At the same time that President Obama and the business community continue to tout the need for more and better science education, many scientists and educators worry that science is being squeezed out of elementary schools. Ever since the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, they say, subtle and not-so-subtle pressures to increase time on math and reading have meant less time for science and social studies. But what do we really know about where elementary teachers spend their time?
One of the more comprehensive sources of information is the National Center of Education Statistics' School and Staffing Survey, SASS. In their analysis of the 2007 report, Rolf Blank and Carla Toye report that between 1994 and 2004, in grades 4-6, the average reported time devoted to science instruction fell by 20%, from 3.5 hours per week to 2.8 hours. Mcmurrer in 2008 reported an average 43% decrease in elementary science time between the 2001 and 2006 school years, with final time being about 2.5 hours. At a more local level, Griffith and Scharman reported in 2008 that 59% of K-6 teachers in one midwestern state reported cutting science time since NCLB, with the majority cutting 31-90 minutes per week. And in California's Bay Area, packed with science and technology rich companies and institutions, a 2007 report from WestEd and the Lawrence Hall of Science reported that 80% of K-8 classroom teachers reported spending less than 60 minutes a week on science, with 16% reporting that they teach no science at all.
National NAEP data, drawn from questionnaires, give a rosier picture than the Bay Area, with teachers reporting a median time on science in fourth grade of between 2 and 2.9 hours per week. Similarly, 2007 TIMSS data suggest between 2 and 2.5 hours per week for fourth grade science. But these may both be overestimates. When my children were in elementary school, I was surprised to learn that they received science instruction only half the year, with social studies instruction taking up that time slot for the remaining 4.5 months. Might teachers be reporting the average number of hours per week on science based on only those weeks when they do teach science?
A study done by Jones and Swanson in Montana suggests this may be the case. These researchers, asking a selection of Montana teachers to fill out more extensive questionnaires, found that most teachers reported teaching science 1-2 hours per week, but that none of the teachers reported teaching science for more than 24 weeks a year.
Jones and Swanson concluded that members of this motivated group of teachers, who were voluntarily participating in a project to improve their science teaching, taught an average of 38 hours of science or less per year. Actual observations of lessons, moreover, showed that over 40% of them were shorter than the 30-40 minutes teachers reported as standard.
I don't know the ideal amount of science instruction for elementary school, but I suspect it's more than 40 hours a year, and I do think it's a question worth asking. For many students science can be an exciting break in the school routine, a time when they can get their hands and minds involved in trying out new ideas. For some, science becomes their favorite part of the day after lunch and recess. The chance to get up and do something can help re-engage fidgety children, and science content can enrich reading, writing, and math lessons.
Secondly, I think the data show that to really understand what instruction our kids are getting, we need to look under the hood and not passively accept general survey information. Only then can we find out if, as one teacher in the Jones and Swanson study said, “Science is the first subject to go whenever our schedule gets interrupted.”