No time for science in elementary school

California elementary schools are neglecting science to focus on reading and math, concludes a study, High Hopes — Few Opportunities, by WestEd, Lawrence Hall of Science and SRI. Furthermore, only a third of elementary teachers say they’re prepared to teach science well.

California set rigorous science standards in 1998, but science counts for less than 6 percent of a school’s score on the state’s Academic Performance Index. English counts for nearly 57 percent.

Unlike most districts, Fremont Unified has funded a science resource teacher at each elementary school, reports the San Jose Mercury News, which visited Fremont’s Brookvale Elementary School.

On Monday, fourth-graders at the school excitedly dissected the dried, regurgitated remains from owls’ stomachs, part of a lesson on the food chain. Seeing skeletons of birds and mice that had been swallowed whole teaches what owls eat and what other animals and bugs are in the ecosystem, (resource teacher Puja) Chhagani said.

However, 60 percent of districts hire no elementary science specialists. That leave science science instruction to classroom teachers, most of whom say they’re unprepared for the job. More than 85 percent of elementary teachers received no science-related professional development in the past three years.

While 44 percent of principals think it is likely that a student would receive high-quality science instruction at their schools, the study estimated that only 10 percent of elementary classes offer high-quality science learning.

On the National Assessment of Education Progress, California’s fourth-graders ranked at the bottom, along with students from Alabama, Mississippi and Hawaii.


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  1. Walter E Wallis says:

    Until a student can read with comprehension and do basic math intuitively, science is just show and tell.

  2. I disagree, Walter. It would be entirely possible (IMHO) for a regular, non-science-specialist teacher to do a week-long series on, say, magnetism. Explain about magnets, the earth’s magnetic field, compasses, electromagnets (just demonstrate that they exist) and so on. Any grown adult should be able to explain such to a young child.

    It’s not science, really, it’s science prep: see what magnets can do? Isn’t it cool and exciting? I’ll bet you can’t wait to study this more next year!

  3. dangermom says:

    There is plenty of fun science exposure that can happen in the early years without much math, not to mention that the kids could be practicing reading by reading about scientific subjects. However, since science is a very small part of the California STAR test, it is routinely ignored even in schools that theoretically teach it. I do not understand at all why schools don’t have the kids reading history and science, but they don’t.

    I’ve had several teacher friends complain to me about it, and even more frustrated parent friends. Some have pulled their kids out over it.

  4. Walter E Wallis says:

    My high school science was 50% lab, fun but no cigar. In college we started with quant and proceeded from there, with lab just to prove out our classroom computations. You can’t balance an equation if you don’t know math.

  5. Sean Mays says:

    I disagree too. Elementary science is full of great opportunities. Magnets, get a few and play around, observe and report. Get an old school CRT and wave magnets near it, you’ve got charge deflection, pass em through some conducting wires with an ammeter attached and you’ve got induced current. Break the wire and you’ve got the notion of circuits. Wave em near the running water faucet and you get deflection because tap water is somewhat ionic. Today after gymnastics class my daughter and I spent 20 minutes watching earthworms navigating about, mating and responding to some gentle finger pokes. We noticed chunky matter through their nice thin skin, and concluded that’s their digestive system. It’s not quantitative but it sets the stage for inquiry and observation, of making a model and seeing if it works.

    I.I. Rabi (Nobel Laureate Physicist born 1898) told how his mother set him on the path to science: When he came home from school she said: Izzy, did you ask a good question today?

  6. Any college-educated adult *should* know enough to teach science to 4th graders with the aid of a good textbook. In reality, many don’t have such knowledge, of course (and I suspect the proportion of those lacking any basic science comprehension is higher among ed-school graduates than among the general popuation)….which indicates that the failure of schools and colleges to teach science has been going on for a long time.

  7. Teachers are busy teaching to the testing – to keep their jobs. What teachers need are hands on labs that are fun and exciting for the students. Try out our free Monday Morning Science Blast labs at

  8. David, I agree that a decently-educated college grad should be able to teach k-5 science or any other ES subject. In theory, all freshmen entering the ES side of ed school should know the k-5 content (as defined by Core Knowledge or the classical curriculum) thoroughly, before they even start college. Unfortunately, they don’t, and the ed schools do nothing to correct the situation. They should be required to demonstrate content mastery (by serious exams, designed by the appropriate department) of math, science, history, geography, grammar, composition, classic children’s lit, child development and psych etc. or be required to take real coursework to remediate any deficits. The ed courses should be limited to the best methods of teaching each subject, test development and practice teaching.

    My 1-4 teachers were either normal-school (1 year post-HS) grads or had a year or two of college. They all knew content across the disciplines and provided good background in science, history (including art and architecture), government, geography and music appreciation, as well as spelling, grammar, composition and classic literature. In first grade, we did a lot on plants, including soil compositon (including composting and worms), photosynthesis, heliotropism, fertilization (bees) and birds. Second grade was reptiles, fish (hatched frog eggs and butterflies) and mammals. Third grade was geology and physical geography; plates, volcanoes, earthquakes etc and weather. Fourth grade was the solar system, constellations, tides, currents and weather. I know we did basic physics – magnets, inclined planes, levers etc. but I forget whether it was third or fourth grade. The teachers had all been teaching those grades for decades and the content reflected their particular interests.

    Steve, my experience and that of my kids is that labs are over-rated. I sent the oldest two to the after-school Hands-On-Science session and they felt it was a waste of their time. Of course, they spent a lot of time running around the woods, hatching frogs and crawfish, damming streams and building treehouses and shelters. I think a well-planned teacher demonstration, with good preparation and explanation, is usually better at that level.