Understanding the opportunities that children have to engage with science and engineering in preschool through elementary grades requires recognizing that schools are situated within policy and system contexts that shape when, how, and how often children have these opportunities. How teachers and leaders interpret these policies and systems shapes how they notice and value children’s ideas and behaviors and what goals and expectations they set for children. Substantial variability exists
in the policies for science and engineering across states and districts as well as across preschool and elementary systems. In this chapter, the committee provides an overview of the K–12 education system and highlights some of the key components at the national, state, and local levels that influence the degree to which science and engineering takes place in preschool through elementary grades. The discussion of the education system is followed by an examination of how federal and state policies have influenced instructional time, testing, and inequities in science and engineering education. The chapter concludes by recognizing that these systems are embedded within a historical context that has implications for equity and justice for preschool through elementary science and engineering.
Ensuring that science and engineering instruction in preschool through elementary grades supports equitable and inspiring learning opportunities for all children requires attention to multiple interacting components of the U.S. public education system. These components exist at the national, state, and local levels, and they influence the work and decision making of state and local education agencies as well as school principals and other instructional leaders and ultimately impact classroom instruction for millions of children in the United States. Figure 2-1 represents the committee’s views of how different components of the K–12 U.S. education system interact to influence teachers’ and learners’ experiences in preschool and elementary science and engineering classrooms. The preschool context is different from elementary in important ways, and there have been few efforts to create alignment and coherence from preschool through elementary school for science and engineering.
In this chapter, the committee first describes the components and how they interact within and between levels of the system. Specifically, the committee discusses how national policies drive accountability and standards; then the committee details the impact of state standards, accountability, funding, and policies on critical factors like instructional time and instructional materials that impact children’s access to meaningful science and engineering learning experiences. Throughout the chapter, the emphasis is primarily on the elementary system, which is where the majority of evidence exists with respect to systems and policies related to science and engineering education. The committee highlights distinctions related to the preschool context where appropriate and as evidence allows.
Influences of National Policy
Policies centered on accountability and academic standards in the U.S. education system drive funding and instruction—which in turn shape equi-
table or inequitable learning opportunities for children. At the national level, K–12 education policies, most principally the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, reauthorized via No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001,1 and then the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015,2 mandate the use of test-based accountability systems at the state and local levels to monitor the academic performance of children across racial, socioeconomic, and linguistic subgroups. (NCLB and ESSA are taken up in more depth below, in consideration of their impacts on instructional time and testing.) Although these requirements were meant to ensure that all children had access to the same rigorous academic standards, in grades K–5 the policies primarily emphasized results in reading and mathematics (Penfield and Lee, 2010). Under NCLB, districts and schools were expected to demonstrate adequate yearly progress (AYP) on assessments administered in literacy and mathematics to all student subgroups each year in grades 3–8. State science assessments were required starting in 2007 at least once in grades 3–5; however, results were not required to be reported as part of AYP (Judson, 2013). The testing provisions are the same under ESSA, yet states have more authority to design their own accountability systems, and at least 19 states chose to make science part of their school rating systems (Klein, 2018). These policies are described in more detail below.
Federal education policy also requires states to adopt challenging academic standards in reading, mathematics, and science. In 2012, the National Academies published A Framework for K–12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework; National Research Council [NRC], 2012) that outlines a broad set of expectations for children in science and engineering in grades K–12, not preschool, to inform the development of new standards and, subsequently, revisions to curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development for educators. The vision for science and engineering education reflected in the Framework promotes learning experiences that engage children in the activities of scientists and engineers as they develop and use understanding. The Framework was informed by past research and national recommendations for science education which were then reflected in many state science standards (see Box 2-1). These documents include Science for All Americans (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1989) and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS Project 2061, 1993), and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996).
