The United States today has an extraordinary opportunity to reestablish its preeminence in science and scientific discovery. More than thirty years ago the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued A Nation at Risk, which warned of the risks to education in general and science education in particular if the nation neglected to improve the quality of teaching in its public schools (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). A series of reports published since then suggests that little has changed and that as a result the nation has paid a price in its standing internationally, in its economic well-being, and in the quality of its everyday interactions (see National Academy of Sciences, 2007). The Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States (hereafter referred to as the NGSS), which call for all students to have opportunities to be actively engaged in investigating scientific phenomena and designing solutions to compelling problems offer an opportunity to respond to this challenge (Next Generation Science Standards Lead States, 2013). Indeed, the NGSS represent just the type of response called for in A Nation at Risk for the teaching of science (p. 25). The NGSS represent a fundamental change in the way science is taught and, if implemented well, will ensure that all students gain mastery over core concepts of science that are foundational to improving their scientific capacity.
Ultimately, the task of realizing this vision rests with teachers. To provide students these opportunities, teachers will need new knowledge of the ideas and practices in the disciplines of science, an understanding of instructional strategies that are consistent with the NGSS vision,
and the skill to implement those strategies in their classrooms. To enable teachers to acquire this kind of learning will in turn require profound changes to current systems for supporting teachers’ learning across their careers, including induction and professional development. Recognizing the challenges entailed in making these changes and the need for guidance on how to address them, the Board on Science Education within the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, with support from the Merck Company Foundation, convened a 14-member expert committee to undertake a comprehensive study of how to provide coherent support for elementary, middle, and high school science teachers’ learning across their careers.
The committee considered science teachers’ learning from a perspective that acknowledges the rich and complex contexts of their work—the diversity of students and communities, the pressures of resource limitations, and the array of salient district and state policies. Further, the committee considered a variety of learning experiences: formal and informal, structured and unstructured, individual and collective, planned and serendipitous, mandated and sought out. The committee explored the evidence related to all of these mechanisms for supporting science teachers’ learning.
One main message of this report is the need to adopt a broad view of where and what teachers learn to teach over the course of their careers. Teachers participate in occasions specifically designed to educate them, such as induction programs and professional development workshops, but they also learn a great deal in their own classes on a daily basis while interacting with their students (Ball and Cohen, 1999; Ball and Forzani, 2011; Luft et al., 2015). In many schools and districts, however, science teachers’ work is not organized to provide the time and the opportunities for collaboration with other teachers needed to best support their learning. The committee also found that the evidence base related to science teachers’ learning has focused mainly on programs, with many fewer studies examining learning opportunities embedded in the school day.
In reviewing the evidence, the committee drew the following conclusions about the gap between what science teaching and learning could be and the reality of current practices.
Conclusion 1: An evolving understanding of how best to teach science, including the NGSS, represents a significant transition in the way science
is currently taught in most classrooms and will require most science teachers to alter the way they teach.
Conclusion 2: The available evidence suggests that many science teachers have not had sufficiently rich experiences with the content relevant to the science courses they currently teach, let alone a substantially redesigned science curriculum. Very few teachers have experience with the science and engineering practices described in the NGSS. This situation is especially pronounced both for elementary school teachers and in schools that serve high percentages of low-income students, where teachers are often newer and less qualified.
Conclusion 3: Typically, the selection of and participation in professional learning opportunities is up to individual teachers. There is often little attention to developing collective capacity for science teaching at the building and district levels or to offering teachers learning opportunities tailored to their specific needs and offered in ways that support cumulative learning over time.
Conclusion 4: Science teachers’ learning needs are shaped by their preparation, the grades and content areas they teach, and the contexts in which they work. Three important areas in which science teachers need to develop expertise are
- the knowledge, capacity, and skill required to support a diverse range of students;
- content knowledge, including understanding of disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices; and
- pedagogical content knowledge for teaching science, including a repertoire of teaching practices that support students in rigorous and consequential science learning.
Conclusion 5: The best available evidence based on science professional development programs suggests that the following features of such programs are most effective:
- active participation of teachers who engage in the analysis of examples of effective instruction and the analysis of student work,
- a content focus,
- alignment with district policies and practices, and
- sufficient duration to allow repeated practice and/or reflection on classroom experiences.
Conclusion 6: Professional learning in online environments and through social networking holds promise, although evidence on these modes from both research and practice is limited.
Conclusion 7: Science teachers’ professional learning occurs in a range of settings both within and outside of schools through a variety of structures (professional development programs, professional learning communities, coaching, and the like). There is limited evidence about the relative effectiveness of this broad array of learning opportunities and how they are best designed to support teacher learning.
