Math and Science: Where Elementary Schools Stand

April 2014, Volume 37, Issue 8

A majority of elementary teachers indicate that the support they receive from their principal promotes effective mathematics and science instruction. But teachers regard state testing and accountability policies, on the other hand, as less supportive, according to a comprehensive study of U.S. K-12 science and mathematics education.

The 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education is the fifth in a series of studies initiated in 1977 and funded by the National Science Foundation. For the study, conducted by Horizon Research and endorsed by NAESP, researchers collected data from a nationally representative sample of 1,900 K-5 teachers. Survey topics include teachers’ backgrounds and opinions, professional development participation, adequacy of resources, textbooks, instructional practices, and factors affecting instruction.

The influence of testing—particularly on science—is evident in instructional time and teachers’ objectives. Only about 1 in 4 elementary students receives science instruction each day. (Mathematics is taught every day in elementary classrooms.) The typical elementary class spends about 20 minutes a day on science instruction, compared to 60 minutes on mathematics and 90 minutes on language arts. Elementary classes are much more likely to have an emphasis on test-taking skills in mathematics than in science (37 percent compared to 22 percent). Similarly, only 1 in 10 elementary classes stress memorizing vocabulary/facts in science, but almost half stress learning mathematical procedures and algorithms.

Another difference in science and math instruction: teachers’ professional development. Three-fourths of elementary teachers describe themselves as very well prepared to teach mathematics, but just over one-third feel similarly confident about teaching science. Although the vast majority of elementary teachers have participated in mathematics- or science-specific professional development in the past three years, few have had substantial opportunities for it: Only 4 percent of teachers have had more than 35 hours of professional development in science and 11 percent in mathematics. Plus, relatively few teachers (less than 10 percent) serve in subject-specific leadership roles, such as acting as a mathematics mentor/coach or leading a teacher study group in science.

Despite these challenges, both science and math teachers ranked support from principals as a top factor that influences effective instruction, along with students’ motivation, state standards and district frameworks, and time to plan with colleagues.

Reports from the study, including two specifically on elementary mathematics and science education, are available on the study website.

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