Once again, U.S. students have performed poorly on an international test and the hand wringing has begun. This time it is the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which measures how well students can apply what they have learned in reading, mathematics, and science to practical problems. Out of 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries, United States students ranked 17th in reading, 26th in math, and 21st in science.
As observed by Diane Ravitch and other education historians, the U.S. has rarely fared well on the lineup of international tests that began in the mid-1960s. Whether these tests are a meaningful indicator of the quality of education and global economic success is subject to debate.
What is not debatable, though, is that science education for all students in this country is, in and of itself, mediocre. American students are simply not learning the content and skills that will help them succeed in the 21st century, where technology and science are core to everyday life.
Over the years, I have observed classrooms where students had already decided that science and math were not for them. “I hate science, I hate math,” came the exasperated refrain. But when I asked them what they hated and how it could be made better, I discovered that they actually loved the experimentation of science and were engaged by the relevance of math to their lives. What they hated was how these subjects were taught.
As stated in the National Research Council’s 2012 report “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century,” students thrive when they are engaged in course content that focuses in depth on core concepts within a discipline, contextualizes the learning in real-world situations relevant to their lives, and provides investigative experiences that require transfer of knowledge to address a challenge or answer a question.
Yet, for most students, the study of science is still an exercise in memorization and regurgitation. A jumble of disconnected facts is presented, unaccompanied by opportunities for investigative, problem-solving experiences. We are not educating students to succeed on international exams, but, more importantly, we’re not developing science-literate citizens or encouraging future scientists, either.
Studies have shown that curriculum and teachers are the two most important determinants of student learning and achievement. Effective curriculum shapes not only what content is taught but how it is taught. This, in turn, affects student achievement of the learning goals. Today, far too few schools are using pre-K through 12 science curricula that:
- Build students’ understanding of big, fundamental concepts over time in a coherent conceptual flow
- Explore fewer topics in greater depth
- Promote understanding and use of the practices and competencies required of scientific investigations
- Incorporate ongoing assessment to inform instruction
- Motivate students to learn by engaging them in hands-on investigations and real-world problems
Simultaneously, far too few teachers have the opportunities or support they need to implement these types of materials. Extensive testing requirements have driven too many teachers to cover massive amounts of content and teach to the test. A lack of instructional and pedagogical resources thwarts their chances to move their own practices to a more ambitious teaching model. And although we know that digital tools can enhance student learning and extend teaching practice, few teachers have access to training and support in using these tools appropriately.
Achieving deeply rooted change that ensures students’ success and equips them for life in the 21st century starts with our teachers. Providing these dedicated individuals with ongoing professional development experiences that help build a strong content background, knowledge of effective teaching strategies, and understanding of appropriate uses of digital resources should be the standard, not the exception.
We also need policymakers who are more concerned with what students are learning than how they are performing on international exams. If, as a nation, we make a concerted effort to improve the learning and teaching of science, then better test results will surely follow. Policy-making groups who will lead this effort must include teachers who, more than anyone, understand the reality of the classroom and can lead U.S. science education from mediocrity to excellence.
This indictment of science education goes far deeper than PISA scores. But we know how to fix what’s wrong. Let us start now — and not lose a generation of science-literate citizens, mathematicians, and scientists to a failure in teaching when the inspiration to explore, to experiment, and to learn is all around us.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to try some PISA test questions yourself, you can do so here.