Conclusion 8: Schools need to be structured to encourage and support ongoing learning for science teachers, especially given the number of new teachers entering the profession.
Conclusion 9: Science teachers’ development is best understood as long term and contextualized. The schools and classrooms in which teachers work shape what and how they learn. These contexts include, but are not limited to school, district, and state policies and practices concerning professional capacity (e.g., professional networks, coaching, partnerships), coherent instructional guidance (e.g., state and district curriculum and assessment/accountability policies), and leadership (e.g., principals and teacher leaders).
Conclusion 10: School and district administrators are central to building the capacity of the science teacher workforce.
Conclusion 11: Teacher leaders may be an important resource for building a system that can support ambitious science instruction. There is increasing attention to creating opportunities for teachers to take on leadership roles to both improve science instruction and strengthen the science teacher workforce. These include roles as instructional coaches, mentors, and teacher leaders.
Conclusion 12: Closing the gap between the new way of teaching science and current instruction in many schools will require attending to individual teachers’ learning needs, as well as to the larger system of practices and policies (such as allocation of resources, use of time, and provision of opportunities for collaboration) that shape how science is taught.
Conclusion 13: The U.S. educational system lacks a coherent and well-articulated system of learning opportunities for teachers to continue developing expertise while in the classroom. Opportunities are unevenly distributed across schools, districts, and regions, with little attention to sequencing or
how to support science teachers’ learning systematically. Moreover, schools and districts often lack systems that can provide a comprehensive view of teacher learning; identify specific teacher needs; or track investments—in time, money, and resources—in science teachers’ professional learning.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE AND POLICY
These conclusions are broad, with implications for programs, policy and practice. The committee chose to focus its recommendations at the district and school level, since those are crucial locations for investments in the science teacher workforce. The seven recommendations that follow, based on the above conclusions, highlight how districts and schools can improve the learning opportunities available to science teachers. These recommendations are intended to help both in determining science teachers’ learning needs and in developing a comprehensive approach to meeting those needs, with particular attention to the ways that the current education system needs to be changed in order to support teachers’ ongoing learning as they respond to the demands placed by current reforms in science education.
Take stock of the current status of learning opportunities for science teachers: School and district administrators should identify current offerings and opportunities for teacher learning in science using a broad conceptualization of teacher learning opportunities, and including how much money and time are spent (as well as other associated costs). Throughout this process, attention should be paid to the opportunities available for teachers to learn about
- approaches for teaching all students,
- science content and scientific practices, and
- science pedagogical knowledge and science teaching practices.
When identifying costs, administrators should consider both traditional professional development time and other supports for learning, such as curriculum, teacher evaluation, and student assessment/accountability. Given differences in the learning needs of elementary, middle, and high school teachers, expenditures and time allocations should be broken down by grade level and by school and district level. Plans to address any inequities across classrooms or schools should be developed with an eye toward policies and practices that will equitably distribute teacher expertise and teacher learning opportunities across the system.
Design a portfolio of coherent learning experiences for science teachers that attend to teachers’ individual and context-specific needs in partnership with professional networks, institutions of higher education, cultural institutions, and the broader scientific community as appropriate: Teachers and school and district administrators should articulate, implement and support teacher learning opportunities in science as coherent, graduated sequences of experiences toward larger goals for improving science teaching and learning. Here, too, attention should be paid to building teachers’ knowledge and skill in the sciences and scientific practices, in science pedagogical content knowledge, and in science teaching practices. It is critical to support teachers’ opportunities to learn how to connect with students of diverse backgrounds and experiences and how to tap into relevant funds of knowledge of students and communities.
District personnel and school principals, in collaboration with teachers and parents, should identify the specific learning needs of science teachers in their schools and develop a multiyear growth plan for their science teachers’ learning that is linked to their growth plan for students’ science learning. Central to this work are four questions:
- In light of our school’s/district’s science goals for our students, what learning opportunities will teachers need?
- What kinds of expertise are needed to support these learning opportunities?
- Where is that expertise located (inside and outside of schools)?
- What social arrangements and resources will enable this work?
Using a variety of assessments/measures designed to provide the kind of concrete feedback necessary to support teacher and program improvement, the school principals, in collaboration with teachers and school partners, should regularly consult data from such sources as teacher observations, student work, and student surveys or interviews to assess progress on the growth plan. It will also be important to consider the larger contexts in which the plan will unfold and how existing policies and practices regarding personnel (hiring, retention, placement) and instructional guidance (curriculum and assessment) can enable or limit the plan.
