What Accounts for Low Science Achievement and What Might Be Done About It.

Dr. Martin Haberman 1932 – 2012

Martin Haberman
Distinguished Professor
University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

In 2001 only 7 percent of the students in Wisconsin passed the state achievement examination at the proficient level in science. While other areas of the curriculum had fewer than half the students reaching the proficient level these scores in science were especially dismal. Why is science achievement the lowest? Of the low? What can be done about it? In the typical elementary school it is not unusual for teachers to skip instruction in science for one or more days each week. These same teachers would regard it as unthinkable to skip a day of instruction in reading and language arts. The truth is that the typical elementary school has narrowed its curriculum down so that it might be more accurately described as a reading center (with some marginal studies in other areas) rather than as an elementary school offering a comprehensive curriculum of general studies. In many Elementary schools the teaching of science is now on a par with the teaching of “specialties.” “Specialties” are areas taught once or twice a week by specialty teachers and usually include music, art and physical education. Conclusion: Science achievement reflects the amount of time that teachers offer instruction in science.

Chapter PI8 – Appendix 8 is a table of the number of minutes per week that the DPI recommends should be spent on the various subjects taught in the elementary school. (See attached) I strongly believe that these recommendations far EXCEED the actual time teachers spend on science and UNDERESTIMATE the Actual time that teachers spend on the teaching of reading and language arts. Assuming the DPI recommendations to be an accurate picture would be making a very conservative estimate of my conclusion but I am willing to make this assumption for the purpose of pointing out the horrendous discrepancy between the amount of time spent on science and the time spent on other areas of the elementary curriculum. Assuming the DPI recommendations reflect school realities we can make the following assumptions about the importance of various subject matters in the elementary school. In kindergarten reading is considered to be 3 times more important than science (30% of the time versus 10% of the time) but in first grade reading is considered 7 times more important than science ( 700 minutes per week versus 100 minutes). By fourth grade reading is “only” 4 times more important than science. By first grade science is not only relegated to the time allotted to specialty areas but it is a relatively unimportant specialty area. 315 minutes per week are to be spent on music, art and physical education but only 100 minutes per week on science.

4. By 6th grade science has increased to 250 minutes per week but this compares to 315 minutes per week devoted to physical education, art and music.
5. At every level from first through fifth grade more time is allotted to social studies than to science.
6. The state recommendations include an additional caveat: “Instruction to improve reading and writing should also be integrated into other subject areas.
Such as health, science and social studies.” This means that the relative amount of time devoted to reading is even greater.
7. If all the minutes for grades 1-5 are cumulated the following would be the tate’s recommendations for how much of the first five year’s time should be
spent on the various subject matters.

Cumulative Minutes Per Week (Grades 1-5) to be Spent on the Teaching of Various Subject Matters

Reading/Language Arts                            38.5%
Math                                                              15.5 %
Social Studies                                            11%
Science                                                        8%
Health                                                           6%
Physical Education                                    9%
Art                                                                  6%
Music                                                            5%
Foreign Language                                     1%

As low as these figures are for the teaching of science I would consider these recommendations a rosy picture if they were true since reading would receive “only” about 4.5x more instructional time than science. However my experience in visiting elementary classrooms over the last forty years (nationally as well as in Wisconsin) is that instructional time in reading and language arts 1) increases each year and 2) takes 60% or more of the actual instructional time in elementary classrooms while science teaching is 5% or less. It is more like a 12:1 ratio of reading and language arts to science in the real world.

Discussion – What might be done?
There is little likelihood that the public or educators will opt for less emphasis on reading and language arts instruction in the elementary school. Indeed, it is likely that the pressures to increase the trend toward more reading instruction will continue. It is also likely that those entering elementary teaching will continue to Be app. 80% female. This pool will continue to reflect individuals whose backgrounds include less rather than more science. Those who will enter teaching will continue to include substantial proportions or individuals who did very poorly in science courses or avoided science altogether. In effect, the victims of poor and inadequate science teaching in one generation become the perpetrators in the next generation. Further, I would predict this situation will get even worse as we enshrine the notion of “basic skills” as THE purpose of the elementary school. We are very concerned that children be able to read and spell words like Monday or blue but are unconcerned that they are unable to explain what causes a day or makes things various colors.

Before school boards or the legislature pass new rules which might make a bad situation even worse they need to deal with a few questions. If more time were to be mandated for the teaching of science what would be cut? We follow a notorious practice of only making additions, never deletions, to the school curriculum. If a board or the legislature were to mandate the teaching of more science AND the decrease of time allocated to other subjects would they be able to provide the flexibility for individual schools to fire staff or to make some full time staff part time as their part of the curriculum was deemphasized?

3. Where would the schools secure the individuals able to do the science teaching? There would be a need for large numbers of capable individuals willing to accept part time as well as full time employment.

If more science were mandated there would be needs for more consumable materials and laboratories. Even such simple things as running water in the classroom would be required. Are the schools ready for substantial increased expenditures? Science cannot be taught from text books, even $300 ones.

