Individuals increasingly must understand science and technology to thrive in today’s society, and schools accordingly are challenged to provide high-quality science learning experiences to all students. Teachers are at the forefront of meeting this challenge, and the quality of their instruction therefore acts as a major fulcrum for improving science education.
Efforts to improve the quality of science teaching and learning have been under way for decades. Yet results of international comparisons (Martin et al., 2012; OECD, 2014) and indicators of general science literacy (Miller, 2010) reveal that many American students and adults still fail to grasp fundamental scientific concepts and to understand the process of scientific discovery.
To address these challenges, the most recent improvement efforts draw heavily on the past 30 years of research and development in cognitive science, education in general, and science education in particular. This research elucidates what is important for students to know and be able to do in science, how they learn, and how to help teachers support that learning.
At the K-12 level, the Next Generation Science Standards (hereafter referred to as the NGSS) (Next Generation Science Standards Lead States, 2013) represent the most recent effort to focus the reform of science education. The NGSS, developed by a consortium of educators and scientists from 26 states, specify what students should know and be able to do in science at the end of particular grades or grade bands. These standards are
based on A Framework for K-12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework) (National Research Council, 2012), which was informed by research on science learning and on the science standards of the 1990s—the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993). The vision of science education set forth in the Framework and the NGSS calls for classrooms that bring science and engineering alive for students,1 emphasizing the satisfaction of pursuing compelling questions and the joy of discovery and invention.
Realizing this vision will be a challenge for teachers, administrators, and students. Many teachers are unlikely to have experienced this kind of science instruction themselves and may not be prepared to teach in the ways envisioned by the Framework and the NGSS. In many schools and districts, moreover, science is considered a lower priority than mathematics and English language arts—particularly in the elementary grades, where less time is allocated for science instruction than for instruction in these latter two disciplines (Center on Education Policy, 2007; Dorph et al., 2011). Achieving the vision will require more than increased time for science in the curriculum; it will require a pedagogical shift away from memorization of facts and presentation of information by teachers to student-led investigations and in-depth examination of core ideas. New curricula will need to be created, new assessments devised, and new instructional approaches employed.
Teachers embracing this vision will themselves need new kinds of learning opportunities and considerable support. This is true for experienced educators encountering new conceptions of science teaching as well as for novice teachers being apprenticed into the profession. It is as true of schools and districts that have long taken pride in their science programs as it is for those where science has been neglected. But this is not a challenge of simply preparing individual teachers. Rather, it is a challenge of preparing a teacher workforce, and creating a system of policies, programs, and practices at the federal, state, district, and school levels that support teachers as they progressively deepen their own expertise and challenge their students to learn, enjoy, and appreciate science.
1Current education reforms focus on the broad set of disciplines under the umbrella of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Especially important is a commitment to capitalize on the interdisciplinary nature of these fields. Thus while this report focuses on science teachers, the committee acknowledges the importance of considering how science teachers learn to integrate technology, engineering, and mathematics, into their instruction. The NGSS focus particular attention on how to integrate engineering practices into science instruction.
Currently, many states are adopting the NGSS or are revising their own state standards in ways that reflect them. Ultimately, the task of implementing science standards rests with teachers. To implement the NGSS, or similar standards based on them, teachers will need learning opportunities that reinforce and expand their knowledge of the major ideas and concepts in science and of science and engineering practices, facility with a range of instructional strategies in science, and the skill to implement those strategies in their classrooms. Supporting this kind of learning for teachers will likely require changes in current approaches to supporting teachers’ learning across their careers, including induction and professional development. Despite decades of efforts to improve science education, most districts and schools lack a coherent approach to supporting science teachers’ learning. Recognizing these challenges and the need for guidance in how to address them, the Board on Science Education, within the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education in collaboration with the Teacher Advisory Council of the Academies, with support from the Merck Company Foundation, convened a 14-mem-ber expert committee to undertake a comprehensive study of how to provide coherent support for elementary, middle, and high school science teachers’ learning across their careers. (The full charge to the committee is presented in Box 1-1.) This report synthesizes the committee’s findings.
Charge to the Committee
The committee will identify the learning needs for teachers throughout their careers. The committee will identify how these needs might differ depending on school level (elementary, middle, and high school), and across the span of one’s career. To the extent possible the committee will characterize the current state of the learning opportunities and support for learning that exist for teachers and identify the characteristics of effective learning opportunities. The committee will also consider how school and district contexts shape teachers’ learning opportunities and limit or promote teachers’ efforts to implement new classroom practices. They will consider the roles of school and district administrators and the professional development opportunities they may need in order to provide effective support for teachers. If possible, the committee will develop guidance for schools and districts for how best to support teachers’ learning and how to implement successful programs for professional development. This will include considerations of the tradeoffs and benefits of different approaches to professional development (e.g., costs, time, staffing needs, etc.).
