Wasted Science?

by Peter Hippard on May 8, 2007

Presently, the San Francisco Unified School District has assigned a committee to evaluate a list of textbooks for a new science adoption for elementary and middle schools. The School Board will allocate millions of dollars on the new science program, the first in over a decade. But will this be money well spent? Will teachers, especially at the elementary level, embrace it come next August? Will textbooks gather dust, as burned-out teachers wonder how to squeeze in time for a new science program that must fit between the mandated instructional time for language arts and math?

The missing component for a successful science adoption is an effective professional development (PD) program that goes beyond a one-day event of top down presentations. Without thoughtfully constructed and on-going PD attached to the new science adoption, we run the risk of teachers avoiding it. Teachers may instead revert to the previous science curriculum that they are familiar with, but is not aligned to the new state science standards. This would be a great disservice to our students, and need not occur.

What would quality professional development look like? At the San Francisco Education Fund Leadership Institute, we have formed three main principles of quality professional development. 1) PD must be sustainable, and provide on-going support 2) PD must be differentiated to meet the range of teacher experience and ability 3) PD must be a collaborative effort that builds on the expertise within our district.

The district needn’t pay for expensive experts to lead workshops, although this can be of help as well. Instead, a more direct answer can be found in the third principle above, through teacher collaboration. The district should expand on the model of science coaching currently in place at selected schools, and help teachers learn to share the weight that a fully functioning elementary science curriculum demands.

Teaching science at the elementary school level is particularly difficult. Research clearly shows that younger minds grasp scientific concepts much better when they conduct hands-on experiments that are connected to the standards laid out in the textbooks. Gathering and setting up materials for labs is very time-consuming. Given that there are four separate strands of science that each teacher needs to cover each year, and given that elementary school teachers currently have no prep time in the school day, all lab set up and clean up must come at the expense of other instructional time. Many teachers feel forced to trim the instructional time for science. But is there a way for teachers help each other out?

At Clarendon Alternative Elementary School, we have developed a science rotation, which enables all of our students to study all four strands. We split the strands up between the teachers at grade level, allowing each teacher to become expert at one strand. Then, for five-weeks at a time, we rotate groups of students to the different labs. The following year, teacher can swap topics, eventually becoming expert in each of the four strands.

Teachers need time and opportunities to learn the best practices of collaboration to manage the complexity of instructional time. Through coaching and collaboration, schools become stronger learning environments. The school district must help ensure that teachers feel confident and ready to roll out the new science curriculum or it will fail to reach students. If teachers are coached to help each other share their strengths, they can build sustainable models that fit the needs of their particular school site.

We all know that for our children to remain competitive in this global economy, they will need a strong foundation in science. Our leaders must make the proper investment in science instruction from the elementary level up. It all begins with supporting our teachers in delivering the curriculum.

Hopefully, when we return to school next August, teachers will have an opportunity to learn how to approach the new science adoption with a series of effective professional development workshops where teachers are encouraged to become collaborators in molding a new generation of scientists.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Peter Hippard is a teacher at Clarendon Elementary School, and a Research Fellow at the San Francisco Education Fund Leadership Institute.

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