WHAT AMERICA THINKS ABOUT SCIENCE EDUCATION REFORM:
A Report from Bayer By Michael Templeton
AN ANALYSIS OF THE BAYER FACTS OF SCIENCE EDUCATION I, II & III
© 1997. Bayer
KEY QUESTIONS FROM THE BAYER FACTS OF SCIENCE EDUCATION SURVEYS
Each of the surveys separately probed several specific aspects of public opinion
about pre-college science education. While not every area of questioning was asked of
every group, overall the survey results answer the following questions:
How important is a basic knowledge of science for us and for our children?
Two main rationales drive the continuing national effort to improve science education.
First, understanding science provides a cultural and societal benefit because science
is a key tool to help us understand the world and make rational decisions as citizens.
Second, science education affords a material benefit to jobs and the economy, providing
both the training and skills that are needed in workplaces that increasingly place a
premium on critical thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, teamworking and generally
Reflecting this context, most company HR directors and elementary school principals predict
that in this evolving workplace environment, science literacy will become a job requirement
in the next 10 years. (The Bayer Facts II).
In The Bayer Facts I and III surveys, both parents and children acknowledge the
importance of science education. Almost universally, parents concur that a good
science education is important for the future success of their children and the
country. Students also believe science will have an important impact on their
lives and many believe it will be even more important for the next generation of
Nearly all HR directors say science provides strong preparation for entry-level jobs,
running a close third to reading/writing, and mathematics. With the workplace
increasingly becoming one where entry-level employees need to be able to think their
way through problems, rather than simply perform routine tasks in a predictable way,
they believe that science should become the fourth "R" -- a fundamental subject taught
from the earliest elementary grades.
Principals agree that science provides a strong foundation for the world of work
and should become the fourth "R," but they only partly recognize that the workplace
of the future will demand employees who can solve problems, adapt to changes, and
work well in teams.
OBSERVATION: These differences in viewpoint between the school staff who
prepare students for the workplace and the business leaders who hire new workers recur
throughout the survey findings. The substantial gap that exists between the world of
school and the world of work suggests that principals and teachers need to become more
aware of business' specific requirements for current and future graduates.
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How interested are we in science and how comfortable
are we explaining science to our children?
Despite the acknowledgement that science is a key ingredient to our own and
our children's futures, we're not that comfortable with it. Only about half the
teachers and parents say they are "very comfortable" answering kids' science questions,
and few consider themselves science literate enough to follow science stories reported
in the popular media. Nearly half the teachers admit they are only "somewhat qualified"
to teach science, and, even more shocking, they say science is the subject they feel least
qualified to teach.
Their bosses agree -- when elementary principals
were asked to rate their teacher's qualifications on
various subjects, science came in last.
OBSERVATION: Teaching science is no more
difficult than teaching mathematics or a foreign
language when teachers have received appropriate
education and training themselves, both in the
science subjects they teach and in the pedagogy of
science teaching. Increased confidence will come
with increased competence.
Happily, students do not share their elders' hang-ups. Overall, they are positive
and enthusiastic about learning science outside and inside the classroom. Elementary
students were the most enthusiastic-- many put science at or near the top of their list
of favorite subjects. For them, science ranks second only to math as their favorite
subject. As students get older, their interest in various subjects broadens. Even so,
they remain more interested in science than in any other subject. And, significantly,
science is deemed "the coolest subject" by students of all ages.
Contrary to the common belief that most kids get turned off to science in school and
consider it a nerdy subject, both elementary and middle school/high school students
express far more positive opinions than negative ones. They report that science "is
part of everyday life in the world," "lets
you be creative," "brings out your curiosity," "is not just for nerds" and "is not
more for boys than girls." Few students put science at or near the bottom of their
favorite subject list, or dislike it entirely. And few say it is the most difficult
subject to understand. On the contrary, most feel science is easier to understand than
math or social studies.
OBSERVATION: Although our culture abounds with media myths of
"science brains," "nerdy science teachers," and "killer science classes," our
children demonstrate a healthy ability to distinguish between science stereotype
and science reality. For them, science is current, fresh, alive, and inherently
interesting. They respond most favorably to science as an open, questioning,
hands-on, inquiry-based subject that allows them the freedom to speculate and
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How well do we currently teach science?