Although the Framework does not include preschool, work is currently under way to create alignment between what is known about teaching and learning in preschool and the vision of the Framework. Preschool programs include both state prekindergarten programs and national preschool programs such as Head Start. Although there is substantial variability in early
1 See No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. 107–110.
2 See Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, Pub. L. 114–95.
learning standards across states, most state programs currently address science to some degree (Greenfield et al., 2009), as does the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework.3 These standards and frameworks of these individual programs are not yet fully formally aligned to the vision of the K–12 Framework. However, the science-as-practice approach highlighted in the Framework does align with the combination of holistic understanding and developmentally appropriate practice—that is, understanding children’s thinking and learning and using teaching practices to provide experiences that are challenging and achievable—typical in early childhood education (Larimore, 2020); for example, preschool instruction typically connects to children’s own interests, resources, and goals, as emphasized in the Framework. Thus, throughout the report, when the committee discusses “building toward the vision of the Framework,” it intends to suggest a connection to the Framework for preschool through elementary and a role for preschool in building toward that vision, while recognizing that the Framework begins at kindergarten and while resisting the push of academic content down into preschool.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013) for K–12 were subsequently developed in 2013 based on the Framework (NRC, 2012), and have been adopted by 20 states and the District of Columbia. Another 24 states have developed their own standards based around the recommendations in the Framework. As of the time of this report, only six states have science standards that show little influence of the Framework or NGSS: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. Several national publishers have designed science instructional materials addressing the NGSS. Commercially published textbooks or modules are designated for use in two-thirds of elementary teachers’ classrooms nationally (Banilower et al., 2018). Chapter 7 explores the role of curriculum materials, how well published materials reflect the current research-informed vision for science and engineering education, and how districts may make decisions about their use.
Standards in preschool have called attention to science and engineering to varying degrees. The national Head Start’s Learning Outcomes Framework conceptualizes scientific reasoning as including scientific inquiry (i.e., observing and describing phenomena, engaging in scientific talk, and comparing/categorizing observable phenomena) and reasoning and problem solving (i.e., asking questions/gathering information/making predictions, planning and conducting investigations, and analyzing data/drawing conclusions/communicating findings). Many of these practices are similar or aligned to those in the K–12 Framework. State-funded preschool programs rely on state
3 For more information, see https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/school-readiness/article/head-start-early-learning-outcomes-framework.
standards, which vary widely.4 For instance, California’s preschool learning foundations do not list science as one of their four domains or areas of emphasis, whereas other states such as Massachusetts provide guidance and have worked toward alignment with the Framework and NGSS.5
Influences of States
Just as federal components of the education system depicted in Figure 2-1 influence state policies and priorities, components of the education system under the authority of state legislatures and state education agencies (SEAs) have a great deal of influence over what is taught, and how it is taught, at the local level in districts, schools, and community organizations (broadly defined, including, e.g., museums, community centers), local businesses and industry (e.g., local technology or pharmaceutical companies, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) ecosystems partnerships), as well as universities (including a range of partnerships for a variety of purposes, including research projects, teacher education field partnerships, research-practice partnerships, etc.). SEAs and state legislatures direct test-based accountability policies, academic standards, teacher accountability measures, funding allocations, and their allowable expenses. Although districts are provided substantial decision-making power through local control, in many ways SEAs and state legislatures indicate the priorities through policy decisions by which districts, schools and classroom teachers operate. These policies influence decisions about several aspects of preschool through elementary science and engineering education and shape the learning experiences of children. How state legislatures and SEAs shape instructional time and testing is taken up in more depth in a later section.
State-funded preschool programs are an increasingly important part of public education. These programs have been developed to support early learning and development, better prepare children to succeed in primary grades, and reduce achievement gaps that emerge well before kindergarten (Friedman-Krauss and Barnett, 2020). However, state-funded programs have limits in enrollment and face challenges in ensuring program quality and that enrollment is equitable.
As depicted in Figure 2-1, beyond being responsible for establishing their own accountability systems, states are also responsible for adopting statewide academic standards that shape decisions about curriculum,
4 For more information regarding the variability across states, see https://nieer.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/YB2020_Full_Report_080521.pdf.
5 See https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/psfoundationsvol1intro.asp for more information on California’s preschool standards. Information for Massachusetts can be found at https://www.doe.mass.edu/frameworks/scitech/2016-04.pdf.
instruction, assessment, and professional development by school districts (also known as local education agencies [LEAs]). Many states offer lists of approved instructional materials that align with state standards for adoption by LEAs, as described further in Chapter 7. State policies and priorities inform and regulate the use of federal funding and state education funding to support standards implementation at the state and local levels. Some states have policies in place that mandate minimum instructional minutes to be dedicated to particular subject areas at the elementary level. Finally, teacher credentialing policies at the state level articulate certification requirements for preservice teachers and professional development mandates for in-service teachers.
