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Strengthening Support for Science

Funding and partnerships with higher ed institutions can help increase professional development resources.
Eighth-grade honors students work on a physics experiment to determine the acceleration of marbles. The district is focusing on improving science literacy, through professional development.
Eighth-grade honors students work on a physics experiment to determine the acceleration of marbles. The district is focusing on improving science literacy, through professional development.

Two-thirds of California’s elementary school teachers feel unprepared to teach science, according to High Hopes—Few Opportunities, a study of science teaching and learning that was conducted recently by the University of California at Berkeley. On the state science test administered to fifth-graders last year, only 55 percent achieved or exceeded proficiency in the subject. On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, California ranked near the bottom in fourth-grade science scores.

Obstacles to improving elementary science literacy in California and other states include NCLB and the Common Core’s emphasis on math and English language arts, which often leads to reducing time spent on science. California’s budget crises, made worse by the latest recession, have caused class sizes in the state to rise, the purchase of science materials to drop and access to professional development to be restricted. Still, California districts have a fighting chance to increase science-related competence and confidence among their lower-grade teachers, the UC Berkeley study suggests, if they are willing to pursue external sources of funding and partnerships with institutions of higher learning that specialize in science.

Since 2008, the Elk Grove Unified School District, the largest in northern California, has aggressively sought and won two consecutive multiyear, multimillion-dollar, California Math/Science Partnership Grants to provide professional development in elementary- and middle-grade science.

Content and Comfort

For three years beginning in 2008, the district’s first state-funded “Excellence in Science Instruction” (eSCI) partnership project provided more than 100 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers with intensive professional development opportunities through California State University at Sacramento and the University of California at Davis.

Very few elementary teachers were science majors, so there’s a “considerable amount of discomfort,” says Anne Zeman, district director of curriculum and professional learning. “Our goal for the first grant was to improve teachers’ content knowledge, to give them more confidence so they would be more inclined to make room for it in their schedules, and also to help them use the most effective teaching methodology.”

Throughout the first study, teachers remained in small, mixed-grade cohorts that represented a broad economic and cultural cross-section of the district. They attended summer workshops at CSUS. They spent the school year designing lessons together, watching one another teach classes, advising one another and adjusting their own classroom practices.

Cohort Support

Students and teachers appreciated it. Between 2009 and 2011, the percentage of all fifth-graders who scored at proficient or advanced levels on the state science test rose from 50 to 59 percent. The proficient and advanced scores of Elk Grove students whose teachers were in eSCI cohorts, meanwhile, rose from 59 to 72 percent. The district’s second three-year eSCI study, due to start this summer, will provide a professional-development bridge between elementary and middle school. Seventy middle school teachers will be divided into mixed-grade cohorts similar to those in the earlier study. They will learn together and share best practices that may inspire students to stay engaged in the sciences as they transition to high school.

“We need to empower science educators and let them stay connected in strong learning communities,” says Superintendent Steven Ladd. “When you see this professional development translate into academic performance, it’s very exciting.”

Elk Grove (Calif.) Unified School District

  • Superintendent: Steven M. Ladd, 8 years
  • Students: 62,400
  • Schools: 64
  • Staff: 5,500
  • District size: 320 sq. miles
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunches: 53%
  • Per-pupil expenditure: $6,976
  • Web site:

Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer in Fair Oaks, Calif.