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Study Finds Middle School Science Instruction Lacking in Calif.

Most California middle schoolers are not regularly exposed to "high-quality" science learning experiences, concludes a new study, which says the core problem is that the conditions to support such learning are rarely in place.

"Across the state, middle school teachers confront large class sizes, limited access to equipment and necessary materials for science experiences, and students who all too frequently have lost interest in science," says the report, published by WestEd, a San Francisco-based education research group.

The report, which involved surveys of teachers, principals, and district administrators, adds that "precious hours are lost to remediating students that could be better spent deepening their understanding of and engagement in science."

At the same time, another contributing factor may be the fact that about 25 percent of the middle school science teachers surveyed actually had a background in the field (such as having majored in the subject in the college).

Research for the WestEd report was conducted by the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and SRI International.

The report follows up on a similar study issued last fall from WestEd on the state of elementary science education in California, which found most elementary students were not getting access to high-quality science instruction either, or, in fact, to much science instruction at all.

Unlike with elementary students, the new report finds that most middle schoolers participate in science class. But the quality of those experiences apparently left something to be desired.

For instance, the report says that only 14 percent of middle school teachers surveyed "use a pattern of classroom practices that supports regular engagement in the practices of science." (Those practices, it says, would include regular student engagement in a variety of activities, such as working in groups, doing hands-on or lab science activities or investigations, participating in field work, recording and analyzing data, and writing their reflections.)

The report suggests that state and federal accountability systems, with their emphasis on improving test scores in reading and mathematics, are partly to blame. In addition, the report says, "over the past decade, the infrastructure for supporting science education in California has eroded significantly. Statewide programs have suffered budget cuts."

In other findings, the report said nearly 60 percent of middle school teachers surveyed said insufficient professional development was a barrier to delivering high-quality science instruction. Also, only about half of the districts surveyed said they had a professional in the district office whose job was at least partially devoted to supporting science instruction in schools.

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