Influences of Districts and Schools
School districts (i.e., LEAs) are the primary arbiters of education policy in the United States and serve as key intermediaries between the state and schools (Gamson and Hodge, 2016). Subsequently, district and school leaders are central agents in crafting coherence among factors within education systems and have long determined the extent to which there is more or less coherence (Honig and Hatch, 2004). When a lack of alignment among components of the education system exists, it exacerbates the need to craft coherence at the local level. For example, if standards and state assessments are not well aligned, districts and schools receive mixed messages for the learning goals. If the instructional materials and benchmark or classroom assessments are not well aligned to learning goals associated with state standards, districts and schools face the arduous challenge of modifying them to create stronger horizontal coherence (Cherbow et al., 2020; NRC, 2015a).
Nationwide, school districts have launched efforts to fundamentally change their central offices to support improved teaching and learning for all children (Honig, Venkateswaran, and McNeil, 2017). Influenced by these efforts—which include state standards, funding, accountability, and instructional time policies (i.e., the middle level of Figure 2-1)—school districts shape the vision for preschool through elementary science and engineering education in schools; central office leaders have the authority to align resources and support to enact this vision through many of the elements depicted in the lowest level of Figure 2-1. Resources include fiscal resources for the adoption of high-quality instructional materials and associated professional development, as well as human resources to appoint instructional support staff (e.g., content specialists or coaches). Other support entails the designation of specific instructional time to science and engineering and the engagement of families in robust science and engineering learning opportunities. Districts and schools can also engage university and community partners to support their instructional vision
via collaborations focused on teacher professional learning as well as on providing out-of-school experiences for children that augment in-school science and engineering learning.
Though school districts have the autonomy to develop instructional policies and make determinations about funding allocations, they must attend to the pressures of national and state policies and rely on instructional materials and resources produced by national companies and nonprofits to support equitable and inspiring science and engineering instruction in preschool through fifth grade. Enactment of the ideas presented in the Framework requires substantial changes to teaching and learning, and these changes will depend on building toward a common vision for preschool and elementary science and engineering education held by teachers, leaders and other education stakeholders (vertical coherence), and alignment of all components in the system to that vision (horizontal coherence).
Figure 2-1 depicts school-level factors that may be driven by the district (e.g., the choice of instructional materials is typically a district-level decision) or may be specific to a given school. For example, schools have unique staffs of teacher-leaders and unique levels and types of family engagement—both of which can shape how science and engineering are taught in elementary settings.
Much is expected of elementary and preschool teachers. They typically teach all content areas, as well as being responsible for children’s emotional and physical well-being (see Chapter 8). Yet, as discussed in subsequent chapters, they may have inadequate curriculum materials, instructional resources, preparation, and/or administrative support for science and engineering instruction. Even when there is observed alignment among state standards, curriculum, and professional development, teachers may not use curriculum materials in ways that align with the vision of the designers, and teachers’ perceptions of the suitability of materials may diverge. School-level goals for science and time allocated for teachers to prepare to implement the curriculum are strong influences in the use of materials (Penuel et al., 2008). Teachers in schools facing accountability pressure were actually more likely to implement the curriculum, perhaps because they had fewer other options and felt obligated to comply with the state. Thus, there is a need to tailor implementation support and professional development to local level needs (Penuel et al., 2008).
In some schools or districts, mainly in the upper grades, elementary teachers may specialize such that one teacher for the grade level teaches all of the science units for the grade, while another teacher teaches all of the social studies units—or any number of permutations of this setup. Chapter 9 explores the research related to science specialists.
HOW FEDERAL AND STATE POLICIES INFLUENCE INSTRUCTIONAL TIME, TESTING, AND (IN)EQUITIES IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING EDUCATION
This section takes up one factor that has outsize influence on the teaching and learning of science and engineering in preschool through elementary school: instructional time. As shown in Figure 2-1, national policies (including NCLB and ESSA) shape (among other things) state policies on instructional time. Those state policies, in turn, shape district instructional schedules and time allocations, which, in turn, either dictate or at least inform the day-to-day classroom schedule. As this section shows, the amount of time allocated to science and engineering tends to be low compared to the time spent on other subjects.
