Want to Improve Science Education? Empower Students to Study Real-Life Phenomena

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The recent news that U.S. students’ science scores have declined since 2015 should be a wakeup call for anyone concerned about the quality of elementary schools. Scores dropped two points from 2015 to 2019, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), widely considered “the nation’s report card” or gold standard in student assessments.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, schools shortchanged U.S. students, especially in the earliest grades.

Not enough time

 A 2018 study from Horizon Research Inc. found that in grades K–3, science was being taught for only 18 minutes per day on average compared to 89 minutes for English language arts and 57 minutes for mathematics. In grades 4–6, science instructional time fares only slightly better. While the Horizon report averaged the time allocations per day, the reality is that most students are not even receiving science instruction every week; the same report shows that nearly half of teachers in grades K–3 are teaching science “some weeks, but not every week.”

Not surprisingly, low-income students fare even worse. In its 2012 Framework for K–12 Science Education, the National Research Council highlighted that “in schools serving the most academically at-risk students, there is today an almost total absence of science in the early elementary grades.…” The recent NAEP scores confirm the impact: "Once again, the lowest-performing students are falling further behind," said Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner of assessments at National Center for Education Statistics, which runs NAEP (NCES press release, 2021). Any equity-centered approach to education, must prioritize this opportunity gap in science instruction between lower-income and higher-income youth.

The shift to distance and hybrid learning due to the pandemic undoubtedly worsened the situation for all students. Some administrators minimized science instruction further due to condensed schedules, and teachers found it a challenging subject to teach from afar.

It doesn’t have to be this way

The research is clear about what students need. For example:

Research says What this means for students in the classroom

The National Research Council says, “A scientifically literate individual “can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences”; “describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena”; and “read with understanding articles about science in the popular press”

To be free to follow their curiosity to better understand the world around them.

To know how to participate in scientific discourse, ask challenging questions with clarity and precision, and respond to criticism.

To make claims, support their claims with evidence, elaborate on their ideas, and challenge the claims of others.

“Misconceptions about the processes of science tend to occur when the processes become ends in themselves, divorced from core concepts of science. For students to learn how to ‘do’ science, they need to understand the roles of observation, imagination, and reasoning,” ASCD wrote in 2007.

Hands-on experiences that require the practical application of scientific processes.

Time to observe, imagine, and reason.

“As the Framework states, ‘knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K–12 science education.’ Engaging solely in the practices without including disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts is insufficient because each of these concepts is required to make sense of phenomena,” the National Science Teaching Association wrote in 2018.

Learning experiences that allow them to see connections between scientific ideas, concepts, and practices.

A context that helps them make sense of phenomena and the world.

A coherent approach to studying science with clear connections among concepts and across levels.


From Research to Practice: What this looks like in elementary school

To achieve the vision laid out by the NRC’s Framework for K–12 Science Instruction (NRC 2012), students must build knowledge about scientific ideas by exploring rich real-life phenomena—from inside a hurricane to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Young children deserve a chance to expand their knowledge of their world by working like scientists. Instead of a series of one-off lessons (butterflies today, the solar system tomorrow, seeds in the spring), the instructional sequence should be coherent and thoughtfully sequenced, allowing students to ask questions, conduct investigations that build knowledge, and reflect on learning to deepen disciplinary skills.

Instruction should be engaging, taking advantage of students’ natural curiosity about their world. For example, third graders work together to explore and answer questions such as: How do butterflies survive over time in a changing environment? What makes an individual humpback whale unique? Why do objects move differently in space than on Earth? How do windmills change wind to light?

If we start teaching science as a coherent story instead of a series of discrete facts, terms, and formulas, students will respond. And by the time elementary NAEP scores are reported four years from now, we may have some good news to celebrate.


Allen, Rick. 2007. Priorities in Practice: The Essentials of Science, Grades K–6: Effective Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. ASCD. https://www.ascd.org/books/priorities-in-practice-the-essentials-of-science-grades-k-6

National Center for Education Statistics. 2021. "Nation's Report Card: Fourth-graders' Science Scores Decline, No Change for Eighth- and 12th-graders."  https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/science/supporting_files/2019_science_press_release.docx

National Research Council. 1996. National Science Education Standards.The National Academies Press. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/4962/national-science-education-standards. 

National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. The National Academies Press. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13165/a-framework-for-k-12-science-education-practices-crosscutting-concepts.

National Science Teachers Association. 2018. "NSTA Position Statement: Transitioning from Scientific Inquiry to Three-Dimensional Teaching and Learning. https://static.nsta.org/pdfs/PositionStatement_Three-DimensionalTeachingAndLearning.pdf

Smith, P. Sean. 2020. 2018 NSSME+: Trends in US Science Education from 2012 to 2018. Horizon Research Inc. http://horizon-research.com/NSSME/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Science-Trend-Report.pdf.

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 2021. NAEP Report Card: 2019 NAEP Science Assessment Highlighted Results for the Nation at Grades 4, 8, and 12. NAEP. https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/highlights/science/2019/.


Topics: High-Quality Curriculum Student Achievement