With regard to the evidence base, the committee will assess and describe the strengths and weaknesses of the available research evidence related to each component of a teacher learning continuum. It will identify major gaps and develop a research agenda for future work on professional development continuums in science. The committee will review and analyze research challenges, such as appropriate measures of student outcomes and teacher learning and the difficulty of establishing causal links between professional development, teachers’ instructional practices, and students’ outcomes. The committee will outline the research needed to more clearly define learning continuums for science teachers at each stage of their careers.
Specific questions the committee may consider include
- How do teachers’ learning and professional needs differ by the stage of their careers and school level (elementary, middle, or high school)?
- What is known about the characteristics of effective approaches to supporting science teachers’ learning? What are the implications for schools and districts?
- What is known about the kind of training teacher educators and providers of professional development need in order to support teachers’ learning?
- What is known about how local, district, and state contexts shape the learning opportunities available for teachers and influence the outcomes of teachers’ learning activities? What are the implications for schools, districts, and states?
- What is known about how to design and implement professional development and what guidance can be given to states, districts, and schools about implementation of effective professional development? What are the tradeoffs, limitations, and benefits of different approaches to induction and professional development?
- What are the major gaps and weaknesses in the currently available research on teacher development?
- What measures are used to evaluate the outcomes of teacher development activities, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of these measures? How are assessments used to diagnose teachers’ learning needs and assess their progress?
Understanding how best to support practicing science teachers at all grade levels throughout their careers is an ambitious undertaking. Although this committee acknowledges the central importance of teacher preparation to how science teachers are launched in the profession, this subject has been the focus of other National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports (National Research Council, 2000, 2010).
Therefore, the committee used those previous reports as foundational for the present study and focused primarily on understanding the literature on professional support for practicing science teachers.
Key Concepts and Assumptions
The committee began by considering several framing assumptions in its charge (see Box 1-1). First, we defined a “teacher of science” to include elementary school teachers, who are likely to teach science as one of several subjects in the elementary curriculum, as well as those at the middle and high school levels where science teaching is the province of specialists. Second, we considered common assumptions about the teaching profession. For many, “career-long” evokes images of teachers who teach for a lifetime, sometimes even in the same school. However, the median length of a teacher’s career has been declining steadily for almost a decade (Carroll and Foster, 2010). While nearly half of all science teachers at the high school level and 42 percent of those at the middle school level have more than 10 years of science teaching experience (Banilower et al., 2013), up to 50 percent of entering science teachers at those levels leave teaching within the first 5 years of their career (Miller, 2013; Sass, 2013). While many of those teachers may reenter the workforce in the future, the current workforce includes a substantial number of early-career teachers. This observation has direct implications for strategies for supporting the improvement of classroom instruction, as well as personnel policies concerning staffing arrangements, mentoring policies, professional development, and leadership training.
Another common assumption is that a teacher learning continuum is best conceptualized in stages (preservice, early career [sometimes referred to as induction], and experienced). In reality, those distinctions can be blurry: as initial preparation programs continue to experiment with new arrangements for launching teachers, it becomes increasingly difficult to have a common definition of a first-year teacher (Britton et al., 2003; Feuer et al., 2013; Wilson et al., 2011). Other dimensions of context matter as well; for example, if an experienced elementary teacher is assigned to a middle school or if a teacher moves from a highly resourced to an underresourced school, he or she may feel like a novice all over again. If a school district radically changes its assessments, curricula, or instructional approaches, experienced teachers can feel as unprepared as they did in their first years of teaching. These challenges call for teachers’ continual learning. Further, attempts to standardize that learning or develop “one-size-fits-all” models rarely work.
The committee also challenged the assumption that the best frame for understanding teachers and teaching is one that treats the teacher as the
unit of analysis. Teachers work in schools, and their identities, instruction, and growth are shaped by the school community, including both the school’s leadership and culture. The learning opportunities available to a teacher are shaped profoundly by the local context in which he or she works—a teacher may be challenged or isolated, supported or frustrated, made to feel that the advancement of instruction is a professional obligation or that it is low on the list of priorities. Thus, promoting and supporting teacher quality needs to be understood from a collective standpoint, whether that collective be a professional learning community in a school, a diffuse set of teachers linked in an online learning network (e.g., as discussed in National Research Council, 2007), or a professional association of teachers. Whatever form it takes, mounting evidence suggests that a learning culture is essential to sustaining both teacher and school improvement, and that teachers are best able to develop in professional cultures characterized by a consistent focus on student learning (Bryk et al., 2010; Gamoran et al., 2003; Johnson et al., 2012; Kraft and Papay, 2014; McLaughlin and Talbert, 2001; Vescio et al., 2008).