The typical length of a school day in the elementary grades is 6–7 hours. How that time is used is informed by organizations that make recommendations about “best practices.” For example, the American Association of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that children of this age get at least one hour of physical activity each day, including physical education (PE) and/or recess. Children typically get about 25 minutes for lunch. They often have a 90-minute English language arts (ELA) block,6 a 60-minute block for mathematics, one or two specials (such as PE, library, art, or music) for 45 minutes plus transition time, some dedicated time for social-emotional learning and community building within the classroom, as well as transition times throughout the day. In addition, children may need some additional support in language or in academic content areas; based on studies across elementary and secondary education, these learners may be pulled out during times that are not seen as core content areas (NASEM, 2018a; in particular, see Table 7.1 in Smith, 2020). Schools not meeting state-level accountability measures receiving Title 1 federal funds and schools with large populations of children coming from low-income families often incorporate double blocks for reading and mathematics in their elementary school schedules (Au, 2007) or narrow the curriculum (Bacon and Ferri, 2013). These accountability measures may thus limit the amount of time afforded to children for subject area learning outside of reading and mathematics; Anderson (2012) provides a review of test-based accountability policies and implications for K–12 science teaching and learning with some studies focusing on elementary settings and a subset examining effects with historically marginalized populations.
In elementary school, instructional time for science is not usually mandated at the state level but is left up to districts, school leaders, or individual teachers (Blank, 2013). In most districts, science is seen as a core content
6 Children in K–3 traditionally have a 90-minute reading block with additional time devoted for writing and spelling whereas in grades 4 and 5 they have the 90-minute ELA block which includes reading and writing.
area, though some districts treat science as a special. Engineering is less often included as an academic content area, either as part of science or on its own, though in some contexts, engineering may be addressed in a makerspace or STEM specials time block. It has been suggested that the emphasis on ELA and mathematics, often to the exclusion of science and engineering, is due in part to the demands of high-stakes testing in ELA and mathematics at the elementary grades (Amrein and Berliner, 2002; Anderson, 2012; Bacon and Ferri, 2013; Christenson et al., 2007) (as discussed below; the integration of science and engineering with ELA and mathematics is explored in depth in Chapter 6). Therefore, the elementary grades—particularly the lower elementary grades, often called the primary grades—often include little instructional time for science (or social studies, or informational text of any kind) (Anderson, 2012; Duke, 2000; Fitchett and Heafner, 2010; Jeong, Gaffney, and Choi, 2010; McGuire, 2007; Pace, 2011; VanFossen, 2005; Vogler et al., 2007). The same is true of science and engineering instructional time in preschool (Early et al., 2010; Piasta, Pelatti, and Miller, 2014; Tu, 2006). In fact, preschool children spend substantially less time (roughly half the proportion of learning time) on science than other disciplines such as literacy (Early et al., 2010).
In an effort to ensure that learners perform well on high-stakes testing in elementary school, some states have adopted policies about language instruction, like third-grade reading laws,7 which has implications for emergent multilingual learners. As described in a previous National Academies report (NASEM, 2018a), “a majority of districts and schools, especially in states that do not require or offer support for bilingual programming, implement pull-out [English as a Second Language] ESL programs at the elementary level” (p. 258). Some states have English-only policies. These policies require emergent multilingual learners to participate in extended daily English Language Development instruction (i.e., 4 hours), sometimes at the expense of inclusion in content instruction (Gándara and Hopkins, 2010).
There has been a shift away from pulling out learners from regular classroom instruction. In 2016, 63 percent of learners identified as needing special services received 80 percent or more of their instruction in regular classrooms. However, one-half of children categorized with multiple disabilities or intellectual disabilities received their education inside a regular classroom less than 40 percent of the time (Clements et al., 2021; Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, 2018).8 Overall, policies aimed at providing additional supports for children often lead to them missing core instruction in science and engineering and not having the same opportunities as their
7 For more information, see http://ceelo.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/CCSSO_CEELO_third_grade_reading.pdf.
8 These data reflect children and youth ages 3–21 receiving special education services (or roughly 6 million learners). The data are not disaggregated by elementary grades and do not speak to which subject areas learners are being pulled out for additional instruction.
peers to gain foundational skills and content knowledge that allow them to excel in these disciplines from elementary through middle and high school.
The sections that follow first unpack how policies at the federal and state levels have contributed to the comparatively low amount of instructional time allocated to elementary science and engineering and depict in more detail the realities of instructional time in those subjects. Then, the impacts of these policies (and resulting instructional time) on testing and on inequities across groups of children are explored.
