Report considers pandemic’s impact on K-12 science education

Science education was widely put on the backburner and implementation of the California Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) was delayed in many schools during the 2020–21 academic year, according to Public Policy Institute of California report The Impact of COVID-19 on Science Education.

Released in June alongside a corresponding policy brief, one source of information in the report is a statewide survey launched in fall 2021 in which a total of 213 school districts representing 50 percent of California’s K-12 population responded.

Those local educational agencies indicated that staff shortages, teacher burnout, a lack of dedicated funding and English language arts and math taking priority made it difficult to focus on science learning. “However, some high-need districts — including those with large English learner populations — are using science content to engage students in ELA and math,” the report states.

The state’s NGSS were adopted in 2013 and have the potential to improve science literacy and make California’s workforce more competitive on a global scale. LEAs have been taking steps like adopting textbooks and course model alignment to meet standards since the adoption.

Though implementation was largely underway in the 2019–20 school year, it varied across grades and by district type. K-8 schools had made more progress than high schools and high-need districts had implemented the standards in elementary grades more than their lower-need counterparts. Rural high schools were lagging in implementation.

Still, “districts were making progress toward implementing the standards before the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly altered the landscape in spring 2020,” the report states. “California school campuses were closed for more months than schools in any other state.”

Remote instruction was happening during those months for most public school students.

In 2020–21, support for science education was limited with 60 percent of surveyed districts offering supplemental instruction materials and 43 percent having summer science programming. Forty percent had additional support for English learners, while a quarter of districts had small group instruction.

County offices of education also reported receiving fewer requests for science assistance.

“District prioritization of ELA and mathematics — as well as social and emotional learning — in their recovery plans has caused most COEs to alter their roster of services: seven of the 10 COE science leads [PPIC] interviewed are offering fewer professional learning opportunities due to decreased demand from districts,” according to the report. “In districts that are trying to promote science, professional learning has been hampered by a lack of classroom substitutes — which makes it hard for teachers to have release time for professional learning.”

Some positives did emerge, however, including virtual professional learning opportunities.

Moving forward

When it comes to learning recovery, just 27 percent of surveyed districts said that science would be a high priority. Math and ELA were a high priority for 80 percent of respondents. PPIC researchers looked at Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) of the 858 districts that have them available online.

“Close to half of 2021–24 LCAPs included plans to adopt, develop, or purchase new instructional materials; 38 percent of districts plan to provide science teacher training, and 32 percent set student performance goals on standardized tests.”

The report offers recommendations for the state to consider to make equitable investments in science education, including providing dedicated funding for implementation of the standards and “the inclusion of additional science indicators such as dedicated instructional minutes for elementary schools and course completion for middle/high schools in the state’s accountability system, to encourage districts to dedicate resources to science education.”

Other recommendations from the report include:

  • Incorporating science in district accountability requirements.
  • Providing dedicated funding for professional learning in science.
  • Providing evidence-based strategies for science learning recovery.
  • Building a statewide coalition with educational partners.

“As schools recover from the pandemic, California educators and policymakers should not lose sight of the need to invest in science literacy. The Next Generation Science Standards Systems Implementation Plan for California (2014) lays out eight strategies for equitable implementation — including the facilitation of professional learning, instructional resources, and new assessments,” according to the report. “State and local agencies need to revisit these strategies and develop policies to support all students.”

PPIC is hosting a virtual event on its findings on Aug. 16.