Finally, the committee considered a broad range of learning opportunities for science teachers: formal and informal, structured and unstructured, individual and collective, planned and serendipitous, mandated and sought out. Teachers participate in organized, formal events designed specifically to educate them, such as induction programs and professional development workshops. Yet while it is important to understand the content and character of such discrete professional development events, the shifting landscape of education has created a much broader array of teacher learning opportunities. Teachers learn a great deal in their own classrooms on a daily basis while interacting with their students (Ball and Cohen, 1999; Ball and Forzani, 2011). They access ideas online, through networks of likeminded colleagues, or by individual experimentation with new instructional strategies. They belong to learning communities in their schools or through their professional associations. Experienced teachers work with prospective teachers. Schools increasingly hire coaches and mentors to support teachers who are charged with adopting and implementing new curricula. Moreover, many teachers assume formal or informal leadership roles that offer opportunities for professional learning, such as participation in curriculum review committees and the collective scoring of student work.
This is not to deny the important role played by the organized, formal events that commonly come to mind when one mentions “professional development.” A main message of this report, however, is the need for a broad, expansive view of where and how teachers learn to teach over the course of their careers. Programs can offer powerful learning opportunities for teachers, but so can the schools and classrooms in which they
work. In summary, “professional learning” is a much broader phenomenon than the conventional view of “professional development.”
The Importance of the Educational Context
As noted above, the committee recognized that understanding and improving teachers’ learning requires considering policies, practices, and norms that transcend the individual teacher and classroom. Teachers work within a larger, ever-expanding and shifting education system, characterized by ongoing state and federal reform efforts and a changing student and teacher population (Cuban, 2010; Cusick, 2014). Within that ecology, new learning needs and opportunities arise, where novices can be experts and experts can be novices.
The Current Policy Context
Issues of accountability are especially important in the current policy context, which shapes standards, curriculum frameworks, and requirements (including testing requirements) for science and other subjects alike. Since 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act has mandated that students in grades 3-8 be tested annually and that states demonstrate adequate yearly progress in raising test scores. The law gives priority to mathematics and English language arts, and these subjects accordingly account for the bulk of states’ accountability formulas. As a result, pressures related to testing in mathematics and English language arts have largely squeezed science out of the elementary curriculum (Blank, 2013; Dorph et al., 2011). Nationally, elementary students have had fewer opportunities to experience sound science instruction relative to students at other levels, and their teachers report feeling inadequately prepared for and supported in teaching science (Banilower et al., 2013; Dorph et al., 2007, 2011; Hartry et al., 2012; Smith et al., 2002; see the further discussion in Chapter 2). Even at the high school level, where science enjoys a relatively secure position, federal and state accountability metrics generally weigh performance in mathematics and English language arts more heavily than performance in science. In California, for example, mathematics and English language arts account for nearly 86 percent of the weight of the state’s Academic Performance Index, and science for only about 7 percent (Hartry et al., 2012).
Accountability policies do not focus on students alone. Increasingly, the performance of teachers, administrators, and schools is being measured. Notably, the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative provided incentives for states to seek ways to tie teacher evaluations more closely to student learning (Institute for Education Sciences, 2014).
The initiative promoted educator evaluation policies using multiple measures and multiple rating categories, which could help provide more valid and reliable measures of teacher quality. Many states have responded to the Race to the Top initiative, instituting new educator evaluation systems that include teachers and school leaders making plans for teacher learning over the course of the year, repeated observations of teachers’ practice, and the use of standardized tests to gather evidence of student learning. Prominent in this work have been efforts to model the contribution or “value added” of teachers’ instruction to their students’ learning. These policies can have a positive or negative influence on teachers’ taking the risks necessary to implement the vision of science instruction embodied in the Framework and NGSS, a point to which we return in Chapter 8.
Regardless of a state’s or district’s policies and priorities, successful implementation depends on the availability of resources—human (e.g., knowledgeable personnel), social (e.g., teacher networks), and physical (e.g., time, money, materials) (Cohen et al., 2003). In recent years, state departments of education, district or county offices of education, and intermediary units have been decimated, significantly reducing the curricular and instructional expertise available to teachers in all subjects. As one example, funding for the statewide California Science Project declined from more than $9 million in 2002 to $1.2 million in 2011 (Hartry et al., 2012). The lack of funding and other resources limits effective science teaching (or any science teaching at all) and confounds attempts to improve practice over time in myriad ways.
