As a public school board member through the first two years of the pandemic, there was one word I heard more than any other in public comments about the health and safety issues before us: Science. And without getting into the politics of how that concept was tossed about, I was as focused as anyone on the need to use hard evidence for the difficult decisions we had to make.
Last week, I heard a familiar reference to the need for science in pandemic recovery during an inspiring event the Collaborative for Student Success sponsored on the Future of Education, hosted by The Hill. In a discussion about the importance of quality K12 science instruction, Dr. Bernard Harris, CEO of the National Math & Science Initiative (and literal rocket scientist), asked, “When the pandemic happened, who came up with the vaccines? Scientists.” He went on to explain that if we are to move forward productively as a nation, above and beyond just COVID recovery, we must ensure quality science education is available to everyone, especially underserved populations.
I’m excited to introduce a series of interview-style blogs with science education experts on how we can do just that, with a focus on expanding access to and use of quality science materials, instruction, and professional learning across the country. First up is Sam Shaw, Director of Science for EdReports.
Many people–students and adults–feel left out of the science world or like it’s “not for them”. How can we change this narrative?
Sam: I would ask those serving communities to consider what their current narrative of science education is. Is it predominantly focused on accountability and a percentage of students’ proficiency? Or, is the conversation broader to include understanding of how science is experienced in the classroom, and how it fits an equitable vision of science for all students?
Students walk into school with lived experience and understanding of the way the world works. In the past, our system has treated this as students bringing in misconceptions and gaps that either need to be corrected or filled. Valuing what students bring to the table—their interests and identities—is critical to a narrative that truly values their contributions and connects to the reality that science is not rigidly defined. As new information comes in, explanations are revised and continually developed. That’s what we want for students: to recognize their starting point and to understand them. For educators, our job is to support students where they’re at so they can navigate not just the world, but their world.
What is the biggest opportunity for advancing high-quality K-12 science education across the country, and what is the biggest challenge?
Sam: With the advent of the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education came an opportunity for many states to adopt or develop standards that require student engagement and contribution in science. What I learned from the Framework and the underlying research is that students and everyone in the community is constantly experiencing science. The Framework presents an argument that students from a young age can begin to explain science phenomena, as opposed to simply observing. This underlies the importance of students’ engagement in authentic learning opportunities that allow them to contribute. This is a shift from a traditional passive approach to learning about science to an opportunity for all students to do and experience science in pursuit of discovery and understanding. Many states are using the Framework now.
The biggest challenge is to ensure that science learning opportunities for students are rooted in building and using the science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas in authentic science and engineering experiences. This looks like students solving problems and figuring out phenomena, especially in ways that are relevant and local (here are some tips to identify quality materials that address these priorities). The shift from students observing science to contributing in science necessitates teacher professional learning to understand the standards, developing a vision for science education, and anchoring that vision in subsequent decisions for curriculum and instruction. We know that very few educators receive curriculum-based professional learning in science, let alone with access to high-quality materials. So, the challenge of making the shift is currently exacerbated by the dearth of quality materials.
Given this challenge that science teachers often do not have the time, space, or support to access and use high quality instructional materials, what is your advice for those who don’t know where to begin?
Sam: This great blog from science teacher Morgan Martin walks through answers to five common questions teachers are asking about standards-aligned materials. And, obviously this is time for the shameless plug of EdReports.org: use the evidence collected by other educators to understand strengths and weaknesses of current programs. Connect with other educators using similar products as you think about what aspects of prospective programs embody the necessary characteristics and where they are falling short. Consider what gaps may require significant capacity (crack in the foundation of the house) and what might be easier wins (repainting the front door of the house). Think about what you have now, what you can do to take one step forward to ensure quality, and continually reflect on opportunities.
When teachers start with great materials and aligned professional learning, this means less time searching for and creating products and more time supporting each and every student. Given the current state of the market, it’s important that districts and states are pushing back on products that don’t meet their needs. We recently co-produced a resource with NextGenScience that equips educators with an understanding of the critical features of instructional materials to engage in selection conversations. We point out common challenges we’ve seen in programs, comparisons of what features look like and don’t look like, and illustrations of possibilities. This resource can be helpful in providing important feedback to publishers that, in our experience, has led to them improving materials that better meet the needs of students and teachers.
While the field waits for EdReports to finish reviewing OpenSciEd and conduct additional science materials reviews, what is your advice for district and state leaders seeking to provide adoption and implementation guidance?
Sam: EdReports believes that what you select and how you select matters. The selection process is a critical lever for ensuring that quality materials are adopted and then used well in classrooms. Unfortunately, current adoption practices are simply not good enough.
To support the field, we developed a free resource called 6 Key Adoption Steps that articulates best practices from our work with states and districts across the country. It includes hands-on guidance, printable worksheets, and case studies of promising practices in places such as Baltimore City, Rhode Island, and Newport Mesa. We also led a four-part webinar series in 2021 called Adopting Materials Through an Equity-Focused Lens that featured guest educators from across the country sharing their learnings from local adoption processes. These are two great places to start for folks considering their next adoption. And EdReports is always available to jump on a call and answer any questions about running a great selection process. Folks can get in touch by emailing email@example.com.
My thanks to Sam and EdReports for their leading expertise and passion for this topic. Stay tuned for more in this series soon.