Impact of NCLB and ESSA on Instructional Time
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 is the eighth reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was first passed in 1965 and which aimed to improve educational equity for children from lower-income families by providing federal funds to school districts serving them. In return, federal funds allocated to states and districts were tied to federal accountability requirements outlined in the law; this continues in the present with $19.4 billion to be allocated to states through federal block grants in FY21 alone (U.S. Department of Education, 2020). This represents the single largest source of federal funding for elementary and secondary education for states and districts in the United States. Since funding to states, then passed through to school districts, is contingent on states and school districts meeting the requirements outlined in the law, it is a significant driver in the public education system, driving state and local policies and directly influencing priorities for classroom instruction.
NCLB (passed in 2001), the previous form of ESEA, served as the education law of the land for approximately 15 years. Under NCLB, as with ESSA, priority was given to mathematics and reading as districts and schools were expected to demonstrate AYP on assessments administered in reading and mathematics to all student subgroups each year in grades 3–8. Although NCLB required states to adopt science standards at all grade levels, state science assessments were not required until 2007; policies only required states to assess science once in grades 3–5 and did not require them to incorporate science assessment results as part of accountability measures determined by AYP (Judson, 2013).
The federal requirements created a strong incentive for state policies and programs to focus on reading and mathematics in preschool and elementary and for schools and classroom teachers to prioritize instructional time for these two subjects over other subjects like science and engineering. Although time allocated to instruction of different subjects is often made at the local level and sometimes by individual teachers (McMurrer, 2008; Murnane and Raizen, 1988), a few states, like Florida, enacted policies requiring that all elementary schools teach reading in a dedicated, uninterrupted block of time
of at least 90 minutes duration daily to all children (Florida State Board Rule 6A-6.053). Florida also requires that children who do not meet reading proficiency benchmarks through assessments given at the beginning of the school year be provided additional instructional time for reading intervention services and require that the 300 lowest-performing elementary schools in reading achievement provide an additional hour per day of intensive reading instruction to all children. Other states do not set forth specific amounts of time for reading instruction daily but do recommend it.
Data from the Schools and Staffing Survey of teachers conducted from 1987 through 2008 provide insights into the amount of instructional time allocated for science and other core academic subjects in elementary grades before and after NCLB were enacted (Blank, 2013; Snyder, Dillow, and Hoffman, 2009). Figure 2-2 shows that time for science instruction in grades 1–4 declined from an average of 3.0 hours per week in 1993–1994 (180 minutes) to 2.6 hours (156 minutes) in 2000 (when NCLB was initiated) and to 2.3 hours (138 minutes) in 2004 and 2008 (Blank, 2013). English language arts instructional time increased concomitantly.
The Center on Education Policy (Kober and Usher, 2012) reported that
… seventy-one percent of the school districts [they] surveyed reported that they reduced elementary school instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics—the subjects tested for NCLB. In some case study districts, struggling students receive double periods of reading or math or both—sometimes missing certain subjects altogether. (p. 2)
Though science has long been considered an “undervalued school subject” in elementary schools (see Spillane et al., 2001), accountability measures and policies have pushed science off the daily school schedule altogether (Marx and Harris, 2006). Post-NCLB studies describe how teachers emphasized language arts and mathematics over science (Diamond and Spillane, 2004) and principals told teachers not to teach nontested subjects, especially in the few months prior to the testing window (Lee and Luykx, 2005; Milner et al., 2012).
Furthermore, the more recent National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSSME+) (Banilower et al., 2018) collected data on elementary science instruction. The survey examined time spent on different subjects in the elementary grades, looking at connections to the composition of the classes (such as gender or race/ethnicity of children and their prior achievement levels). The survey asked elementary teachers in self-contained classrooms how often they taught science. Table 21 in the NSSME+ report (reproduced in Table 2-1 here) shows that 18 percent of teachers in K–2 and 26 percent of teachers in grades 3–5 reported teaching science most or all days every week of the school year. On the other hand, about 40 percent of the teachers reported teaching science 3 or fewer days each week, and another 40 percent reported teaching science some weeks but not every week. In terms of instructional time, teachers reported teaching science about 20 minutes per day on average, with fewer instructional minutes (17) at the primary (K–2) level and slightly more instructional minutes (23) at the upper elementary level (3–5).
When survey data from Blank (2013) and NSSME+ (2018) are combined, it shows that average time for elementary science instruction has steadily declined from 3.0 hours per week in 1994 to 1.8 hours per week in 2012, representing a 40 percent reduction in time (on average) for elementary science instruction since the enactment of policies and accountability measures under NCLB in 2000. Table 2-2 summarizes these findings.
