The Evidence for Improving Science Education

“Evidence-based, research-backed, data-driven…”: our world is increasingly focused on evidence at all levels – and rightly so. Evidence is a central part of any argument and allows us to verify our hunches while laying solid ground for future action. In education, we rely on evidence to understand which programs and policies have the greatest impacts for students. In the realm of quality science education, two new pieces of evidence offer a reminder of just how far we all have to go – but also some good news about the transformational potential of strong instruction.

First, the bad news. A new brief from the Public Policy Institute of California explores how science teaching and learning has fared through the pandemic in the Golden State. The results are grim and simply stated: “COVID-19 derailed science education in most districts.” Challenges include limited support for science education, staff shortages, and competing priorities to emphasize ELA and math during remote instruction. In fact, while 80% of districts analyzed prioritized math and ELA in COVID recovery plans, this number drops drastically to 27% for science.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. The report also offers suggestions for boosting science education in California, including dedicated state funding, capacity-building around quality materials and aligned teacher training, and a focus on instructional time and course completion in the accountability system. These recommendations echo the themes of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s 2021 Call to Action for Science Education, which represents a clarion call from many of the nation’s leading minds on the need for a new, concerted focus on science teaching and learning.

Adding another compelling study to the already strong evidence base that supports quality instructional materials is the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. This recent report takes a deep dive into Chicago Public Schools’ efforts to align math and science instruction to updated academic standards from 2014-2018, using both student and teacher surveys and student achievement data to evaluate impact. It’s no surprise to quality curriculum advocates that Chicago saw stronger instructional improvements and student gains in schools using standards-aligned instruction, including higher scores on the PSAT and SAT science components. The report identifies professional learning as the most important lever for changing instruction (with the best training linked directly to the use of quality materials) and boils it all down by stating: “Instructional practices mattered for student achievement.” 

Empowered with evidence like this, we must keep pushing for more districts and states to support quality science teaching and learning with tried-and-true methods. We’re trying to do our part by tracking all things state-support-for-high-quality-science-education on the CurriculumHQ science page. Check it out and drop me a line with questions or feedback on how we can do more.

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and recent member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.