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Study Highlights 'Power of More Time' for Science Learning

A new report makes the case for restructuring the school calendar to allow more learning time for science, and through a set of case studies seeks to explain promising approaches to make the most of that extra time.

"Together, these schools offer a glimpse of what is possible when schools and districts make science a priority and when they furnish students and teachers with the time they need to build dynamic science programs," says the report from the National Center on Time & Learning, a research and advocacy group.

(Released today, the report was supported by funding from the Noyce Foundation, which recently provided a grant to Education Week to produce a special report on science learning outside the classroom.)

The report issued today by the National Center on Time & Learning laments the science achievement levels of U.S. students overall and cites studies suggesting that science instruction in the elementary grades has increasingly been squeezed out of the curriculum.

"At just the moment when science education is reaching a crisis, the dedication of public schools to teaching the subject is declining, for the simple reason that science has been edged out as a priority," says the report. It notes in particular the influence of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on improving test scores in reading and mathematics. (Of course, as many readers of this blog know, similar concerns have also been voiced about shrinking coverage of other disciplines in public schools, from the arts to history and civics.)

The case studies highlight five regular public schools that serve large populations of disadvantaged students, including Matthew J. Kuss Middle School in Fall River, Mass. In September 2006, as part of a state Expanded Learning Time initiative, the school day was extended by about 100 minutes per day, the report explains. Some of that time, needless to say, was reserved for science.

One initiative to enhance science instruction was a partnership with the Urban Ecology Institute. Through that, teachers have received professional development in running an outdoor classroom, conducting field studies with students, and teaching them to use hand-held GPS units and digital cameras. The work is tied to learning about the health of the Taunton River and its immediate environment. Because the work is incorporated into the core science curriculum, every student in the school participated in field studies this past academic year, the report says.

In addition to getting five, 90-minute core academic science periods each week, all students must take a 90-minute science elective once a week. Recent offerings included astronomy, forensics, marine ecology, and a class called "Science of the Titanic."

There's plenty more detail on this school and the others in the new report, titled Strengthening Science Education: The Power of More Time to Deepen Inquiry and Engagement. But I'll stop there other than to briefly mention that the report says Kuss Middle School's 8th graders have seen improved science achievement on the state's MCAS exam over the past few years.

The report identifies a number of "key successful practices" across all five schools, from integrating more hands-on learning activities and facilitating more scientific discourse in the classroom to creating connections for students to science careers and role models through collaborations with outside partners.

In the end, the National Center on Time & Learning contends: "Without fundamentally restructuring the school calendar—particularly at the elementary and middle school levels—to add more learning time and prioritizing science during that time, most American students will simply not spend enough time to become either proficient in, or excited about, science."

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