workforce. NGSS implementation has been patchy across grade levels and districts, but most districts were at least in the early stages of implementing the new standards in Spring 2020 when the COVID-19 crisis began. At a virtual event earlier this week, PPIC researcher Maria Fay outlined a new report on the impact of the pandemic on science education, and Senior Fellow Niu Gao moderated a panel discussion on how California can drive equitable investment in science education.
Fay noted that the new standards have the potential to improve science literacy, which has long been low in California: “In 2015, only 24% of students in grades 4 and 8 had science literacy, well below the national average , and there are large disparities based on race/ethnicity and family income.” However, during the pandemic, most districts have been more focused on math and English Language Arts (ELA), and most district recovery plans have no emphasis on science.
Jennifer Bentley, education administrator for the California Department of Education, noted that prior to the pandemic, science wasn’t a top priority in most school districts. When schools had to abruptly switch to online teaching, she added, “The uncertainty surrounding distance learning in general caused many teachers to retreat to content areas where they felt least confident, and one of those was science.”
Golden Plains Unified School District superintendent Martín Macías said the pandemic has put the new science curriculum on hold in his rural district “for a little bit.” But after schools switched to distance learning, the implementation process resumed. “For us, it was just a matter of turnaround time,” he said.
While the pandemic has brought many challenges and disruptions, it has also spurred investment and innovation. Bentley highlighted several recent state budget allocations: “The governor’s budget provides many opportunities for schools, districts and departments of education to use for science and professional learning and educational materials,” she said. In many cases, “it would just be about allocating funds to science rather than ELA or math.”
For Superintendent Macías, an important sign of progress is the move to adapt science teaching in several departments to the state framework. Literacy is particularly important in his district, where 88% of students are classified as English learners at some point in their enrollment. With that kind of alignment, he added, “teachers can look at reading, literacy, and writing in science where we used to look at things in silos.”
While panellists are hopeful, they agreed that system-wide change will not happen overnight. “The education ship is a very big ship to turn,” said Heidi Schweingruber, director of the Board on Science Education at the National Academy of Sciences. “I actually think there’s more potential in the K-5 band right now to explore deep, meaningful integration just because of the structure of school life. We need to think about how to make it meaningful in high school. But I think there are places where exciting things are happening and we can use them as role models.”
This research was supported with funding from the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2128789. All opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.