Science Education: Confronting the Crisis

Are your kids on track to become future world leaders in science and technology? That may have been the case for our nation’s children 30, 40 or 50 years ago, but today’s classrooms and science test scores tell a radically different story. It has even caught the attention of U.S. business leaders, who warn of grave consequences if our children aren’t better prepared to compete in the global workforce. What can parents, teachers and policymakers do?

By Judy Molland

When it comes to science know-how among students worldwide, American kids have fallen to the middle of the pack. Educators and business leaders call this downward trend a crisis that could spell disaster for the United States in a high-tech world of global outsourcing and competition.

Surprised that we aren’t keeping up with the rest of the planet? Take a look at these statistics:

• U.S. teens rank 21st among teens in 30 industrialized nations in science, based on scores from the Program for International Student Assessment tests given in 2006. The tests are administered every three years to 15-year-olds in schools chosen randomly from more than 50 countries.

• Grade-school students are also behind their peers from other developed countries in science and math, according to a report by the National Science Board this year.

• Only 27 percent of fourth- and eighth-grade students scored at the “proficient” level or above in science on our most recent National Assessment of Education Progress exams. For high school seniors, the statistic was worse – around 17 percent.

Trouble in the Primary Grades

The dearth in science instruction may be most severe in elementary schools. A recent survey of 923 elementary teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area, conducted by researchers at U.C.-Berkeley and the WestEd think tank, found that:

• 80 percent devote less than one hour a week to science; and

• another 16 percent spend no time at all on science.

Nationwide, some school districts have upped the time spent on math and reading instruction by more than two hours a week, but cut instruction time for science, social studies, music and art by one third, according to a 2007 report from the Center on Education Policy, a nationwide, independent advocate for more effective public schools.


With educators, business leaders and President Bush all expressing alarm, regulators of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law have stepped into the fray. Beginning this school year, standardized testing in science is required at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

That alone shines a spotlight on the importance of science education, say science advocates, who hope this mandated testing will lead to better classroom instruction.

But some educators worry that it will force teachers back to the chalkboard instead of working with students on in-class science experiments, which don’t lend themselves well to standardized tests. Certainly, that remains to be seen. As with other NCLB testing requirements, it depends on the quality of the exam.

The Crisis in Science Education is a 4-part feature:

Confronting the Crisis

What Happened to Science Class?

What’s Being Done About the Crisis in Science Education
What You Can Do about the Crisis in Science Education: Three Steps to Science Learning