One paper reports on an enormous project in which observers went into a large sample of US first grade classrooms (827 of them in 295 districts) and simply recorded what was happening. The other paper reported on a comparable project for third grade classrooms (780 students in 250 districts)
Both papers are a treasure trove of information, but I want to highlight one striking datum: the percentage of time spent on science.
In first grade classrooms it was 4%.
In third grade classrooms it was 5%.
There are a few oddities that might make you wonder about these figures. In the 1st grade paper, the observations typically took place in the morning, so perhaps teachers tend to focus on ELA in the morning and save science for the afternoon. But the third grade project sampled throughout the day.
And although there's always some chance that there's something odd about the method, the estimates accord with estimates using other measures, such as teachers' estimates. (See data from an NSF project here.)
And before you blame NCLB for crowding science out of the classroom, note that the data for these studies were collected before NCLB. (1st grade, mostly '97-98; 3rd grade, mostly '00-'01). I don't think there's much reason to suspect that the time spent on science instruction has increased, and smaller scale studies indicate it hasn't.
The fact that so little time is spent on science is, to me, shocking.
It's even more surprising when paired with the observation that US kids fare pretty well in international comparisons of science achievement.
In 2003, when more or less the same cohort of kids took the TIMMS US kids ranked 6th in science. (They ranked 5th in 2008.)
How are US kids doing fairly well in science in the absence of science instruction?
Possibly US schools are terribly efficient in science instruction and get a lot done in minimum time. Possibly other countries are doing even less. Possibly US culture offers good support for informal opportunities to learn science.
It remains a puzzle.
There is a lot of talk about STEM instruction these days. In most districts, science doesn't get serious until middle school. US schools could be doing a whole lot more with more time devoted to science instruction.
I'll have more to say about time in elementary classrooms next week.
NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2002). The relation of global first-grade classroom environment to structural classroom features and teacher and student behaviors. The Elementary School Journal, 102, 367-387.
NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2005). A day in third grade: A large-scale study of classroom quality and teacher and student behavior.
The Elementary School Journal, 105, 305-323.