The question over how well our schools are doing teaching science has been at the
center of the intense national debate on school reform in recent years. The answer
depends largely upon the resources we apply to the task, the methods we use, and the
amount of effort we put into it. Recognizing the influence that parents and a supportive
home environment have on school, and that children learn outside, as well as inside the
classroom, The Bayer Facts surveys examined both school and home environments for science
learning. While the results continue to paint a complex picture of the state of K-12
science education, several general themes emerge.
First, though students have the least input into teaching (yet are the most affected
by it) they were the most generous in their assessments. Overall, they believe their
teachers like science, are enthusiastic about it and connect it to the world around
them. A majority of elementary students give their
science teachers an "A" grade, as do nearly half of the
middle/high school students. Students are also
generous in rating their parents' science abilities.
Elementary students tend to give their parents "A's"
and "B's" for helping them with science. Middle/high
school students, perhaps reflecting adolescence and the
increasing complexity of school subjects, assign their
parents lower grades -- generally "B's" and "C's."
Second, for the most part parents and teachers share similar, generally positive
opinions about the quality of current science teaching. Overall, both groups feel
that students are receiving a good science education, with teachers more positive
than parents. Though parents are more likely to assign teachers a "B" than an "A,"
many still believe their children are getting a better science education than they,
themselves, did and most think their children's prospects for learning science are either
"excellent" or "good." The main disagreement between teachers and parents is over the
quality of the overall science curriculum. Whereas most teachers give it an "A" or "B,"
few of the parents do. In fact, half give it a "C" or less.
OBSERVATION: Throughout the survey, overall optimism about the quality of
education conflicts with specific concerns and criticisms. Here it is revealed by
teachers' positive general opinions, despite discomfort with their own science
training and expertise, and parents mixed reviews of the quality of their children's
education in science. Optimism in the face of conflicting evidence is, perhaps, an
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Does today's science education meet the needs of our workforce?
Nearly all elementary school principals and HR directors agree that reading, writing,
math, science, and social studies provide important preparation for entry-level jobs.
But, most of the business reps said today's graduates aren't adequately prepared in
reading, writing, math and science.
Principals agree about science, but are much more positive about students' reading,
writing and math abilities.
Further, the HR directors predict that current school practices will not adequately
prepare students in these areas for future entry-level positions. Instead, many say
that the best preparation for future jobs is an education reform approach that involves
hands-on experimentation, inquiry learning, team-based inquiry and discussion, and using
teachers as mentors and team leaders. Principals
agree with HR directors that future new hires will be served best by a curriculum that
employs problem-solving using real world examples, rather than exercises and practice
based on school texts.
Where do the two groups disagree? Basically, over how effectively schools actually teach
important workplace skills, such as problem-solving, adaptability and critical thinking.
Most principals rate schools as "excellent" or "good" in developing such job-related skills,
while few HR directors agree.
OBSERVATION: These findings clearly reflect the gap between the world of school
and the world of work -- HR directors do not give schools good marks. This suggests
the need for closer communication between leaders of business and leaders of education
about both goals and standards for education, and a need to consider whether current
school assessments of student performance appropriately reflect workplace skills.
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Do our children get the resources they need for a high quality
science education at school and at home?
The amount and kind of resources we apply to the task of science education is an
important aspect of how well we teach it. Thus, a number of resource-related questions
in The Bayer Facts surveys probed issues including time spent in science instruction,
teacher training, equipment and resources, and science in the home.
How much time is really spent on science in school? About half of the elementary school students
and one-third of the teachers say they do science daily. Still, a significant number in
both groups report only engaging in science activities once a week or less.
As mentioned earlier, many teachers feel less qualified to teach science than they do
other subjects. Their past and present teacher training in science reinforces this.
Nearly half say their teacher training course work was only minimally helpful for science
teaching. Few have had a college credit course in science or science teaching within the
prior year and less than half report having more than a single day of in-service science
training in the same period.
Principals would like to improve science teaching and learning. Granted additional
funds, nearly half say they would spend them on strengthening their school's science
teaching staff and a majority claim that, given the choice, they would allot more resources
to science than math, English or other programs.
