Science education in U.S. elementary and middle schools is overly broad and superficial, according to a government report issued Thursday that also faults science curricula for assuming children are simplistic thinkers.
"All children have basic reasoning skills, personal knowledge of the natural world, and curiosity that teachers can build on to achieve proficiency in science," said the report from the National Research Council, one of the National Academies.
Part of the problem is that state and national learning standards for students in elementary and middle schools require children to memorize often-disconnected scientific facts, the report said.
Other countries such as Japan have students explore a core set of ideas, with increasing depth as they get older, it said.
"Comparisons of science standards and curricula in the United States with that of countries that perform well on international science tests reveal overly broad and superficial coverage of science topics in U.S. classrooms," said the report by 15 education specialists from across the country.
The report also criticized teacher training, saying undergraduate courses required for teachers were not substantial enough and schools need to support their teachers in learning more about their subject.
"Any grown-up who can read can teach middle school general sciences," said Mara Cohen, an eighth grade science teacher in New York who was certified to instruct chemistry but also teaches life and general sciences.
Last year Cohen, who was not associated with the report, said she taught pupils who spoke English as a second language, and that they often failed to understand lessons and did poorly on standardized state tests.
The report found her students were not alone.
While "all students regardless of background have the capabilities needed to engage with and be successful in science," students from low-income areas and certain language and ethnic groups fall behind, it said.