Consider both specialized professional learning programs outside of school and opportunities for science teachers’ learning embedded in the work day: A coherent, standards and evidence-based portfolio of professional learning
opportunities for science teachers should include both specialized programs that occur outside of the school day and ongoing learning opportunities that are built into the work day and enhance capacity in schools and districts. Development of this portfolio will require some restructuring of teachers’ work in schools to support new learning opportunities. School and district leaders will need to develop policies and practices that provide the necessary resources (fiscal, time, facilities, tools, incentives).
As school and district leaders identify professional learning opportunities for science teachers, they should work to develop a portfolio of opportunities that address teachers’ varied needs in ways that are sensitive to the school or district context. School and district leaders should not only make this portfolio of opportunities available to teachers but also actively encourage, through their leadership and provision of resources, teachers’ engagement in these opportunities, and provide time during the school day for teachers to engage meaningfully in them. Furthermore, school and district leaders should work with teams of teachers to build coherent programs of science teaching learning opportunities, tailored to individual teachers and the school as a whole. The portfolio of teacher learning opportunities should include structured, traditional professional development; cross-school teacher professional communities; and collaborations with local partners.
Design and select learning opportunities for science teachers that are informed by the best available research: Teachers’ learning opportunities should be aligned with a school system’s science standards, and should be grounded in an underlying theory of teacher learning and in research on the improvement of professional practice and on how to meet the needs of the range of adult and student learners in a school or district. Learning opportunities for science teachers should have the following characteristics:
- Designed to achieve specific learning goals for teachers.
- Be content specific, that is, focused on particular scientific concepts and practices.
- Be student specific, that is, focused on the specific students served by the school district.
- Linked to teachers’ classroom instruction and include analysis of instruction.
- Include opportunities for teachers to practice teaching science in new ways and to interact with peers in improving the implementation of new teaching strategies.
- Include opportunities for teachers to collect and analyze data on their students’ learning.
- Offer opportunities for collaboration.
Designers of learning opportunities for teachers, including commercial providers, community organizations, institutions of higher education and districts and states, should develop learning opportunities for teachers that reflect the above criteria.
When selecting learning opportunities for teachers, district and school leaders and teachers themselves should use the above criteria as a guide for identifying the most promising programs and learning experiences. District and state administrators should use these criteria to provide guidance for teachers on how to identify high-quality learning experiences.
District administrators and state agencies should use (and make public) quality indicators to identify, endorse, and fund a portfolio of teacher learning opportunities, and should provide guidance for school leaders and teachers on how to select high-quality learning experiences in science appropriate to specific contexts.
Develop internal capacity in science while seeking external partners with science expertise: School and district leaders should work to build school- and district-level capacity around science teaching. These efforts include creating learning opportunities for teachers but might also include exploring different models for incorporating science expertise, such as employing science specialists at the elementary level or providing high school science department heads with time to observe and collaborate with their colleagues. When developing a strategy for building capacity, school and district leaders should consider the tradeoffs inherent in such choices.
School and district leaders should also explore developing partnerships with individuals and organizations—such as local businesses, institutions of higher education, or science-rich institutions—that can bring science expertise.
Crucial to developing relevant expertise is developing the capacity of professional development leaders. Investing in the development of professional developers who are knowledgeable about teaching all students the vision of science education represented in the Next Generation Science Standards and A Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) is critical. It is not sufficient for these leaders to be good teachers themselves; they must also be prepared and supported to work with adult learners and to coordinate professional development with other policies and programs (including staffing, teacher evaluation, curriculum development, and student assessment).
Create, evaluate, and revise policies and practices that encourage teachers to engage in professional learning related to science: District and school administrators and relevant leaders should work to establish dedicated professional development time during the salaried work week and work year for science teachers. They should encourage teachers to participate in science learning opportunities and structure time to allow for collaboration around science. Resources for professional learning should include time to meet with other teachers, to observe other classrooms, and to attend discrete events; space to meet with other teachers; requested materials; and incentives to participate. These policies and practices should take advantage of linkages with other policies. For example, natural connections can be made between policies concerning professional development and teacher evaluation. Similarly, administrators could develop policies that more equitably distribute qualified and experienced science teachers across all students, schools, districts, and school networks.
At the elementary level, district and school leaders should work to establish parity for science professional development in relationship to other subjects, especially mathematics and English language arts.
The potential of new formats and media should be explored to support science teachers’ learning when appropriate: Districts should consider the use of technology and online spaces/resources to support teacher learning in science. These tools may be particularly useful for supporting cross-school collaboration, providing teachers with flexible schedules for accessing resources, and enabling access to professional learning opportunities in rural areas where teachers may be isolated and it is difficult to convene in a central location.
Finally, the committee also identified gaps in the existing research base on science teachers’ learning. Accordingly, the committee offers in the full report recommendations for research in several areas that would inform the work of education leaders interested in supporting ongoing learning for science teachers.
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Next Generation Science Standards Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.