Parents and teachers are divided about the availability and quality of school science
teaching equipment and materials. Half of each group feel that science equipment and
supplies are "good" to "excellent," while half believe they are "poor" to "fair." The
quality of science books/texts and
computer/multimedia equipment is viewed as somewhat better.
OBSERVATION: This assessment by
parents and teachers probably reflects
real differences among various schools
across the country, which run the gamut
from resource-rich to resource-poor.
When it comes to science homework,
only one-third of elementary teachers
say they send work home once a week
or more. And yet, half the parents would
like to see science homework assigned at
least once a week. Almost all parents
think it is "very important" to keep their
children interested and enthusiastic about science, and say they would spend some time
with their children on science each week if the school asked and provided suggestions.
On the other hand, few teachers are confident that their students are getting a good
science education at home.
The good news is that kids may be getting more help at home than teachers think -- but not
from their parents. Surprisingly, two-thirds of the students report having a computer at
home, and nearly all of these say they use it. More than one-third say frequently -- from a
few times a week to every day. And, they're using computers for much more than just playing
games. Many children report using them for schoolwork and to learn on their own.
OBSERVATION: Students' access to computers and to the Internet is rising rapidly, at home
as well as in school, across widely varying socioeconomic groups. The characterization in
the media of computer "haves" and "have-nots" is inadequate. And, computers and the Internet
are magnets for all students, not just the science and math interested. Most elementary and
more than half the middle/high school students have "a lot of interest" in exploring the
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How can we make sure our children get the best possible education in science?
The Bayer Facts surveys found remarkable agreement among students, parents, teachers,
principals and business leaders about the value and effectiveness of hands-on,
inquiry-based science education compared with text and lecture modes of instruction.
All agree with national science and education experts: hands-on, inquiry-based science
learning and teaching is best.
Students strongly endorse inquiry-based learning and want more hands-on experiences both
in school and at home. Many teachers feel that the level of hands-on science instruction
should be increased. And, most of the principals and the human resources directors concur
that this kind of teaching and learning is more effective in meeting future workplace needs
than traditional lecture and text instruction.
How well have we done in implementing this approach in our nation's classrooms?
Clearly, not well enough. Few of the elementary school principals say that hands-on,
inquiry-based methods are the primary basis for their school's science teaching. Instead,
two-thirds say they combine hands-on with traditional text and lecture methods.
A majority of the elementary teachers say that hands-on methods are the dominant methods
they use. Yet, there is a discrepancy between what they say and what they actually do.
Based on their reported hands-on activities in the month prior to the survey, it appears
that only about one-quarter of their activities are likely to employ hands-on, inquiry methods.
Interestingly, while teachers strongly support the use of hands-on over traditional
approaches, in 1995 fully half of them were either totally unfamiliar with or only a
little aware of existing national recommendations, benchmarks or proposed standards for
elementary science education reform.
For their part, parents saw less use of the hands-on, inquiry-based approach, with fewer
than half calling it the main teaching method. Their children provide
another perspective about what's going on in school.
Roughly half of both elementary and middle/high school students report spending most of their
time passively listening to the teacher or reading from a textbook. Further, few elementary
students say they frequently get to do experiments themselves. Things seem to get a bit
better in middle/ high school where more than one-third say they do experiments frequently.
OBSERVATION: Clearly, children are hungry to learn using hands-on methods.
The powerful motivation for learning it provides needs to be recognized along with its
appropriateness for science.
There are, again, significant differences of opinion between the HR directors and
school principals over how well schools are doing using a hands-on, inquiry-based
approach. For example, while more than two-thirds of the principals rate schools as
"excellent" or "good" at teaching students to work cooperatively, encouraging critical
thinking, teaching with inquiry methods and having teachers act as mentors or team leaders,
only one-third of the HR directors do.
OBSERVATION: As mentioned earlier, the strongest differences of opinion in
The Bayer Facts surveys are between elementary school principals and corporate human
resource directors. Although student and school performance look good in the classroom,
they lose their luster in the workplace. While both groups agree on the hands-on,
inquiry-based science approach and value the skills it engenders in students, they disagree
over our schools' ability to deliver students equipped with these skills.
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