Hooking Students to Math and Science in Elementary School

            In 2007, the National Academies published Rising Above the Gathering Storm:  Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.  This report provided Congress with four recommendations and specific action steps to ensure our nation’s edge in science, mathematics, technology and the world marketplace.  One of those recommendations was to increase our country’s talent pool by improving math and science education in K-12 education.  While I agree that we need to guarantee every high school student access to highly-qualified math and science teachers, I don’t think the actions go far enough.

            In California, less than 15% of students enroll in high school chemistry (14.6% females, 12.4% males) and about 5% enroll in high school physics.  Enrollment in an intermediate algebra class is also low—17.6% females and 15.5% males.  Rigorous science and math courses are required for admission to California’s public universities, yet only 32.8% of our graduates complete A-G coursework.  Enrollment in these courses does not guarantee completion or proficiency.  Only 32% of those students enrolled in chemistry are proficient or advanced as measured by the corresponding California Standards Test (CST).  Forty-three percent of those enrolled (a small number to begin with!) score proficient or advanced on the physics CST, and only 49% score proficient or advanced on the CST in intermediate algebra.  Why aren’t more students enrolling in math and science classes beyond those required for graduation?  Simply requiring them for college admission isn’t enough.  What should schools do to ensure all high school students are enrolling and succeeding in four years each of math and science?

            The demands of remediating students weak in literacy and math have had a negative effect on middle school science achievement as well.  The report should have specifically addressed actions that would guarantee students access to needed remediation while providing effective science instruction—not instead of.  National Geographic, for example, publishes high interest science materials linked to grade-level standards that could be the reading curriculum.  Imagine the possibilities of hooking students to science while improving their reading skills.

            My children’s interest in science started in elementary school.  They attended a private school where science education was as highly regarded as reading and math.  I know that K-6 students are capable of learning more rigorous science than we currently demand.  Although only 46% of California’s 5th graders are proficient or advance on the Grade 5 Science Test, most have not had comprehensive or effective science instruction.   Reading and math are center stage in elementary school, often taking up the majority of any school day.  Yet we could teach more science while supporting both literacy and numeracy.  The report should specifically discuss K-6 science education.  How can we prepare students for rigor in high school science if no foundation was provided in elementary school?

Subpages (1): A Gathering Storm