Jan. 20, 2016

K-12 Science Teachers Need Sustained Professional Learning Opportunities to Teach New Science Standards, Report Says

WASHINGTON – As researchers’ and teachers’ understanding of how best to learn and teach science evolves and curricula are redesigned, many teachers are left without the experience needed to enhance the science and engineering courses they teach, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  This issue is particularly pronounced in elementary schools and in schools that serve a high percentage of low-income students.  The committee that conducted the study and wrote the report found a lack of coherent learning opportunities for science teachers across their careers and recommended changes to current systems for supporting teachers’ professional development inside and outside the classroom.

As part of ongoing efforts to improve the quality of science education in the U.S., many states are adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, which are largely based on the 2011 Academies report A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.  The standards outline key scientific ideas and practices that all students should learn by the time they graduate from high school, and they entail shifting away from memorization of facts and information presented by teachers to student-led investigations and in-depth examination of core ideas.

“The Next Generation Science Standards are a motivating factor for us to think differently about learning opportunities for both students and teachers,” said Suzanne Wilson, committee chair and Neag Endowed Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Connecticut.  “Many science teachers will need to alter the way they teach to achieve this new vision of the science education of K-12 students.  Closing the gap between the vision of teaching science exemplified in the NGSS and current instruction in many schools will require creating a system of policies and practices that support individual and collective teachers’ needs, allowing them to deepen their own expertise, while challenging their students to learn, enjoy, and appreciate science.”

Science teachers’ professional learning occurs in a range of settings, both in and outside of schools, including teacher-organized and teacher-led study groups, coaching from more experienced teachers, and professional development programs that are often at summer institutes.  Professional learning in online environments and through social networking holds promise, although evidence from research and practice on the outcomes and value of these modes is limited.

Elementary, middle, and high school science teachers are required to participate regularly in professional development, but these activities are often generic and unevenly distributed across schools, districts, and regions.  Moreover, there has been little attention to how to systematically structure science teachers’ learning in ways that support cumulative learning over time, the report says.  While high school teachers have more access to relevant professional development opportunities, middle and elementary school teachers have less.  The situation is especially difficult for teachers in schools that serve high percentages of low-income students, where teacher turnover is higher, and the workforce is relatively inexperienced.  Since teachers spend the majority of their professional time in classrooms and schools, more learning opportunities should be built into the work day.

The committee recommended implementing policies and practices at the school and district levels, which are crucial locations for investments in the science teacher workforce.  Districts and schools should design a portfolio of coherent learning experiences for science teachers that reflect their individual and context-specific needs.  Those experiences should be developed in partnership with teachers and their professional networks, institutions of higher education, cultural institutions, and the broader scientific community.  In addition, in collaboration with teachers and parents, district personnel and school principals should identify specific learning needs of science teachers in their schools and develop a multiyear plan for their development that is linked to the school and district strategy for students’ science learning.

The committee found that more research is needed to understand the path from professional learning opportunities to changes in teacher knowledge and practice to student learning and engagement. It identified several areas of research to inform the work of school leaders in supporting ongoing teacher learning.

The study was sponsored by the Merck Foundation.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A committee roster follows.


Dana Korsen, Media Officer
Emily Raschke, Media Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; email news@nas.edu

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Copies of Science Teachers’ Learning: Enhancing Opportunities, Creating Supportive Contexts are available from the National Academies Press at 
www.nap.edu or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).




Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education

Board on Science Education


Committee on Strengthening Science Education Through a Teacher Learning Continuum


Suzanne Wilson (chair)

Professor and Neag Endowed Professor of Teacher Education
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Neag School of Education
University of Connecticut



Betsy Davis

Associate Professor and Chair
Elementary Teacher Education
School of Education
University of Michigan

Ann Arbor


Zoe Evans

Assistant Principal
Carroll County Schools

Carrollton, Ga.


Adam Gamoran

WT Grant Foundation

New York City


Kris Gutierrez


Graduate School of Education
University of California



Paula Hooper

Senior Science Educator
Institute for Inquiry at the Exploratorium

San Francisco


Judith Warren Little

Professor and Dean
Graduate School of Education
University of California



Julie Luft

Athletic Association Professor
College of Education
University of Georgia



Barbara Miller


Center for Leadership and Learning Communities
Education Development Center Inc.

Waltham, Mass.


Kathleen Roth

Co-Principal Investigator and Science Educator
California State Polytechnic University



Irwin Shapiro*

Timken University Professor

Harvard University, and

Senior Smithsonian Scientist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Cambridge, Mass.


Patrick Shields

Director and Senior Analyst
Learning Policy Institute
Education Policy Studies Program

Palo Alto, Calif.


Warren Simmons

Executive Director
Annenberg Institute for School Reform
Brown University

Providence, R.I.


Mark Windschitl

Professor of Curriculum and Instruction
College of Education
University of Washington



James Wyckoff


Currie School of Education
University of Virginia



Carla Zembal-Saul

Gilbert and Donna Kahn Professor
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Pennsylvania State University

University Park




Heidi Schweingruber

Study Director



*Member, National Academy of Sciences