California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (CA NGSS) in 2013, with the goal of improving science literacy and strengthening the global competitiveness of the state’s workforce. Implementation of the NGSS has been uneven across grade levels and districts, but most districts were at least in the early stages of implementing the new standards by spring 2020 when the COVID-19 crisis began. . At a virtual event earlier this week, PPIC researcher Maria Fay presented a new report on the impact of the pandemic on science education and lead researcher Niu Gao moderated a panel discussion on how California can support equitable investments in science culture in the future.
Fay noted that the new standards have the potential to improve science skills, which have long been weak in California: large gaps based on race/ethnicity and family income. During the pandemic, however, most districts have focused more on math and English Language Arts (ELA), and most district recovery plans do not emphasize science.
Jennifer Bentley, education administrator at the California Department of Education, noted that science was not a top priority in most school districts before the pandemic. When schools had to abruptly shift to online teaching, she added, “the uncertainty surrounding distance learning in general led many teachers to withdraw from content areas where they felt most comfortable. less confident, and that included science”.
Martín Macías, superintendent of the Golden Plains Unified School District, said the pandemic has suspended the new science curriculum in his rural district, “for a little while.” But once schools switched to distance learning, the implementation process resumed. “For us, it was just a matter of processing 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 county offices of education for science and career learning, as well as teaching materials,” she said. In many cases, “it would simply be a matter of allocating funds to science rather than ELA or mathematics”.
For Superintendent Macías, a key sign of progress is the decision to align science education with state frameworks in several areas. Literacy is especially important in his district, where 88% of students are classified as English learners at some point during enrollment. With this kind of alignment, he added, “teachers can look at science reading, literacy and writing, where we used to see things in silos.”
While panelists were hopeful, they agreed that system-wide change will not happen overnight. “The ship of education is a very big ship to turn around,” said Heidi Schweingruber, director of the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Science Education. “I actually think there’s more potential right now in the K–5 group to explore deep and meaningful integration, just because of the structure of the school day. We need to think about how to do it in high school in a meaningful way. But I think there are places where exciting things are happening and we can use them as models.
This research was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation under grant number 2128789. All opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.