Although many teachers reported less time for science instruction under NCLB, the frequency of teachers reporting spending at least 4 hours of
TABLE 2-1 Frequency with Which Self-Contained Elementary Teachers Teach Science
|Percentage of Classes|
|All/most days, every week||21% (1.5)||18% (1.7)||26% (2.1)|
|Three or fewer days, every week||39% (1.6)||41% (2.0)||8% (2.3)|
|Some weeks, but not every week||39% (1.8)||42% (2.3)||36% (2.1)|
NOTE: Standard errors are listed in parentheses.
SOURCE: Banilower et al. (2018).
TABLE 2-2 Instructional Time for Science in Elementary Classrooms, 1994 to 2018
weekly instructional time on science was significantly higher in states that integrated fourth grade science achievement into accountability formulas versus states where science did not figure in high-stakes accountability (Judson, 2013).
Elementary teachers who participated in the NSSME+ indicated that engineering concepts and skills received the least attention in the instructional time devoted for science instruction, indicating that children are provided less time for engineering education in elementary. However, elementary teachers and schools are not often asked to report set-aside time for engineering education in makerspaces or other time blocks devoted to engineering or STEM specials that might incorporate engineering concepts and skills.
Impact of NCLB and ESSA on Student Achievement and Testing
Instructional time is typically a reflection of a school’s priorities, which are often driven by accountability and testing. However, preschools and other early childhood spaces are less constrained by high-stakes testing and accountability, and thus could serve as a model for older grades. What impact have these reform efforts had in terms of ELA, mathematics, and science testing in elementary settings? ESEA aimed to improve educational equity for children. However, the relative performance of low-income districts only climbed by about 0.1 standard deviation (SD) on the National Assessment Educational Progress after a decade of reform efforts under NCLB (Hansen et al., 2018). The white-Black gap in eighth-grade reading has stayed more consistent over the past two decades, with each measurement between 0.7 and 0.8 SD. Although more time and resources have been afforded to literacy under NCLB at the federal, state, and local levels and instructional time for science has declined, little gains have been made in literacy proficiencies or science proficiencies and the racial/ethnic achievement gaps have been marginally reduced between Black and Hispanic children and their white peers (Snyder, de Brey, and Dillow, 2019).9
9 Some scholars have suggested that achievement gaps have provided a limited understanding of educational injustices and that “gap gazing” may be counterproductive (Gutiérrez, 2008). Looking at these gaps as “education debt” may be a more productive orientation (Ladson-Billings, 2006), and is in keeping with this report’s use of the system as a unit of analysis.
Although the testing provisions are the same under ESSA, as compared to NCLB, states were given more authority to design their own accountability systems. Both NCLB and ESSA require state testing in reading and mathematics annually in grades 3–8 and once in high school. Both also require state testing once in science annually in each grade span including 3–5, 6–8, and 10–12. NCLB required that 100 percent of children be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of school year 2013–2014. ESSA, on the other hand, has extensive requirements for state-developed accountability systems, including that they (a) include performance goals for each subgroup; (b) annually measure student performance based on state assessments; (c) for high schools—annually measure graduation rates; (d) for elementary and middle schools—annually measure student growth (or another valid and reliable statewide academic indicator); (e) include one other indicator of school quality or student success that allows for meaningful differentiation, such as student or educator engagement, or school climate and safety; (f) for all students classified by districts as English learners—measure English language proficiency annually in grades 3–8 and once in high school; (g) annually identify and differentiate schools based on all indicators; and (h) differentiate schools in which any subgroup is consistently underperforming. ESSA allows states to decide how much weight to give tests in their accountability systems and determine what consequences, if any, should attach to poor performance. ESSA also requires states to give more weight to academic factors than other factors (ASCD, 2015).
At least 19 states made science part of their school rating systems (Klein, 2018). However, states are not setting goals around science the way they are for English language arts and mathematics (Achieve, 2017).