The New Educational Marketplace
Recent years have seen a proliferation of publicly funded charter schools and networks, as well as other providers of education-related services outside of public school systems. Especially in larger urban settings, these providers are changing the landscape of education for students and of professional learning for teachers. The traditional school district is not the only unit managing schools, and traditional public schools are partnering in new ways with outside actors as well. The implications for this report are twofold. First, any report on science teachers’ learning ought to speak to educators across the contexts in which they work. Second, a growing literature documents how these new actors approach organizing schools for student—and, at times, teacher—learning, and the committee sought out relevant information to inform our perspective on these developments. In particular, many of these organizations operate with clearly articulated theories of human capital development and the ways in which resources might best be directed to support teachers.
Charter schools, some focused on science, technology, engineering,
and mathematics (STEM) themes, have grown rapidly. One study estimates that in the 2012-2013 school year, there were more than 6,000 charter schools serving about 2.3 million students, and that more than 4 percent of the total public school population in the United States consisted of charter school students (Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 2009). These figures represent an 80 percent increase from 2009.
Some charter schools are taking innovative approaches to supporting teachers by investing in tools and models for professional growth that include instructional guidance, access to coaches and teacher leaders, and the use of data to improve teaching and learning (Education Resource Strategies, 2013). Within the growing literature on charter schools, however, few studies are subject-specific, so one can only cautiously infer implications for how to improve science teaching and learning and support the development of science teachers.
There also has been a recent proliferation of external vendors, funders, and providers of professional development in science. Some of them, such as science museums and industry, offer unique sources of expertise to support teachers’ learning, but access to those resources is unevenly distributed. For example, far too few rural schools have access to nearby museums and other informal learning institutions, which makes establishing such partnerships especially challenging. In addition, the quality of these services and providers is highly variable. This variability promises to increase as vendors sell materials and services that are aligned only superficially with the NGSS. As the field grows increasingly crowded, it becomes more difficult for system leaders to identify high-quality resources and experiences that will offer the kinds of support science teachers need in this age of reform.
The Place of Science in the K-12 Curriculum
Science has always had a place in the K-12 curriculum, but as noted above, it receives less emphasis than mathematics and English language arts, especially at the elementary level. Separate science classes with teachers who specialize in science typically do not begin until middle and high school. Generally, there are fewer individuals with expertise in science and science pedagogy than individuals with comparable expertise in English language arts and mathematics available within the school or district, and many administrators do not have science backgrounds. Lack of science expertise among district and school leaders can have implications for selecting curriculum materials, observing classroom instruction, making hiring decisions, and allocating resources for professional learning opportunities in science (National Research Council, 2015).
There are also topics in science about which educators, parents, and
community members may have conflicting views (National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, 2008). Navigating how to teach about controversial issues is not unique to science; however, some topics in science, such as evolution and climate change, have become highly politicized.
In sum, the committee determined that making relevant and actionable recommendations concerning science teachers’ learning over time would require taking a broad view of trends in science education; shifting conceptions of how and when teachers learn; the broader educational system, which includes new arrangements for teachers and their students; and education policies that shape both directly and indirectly what teachers are able to learn and teach. The goal of this report is to focus on science teachers’ learning, but to do so in ways that acknowledge the important role of this larger context.
In carrying out its charge, the committee examined and synthesized research on science teaching and learning, science teacher induction and professional development, teacher induction and professional development more generally, and the teacher workforce. We focused primarily on studies of science teachers. In some areas, however, studies focused on science were scarce. For this reason, we also drew on studies in other subject areas, primarily mathematics given its centrality to arguments concerning STEM education. For some broad issues, such as the importance of collaboration and professional community, we consulted the broader literature on teacher learning to identify important factors for supporting learning and then considered how they might play out in the context of science specifically. Likewise, there was a notable lack of research on how policy and school context affect science and science teachers in particular. For this reason, we drew on a broader literature on education policy, school reform and improvement efforts that conceptualize professional learning as an integral part of a larger reform agenda that also includes attention to curriculum, assessment, leadership, and community connections. Throughout the report, we have noted where the evidence comes primarily from studies in science and where we drew on studies outside of science.