The issues I have outlined affect all schools but are exacerbated in the urban schools serving children in poverty. Here, the drive for ever more emphasis on the basics and the narrowing of the elementary school into reading centers has been proceeding unabated in spite of the increasing amount of federal funds. Since the National Defense Education Act of 1957 there have been increasing federal funds for the teaching of science. Yet, in many states and school districts increasing federal funds have proven counterproductive as many districts adopt the view that local districts are responsible for only “the basics” but that the federal government or someone else is responsible for “extras”. In this sense increased federal funding has marginalized science in importance and made it similar to exceptional education so that it is now regarded as a federal or state responsibility; and if it is not done adequately the local district cannot be expected to fund it.

Every school board can commission a self study of what might be done to improve its teaching of science, assuming there would be no changes in the teaching staff, no changes in the time allotments, no changes in the testing program and no changes in the amount of funds devoted to science. Assuming the maintenance of present structures many creative suggestions can still be generated which will be of some use in upgrading science achievement…a little. But without changing what the teachers know, what they teach, how long they teach it each day, and the local allocation of funds for teaching science, the generation of some creative ideas within the present structure will change little regarding how much science children actually learn. As in our private lives, how we spend our time and resources is the best indicator of what we value. Using this criterion our elementary schools might be considered doing fairly well considering the time, effort and expertise devoted to the teaching of science.

(Addendum to Haberman Paper)
Toward a solution—
I believe teachers want to do better but they are themselves victims of poor science teaching. Almost 80% of the teachers in urban elementary schools are women who have an inadequate knowledge base in the sciences. It is not reasonable to expect that these teachers will go back to the university and take undergraduate classes in science for several reasons: first, many of them became elementary teachers to avoid taking science classes in the first place; second, even though they are college graduates they are not eligible for masters level classes in any of the sciences since they lack the prerequisites; third, the undergraduate courses they need are offered in the daytime and are unavailable to them even if they were willing to take them; fourth, the content they need as elementary teachers is not in-depth knowledge in chemistry or physics or astronomy but breadth–some basic understandings of key concepts from all the sciences.

Since 1957 as part of the National Defense Education Act teachers have been paid and provided with tuition remission to take science classes in the summer at universities across the country. As we can see from the achievement data from Wisconsin, which is typical of urban districts nationwide, these efforts have failed to close the increasing achievement gap between advantaged and low-income students.

In addition the level of science achievement in the urban districts hovers at a disgraceful 10% proficiency level. The reasons for this are several: the teachers who need to take these institutes avoid them; the institutes are offered as university experiences and not in the teachers’ schools and classrooms; there is no accountability built into these programs to ensure that teachers will actually follow through and apply what they have learned to teaching science to their students.

We need to learn from the failed experience of offering teachers NDEA inservice science classes costing hundreds of millions of dollars over almost half a century which have not influenced science teaching in urban classroom. We need to try some approaches which are “hands on” for the teachers. They should be offered classes during the school year which require them to use the content and materials they learn about directly with the children. The teachers should be provided with on site mentors in their own schools to help them transfer what they learn into lessons, activities and experiments with their students. Teachers will be motivated and encouraged to engage in these studies if they know 1)they will not be made to look stupid; 2) they will get genuine on-site help in applying what they learn; and 3) what they learn will be part of a masters program that will lead to a salary increase on their pay schedules. We must recognize that the first step is to overcome the teachers’ fears and inadequacies which are preventing them from teaching science. Once teachers are willing to try then specially constructed classes and on-site mentoring will lead to an accountable system for teaching science.

By making basic science teaching and its applications to classrooms a required part of a masters program we have the broadest and best opportunity to reach the largest number of teachers. We can require teachers to apply what they are learning in their own classrooms. Rather than have teachers writing term papers about science teaching they can be required to do science and to show the results of these efforts in terms of their children’s achievement.

The masters program we are proposing meets the criteria of usability and accountability. Only teachers who are actually engaged in classroom teaching are admissible to the program. This enables teachers to directly apply what they are learning with their students. In addition, this masters program enables teachers to earn credit for conducting action research in their classrooms so that when they try out various strategies for teaching science or when they implement particular science content they can earn credit. Teachers in this program may also earn credit if their students increase their achievement scores and they can provide supporting documentation explaining the causes of such improvement. All teachers will be required to prepare a final portfolio for graduation which will require evidence of effective science teaching. This program also permits and encourages students to do their masters papers on science teaching. Finally, this masters program offers teachers the opportunity to become relicensed by conducting a three-year study in their own classrooms. Science teaching can be an integral part of this relicensing requirement. In all these opportunities, this masters program requires evidence of improved learning by the children who are taught by the these teachers.

Martin Haberman is creator of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Teacher Education Program (MMTEP). He was one of the three founders of the SOE Urban Doctoral Program. He received the 1996 Teacher Educator of the Year Award from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Dr. Haberman is the author of seven books and more than 200 articles and chapters. Distinguished Professor, he earned his doctorate in teacher education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds honorary doctorates from Rhode Island College and SUNY-Cortland. Dr. Haberman is the recipient of the AACTE Pomeroy Award and has served as a Hunt lecturer. The National Teacher Corps was based on his Milwaukee Intern Program. He has developed more programs preparing more teachers than anyone in American education. His interview for selecting urban teachers is used in 150 cities.