Impact of NCLB and ESSA on Equity and Opportunities for Improvement
In many ways, rather than redressing inequities, these policies have exacerbated inequities in elementary science and engineering. Marginalized children are disproportionately affected (Tate, 2001), with inequities in science learning found by third grade (Quinn and Cooc, 2015). Even only a few years into the NCLB era, scholars were concerned about its inequitable effects in science. For example, Marx and Harris (2006) wrote:
We worry that standards-based science instruction, with its emphasis on scientific thinking and reasoning skills in the context of meaningful real-world investigations, will become a kind of “upper-class science” available primarily to students in high-performing schools and districts and less common in schools that serve poor and minority students. (p. 471)
More recently, scholars are concerned about whether some children are less likely to be provided science and engineering instruction (e.g., Berg and Mensah, 2014; Blank, 2013; Carrier, Tugurian, and Thomson, 2013; Judson, 2013). This concern is certainly borne out in the NSSME+ (2018) (see Trygstad et al., 2020), which shows that teachers in schools serving larger numbers of children who receive free and reduced-price meals perceive instructional time, access to resources, and other related factors to be more limiting, in terms of their engaging in effective science instruction, than do teachers in schools serving children from families with more resources. Concerns also focus on whether the nature of those experiences is likely to be poorer—for example, less authentic. Merely “including” all children in science and closing the achievement gap are not enough (Calabrese Barton and Tan, 2020; see also Gutiérrez, 2008).
As indicated by the Framework, science and engineering skills and concepts build from early elementary, through late elementary, middle school, and high school. Table 2-3 showcases recommendations from the Framework for how children build understanding toward the disciplinary core idea of Chemical Reactions across the grade bands of K–12.
As indicated in the table, learning of science and engineering relies on children experiencing and understanding concepts that build upon one another across the grade levels, in ways similar to how foundational literacy knowledge and skills develop toward reading comprehension and secondary literacy proficiency. This makes foundational science and engineering essential for success in later grade levels and postsecondary settings, and requires that all children have access to these foundational learning experiences starting in preschool and continuing throughout all elementary grades. Yet the instructional time data presented above make clear that this is not currently the case.
Opportunities exist under ESSA to address some of the inequities in elementary science and engineering. These opportunities are sometimes underutilized in state plans. ESSA, for example, allows states to use a single annual summative assessment or multiple statewide interim assessments throughout the year that result in one summative score (ASCD, 2015). This means that states can work alongside school districts to offer a series of authentic assessment tasks through the school year that engage children in explaining scientific phenomena and solving problems through investigations conducted on site in schools. ESSA also requires state-developed accountability systems that include performance goals for each subgroup. As a result, states can ensure that children who have been historically marginalized are afforded the supports needed, even if a school district has a lower population of children from certain subgroups. ESSA allows states to decide how much weight to give tests in their accountability systems and determine what consequences,
TABLE 2-3 Recommended Progression for Building Understanding
|By the End of Grade 2||By the End of Grade 5||By the End of Grade 8||By the End of Grade 12|
|Heating or cooling a substance may cause changes that can be observed.
Sometimes these changes are reversible (e.g., melting and freezing), and sometimes they are not (e.g., baking a cake, burning fuel).
|When two or more different substances are mixed, a new substance with different properties may be formed; such occurrences depend on the substances and the temperature.
No matter what reaction or change in properties occurs, the total weight of the substances does not change.
|Substances react chemically in characteristic ways. In a chemical process, the atoms that make up the original substances are regrouped into different molecules, and these new substances have different properties from those of the reactants.
The total number of each type of atom is conserved, and thus the mass does not change. Some chemical reactions release energy, others store energy.
|Chemical processes, their rates, and whether or not energy is stored or released can be understood in terms of the collisions of molecules and the rearrangements of atoms into new molecules, with consequent changes in total binding energy (i.e., the sum of all bond energies in the set of molecules) that are matched by changes in kinetic energy.
In many situations, a dynamic and condition-dependent balance between a reaction and the reverse reaction determines the numbers of all types of molecules present.
The fact that atoms are conserved, together with knowledge of the chemical properties of the elements involved, can be used to describe and predict chemical reactions. Chemical processes and properties of materials underlie many important biological and geophysical phenomena.
SOURCE: Based on the Framework (NRC, 2012).
if any, should attach to poor performance. It also requires states to give more weight to academic factors than other factors—although ESSA, like NCLB, continues to prioritize ELA and mathematics for preK–12 education. Therefore, there are opportunities to address accountability in novel ways that expand rather than narrow the curriculum to which elementary children have access. As noted above, preschool settings do not have these same pressures from high-stakes testing and could serve as a model.
Finally, ESSA allows 100 percent transferability between Title II (educator supports) and Title IV, and also from Titles II and IV into Title I. As a result of this funding flexibility, schools have fewer restrictions on how they might utilize federal funds to achieve school improvement efforts or support subgroup populations of children. Although the flexibility offers the possibility for schools to utilize funds for the purpose of improving elementary science and engineering education, if schools continue to feel the pressure to prioritize ELA and mathematics, the flexibilities could further reduce the amount of funding schools allocate to elementary science and engineering education.