The bodies of research we reviewed comprise many types of studies, from qualitative case studies, ethnographic and field studies, and interview studies to large-scale surveys of teachers and randomized controlled trials. When weighing the evidence from this research, we adopted the stance of an earlier Academies committee that “a wide variety of legiti-
mate scientific designs are available for education research” (National Research Council, 2002, p. 6). According to that report, to be scientific,
. . . the design must allow direct, empirical investigation of an important question, [use methods that permit direct investigation of the question], account for the context in which the study is carried out, align with a conceptual framework, reflect careful and thorough reasoning, and disclose results to encourage debate in the scientific community.
We also relied heavily on the American Educational Research Association’s standards for reporting on social science (American Educational Research Association, 2006) and on humanities-oriented (American Educational Research Association, 2009) research in identifying quality research to be included in our review.
Recognizing the value of many types of research, we used different types of evidence to achieve different aims related to our charge. We did not automatically exclude studies with certain designs from consideration; rather, we examined the appropriateness of the design to the questions posed, whether the research methods were sufficiently explicated, and whether conclusions were warranted based on the design and available evidence. To provide descriptive summaries and conclusions about such topics as available learning opportunities for science teachers and the nature of the K-12 science teaching workforce, we relied on all types of research and on state- and national-level survey and administrative data. Descriptive evidence often is essential for understanding current conditions, in preparation for contemplating change. Identifying what changes are needed, however, requires research that goes beyond description to indicate what new outcomes would be expected to emerge as a result of the changes being considered.
When making these kinds of causal claims about the impacts of professional learning on various student or teacher outcomes (e.g., teacher practice, knowledge, attitudes, or beliefs), our goal was to draw conclusions based on research evidence that rules out alternative explanations for the measured impacts or patterns of change. For these purposes, we considered findings to be suggestive if they identify conditions that were associated with success but could not be disentangled from other influences on the desired outcomes. Examples of designs that might provide such evidence include qualitative studies and correlational quantitative analyses. We considered findings to give evidence of success if they resulted from research studies that were designed to support causal conclusions by credibly ruling out alternative explanations. Examples of designs that provide this level of evidence include experiments and nonexperimental studies in which assignment to treatment and control groups was random
or effectively random around a cut point with a known assignment rule (i.e., regression discontinuity design). We also considered findings to give evidence of success if the research employed other nonexperimental designs that meaningfully reduced the likelihood of alternative explanations and several such studies yielded a body of evidence with consistent findings. With nonexperimental designs, our confidence was greater in findings that were found repeatedly in a variety of contexts because such replication makes alternate explanations less likely (National Research Council, 2002). We also privileged consistent findings across a variety of contexts, which resulted from experimental and/or nonexperimental designs that spoke to the findings’ broader applicability.
Regardless of the methods used, we considered the quality of the study design and the fidelity with which that design was carried out to be of paramount importance. For example, high-quality well-implemented studies designed to support causal inferences can support causal statements. In contrast, even the highest-quality studies without a causal design are unlikely to rule out competing alternatives—although, as noted, the findings from an accumulated body of those studies may be consistent with causal conditions. Likewise, studies that are intended to identify causes but are poorly designed or poorly conducted may be unreliable in ruling out competing alternative explanations.
The committee also was concerned with understanding the mechanisms through which teachers learn. To gain greater insight into such mechanisms, we sought out richly descriptive work. While case studies and other interpretive work did not lead us to draw causal conclusions, they did help us understand potential contextual factors that shape both what and how teachers learn across various settings.
To address the issue of quality, we relied heavily on studies published in peer-reviewed publications. We also relied on several technical reports that contain information unavailable through any other sources.
Chapter 2 summarizes the new vision for K-12 science education described in the Framework and the NGSS. Chapter 3 contrasts this vision with current teaching and learning, illuminating the gap between the vision and the present reality. Chapter 4 provides an overview of the current K-12 science teaching workforce and Chapter 5 outlines a set of learning needs for science teachers to support them in achieving the vision.
Chapter 6 then begins to examine the existing research on how best to support teachers’ learning. As reviewed in Chapter 6, much of the research base to date has focused on professional development programs that consist of sessions offered outside of the school building, combined
with opportunities for teachers to meet a few times during the school year. Chapter 7 examines emerging models for supporting teachers’ learning that are embedded in their workday. Research on these models generally is less well developed than that on more formal professional development but holds promise for enhancing teachers’ learning across their careers.
Chapter 8 then considers the broader context for teaching learning—administrative support, use of time, allocation of resources and space, the place of science in the curriculum—and identifies some of the policies and practices likely to help catalyze and support effective strategies for furthering teachers’ learning. Finally, Chapter 9 presents the committee’s conclusions and recommendations and identifies key areas in which research is needed to advance understanding of how to best support science teachers’ learning across their careers.
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