Preschool and elementary science and engineering are situated within policy and system contexts that shape when, how, and how often these subjects are taught. Schools and systems are also shaped by longstanding expectations that in schools, children acquire basic skills; comply with rules; learn how to get along with others; be self-directed enough to carry out tasks independently; and complete their work carefully and accurately.
Schooling practices can reinforce notions that intelligence is fixed and natural, rather than a cultural construct that can differ across contexts and timepoints (Hatt, 2012; Oakes, 2005). These practices, on the surface, could be interpreted as well intentioned, ensuring all children get equal access to a good education; however, decades of research on these kinds of practices have suggested that they have the potential to harm youth (Nieto and Bode, 2007; Schissel, 2019; Tyack and Cuban, 1997). They can perpetuate deficit-based assumptions about minoritized youths’ intelligence and academic potential, which follow them through their schooling (Knoester and Au, 2017).
Change is needed; however, practices or institutional policies that fall too far afield from these historical practices would be difficult to sustain (Carlone, Kimmel, and Tschida, 2010; Penuel, 2019; Tyack and Cuban, 1997). Penuel (2019) suggests approaching school reform through the work of infrastructuring, which focuses on supporting educators in redesigning existing routines of schools and school districts, rather than overhauling the entire system.
These analyses of systems and policies show the complexities of the educational endeavor. They also show the effects of systemic injustices that have been in play in the education system for decades. Thus, beyond the instructional vision of three-dimensional learning put forward by the Framework and the resulting changes in instructional materials, assessments, and professional learning opportunities, there is an imperative to address issues of equity and justice at all levels of the system. The next section addresses some of the implications of the evidence base for conceptualizing policies and systems.
Beginning with the first approach to equity outlined in Chapter 1, the biggest issue in terms of children’s increasing opportunities for and access to high-quality science and engineering (Approach #1) in preschool through elementary is the instructional time devoted to these areas, and the accompanying provision of resources. Without time devoted to science and engineering, children do not have access. The chapter shows how instructional time for science has steadily dropped over recent decades, with concomitant increases in the instructional time for mathematics and, especially, for English language arts. One specific issue relates to children being pulled out of their few opportunities for science and engineering learning to receive remedial reading help or Individualized Education Program services.
With regard to increased achievement, representation, and identification with science and engineering (Approach #2), systems and policies have the biggest focus on achievement. The chapter shows how education policies that have aimed to increase student achievement—in mathematics and reading—have had the perhaps unintended effect of decreasing children’s opportunities to learn science, as discussed above. Districts are working to redress these issues through providing fiscal resources and setting instructional time expectations.
The Framework itself attempted to expand what constitutes science and engineering (Approach #3), in that it emphasizes that science entails much more than memorizing facts. The turn toward practice reflects the idea of engaging children in the work of science and engineering to help them understand and appreciate the natural and designed world. And yet, as the chapter emphasizes, systems can serve to reify the status quo, making change toward any expansion of “what counts” as science or engineering to be a challenge.
The committee did not find literature focused on how systems or policies do or could support a move toward recognizing science and engineering as a part of justice movements (Approach #4). This would be an area for future research.
A new vision for science and engineering education calls for all children to be afforded the opportunity to engage in meaningful, interesting, and compelling science and engineering learning experiences that engage them in describing and explaining phenomena and solving problems as scientists and engineers do. However, policies and components within preschool and elementary systems must align and be supportive of that vision if children are to benefit from it. With time for science instruction declining steadily over the past 20 years under the accountability pressures associated with other subjects like English language arts and mathematics, it will be challenging for teachers to provide the science and engineering learning experiences preschool and elementary children deserve and need to be proficient in later grades and postsecondary science and engineering courses and fields. For children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences, emergent multilingual learners, or those not meeting benchmark proficiencies for reading, writing, and mathematics, time for science and engineering instruction is further limited or absent completely as they are pulled for remediation or additional support services. Without intentional efforts to develop local, state, and federal policies that prioritize foundational science and engineering, children in preschool and elementary will continue to receive limited instructional time for science and engineering and the system will perpetuate inequitable access to quality science and engineering learning experiences that many children in the United States currently experience.
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