Next fall, Chicago Public Schools plans to launch “full implementation” of the Next Generation Science Standards, which are intended to promote understanding “big ideas” in science through hands-on learning. But history suggests it won’t be easy to drastically improve science teaching citywide.

In 2004, CPS’ then-head of science education, Michael Lach, put the challenge in a nutshell: “Science just doesn’t get taught” in elementary school, he said. “It gets drowned out by reading and math.” (Lach is now the director of STEM policy and strategic initiatives for the University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Math and Science Education.)

Without early exposure to science, it’s hard for students to catch up in high school. Test scores from the era showed the gap: Roughly half of elementary students met or exceeded goals on state science tests, but only 27 percent of 11th-graders did so on the old Prairie State Achievement Exam.

CPS launched efforts to improve science teaching by standardizing curriculum and upgrading dilapidated high school labs. The initial commitment was $24.5 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the long-deferred need.

Reviving elementary science learning didn’t come cheap: $115,000 for classroom materials and coaching for a K-8 school with 15 teachers. While a group of 21 mostly high-achieving pilot schools got money for the new programs—and saw their test scores outpace citywide gains—other schools, including those on academic probation, were forced to adopt them at their own expense. The underfunding created a patchwork of results. Many later adopters only purchased materials for certain grades or limited the number of teachers they sent to training.

Catalyst examined 10 elementary schools with both top science scores and more than 90 percent low-income students, and found some key commonalities: high reading scores, teacher collaboration and a challenging, hands-on science curriculum full of experiments, projects and writing assignments.

See “CPS pushes new science curriculum,” Catalyst November 2004 and “Teachers, reading scores are key,” Catalyst November 2004.


In recent years, STEM—science, technology, engineering and math–has become a buzzword in education circles. But getting STEM education to Chicago students hasn’t been easy. Prior to 2012, only three elementary schools had a STEM focus. That changed with the decision to close 50 schools. District leaders promised to enhance academics at the welcoming schools,  11 of which were dubbed STEM schools and given new labs and extra teachers.

Some of these schools, like Hefferan Elementary in West Garfield Park, got extra support for teacher training because of their connections with the Academy for Urban School Leadership and National Louis University, which won an $8.3 million federal grant to help aspiring teachers master the new science standards.

But the picture remains far from uniform. “It’s all over the map,” says Penny Lundquist, who directs the Golden Apple Foundation’s STEM Institute. Lundquist has been to elementary schools where the first step is simply to gather all the materials. Without designated lab space, science kits get dispersed throughout the building and taking inventory becomes a challenge. “The first question is: where’s the stuff?”

The same patchwork is typical in programs outside school. A groundbreaking 2013 report took a first stab at mapping out-of-school STEM programs across the city, and found that while 88,000 students had participated, Latino students had less access and few programs were available during summer.

See “Raising the bar for STEM education,” Catalyst December 2014, and “Report sheds light on out-of-school science learning,” Catalyst June 2013.


Illinois formally adopted new science standards in 2014 and chose not to give a science test last spring. (That move was ruled a violation of federal law.) Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education told the state it would have to give a science test this school year.

But so far, schools don’t know when that will happen. As of May 12, the ISBE web site says districts have until May 27 to give the new exam to students in grades five and eight, plus a subset of high school students. The high school test will measure students’ knowledge of biology.

See “Take 5: Budget uncertainty, charter withdrawals, another online test,” Catalyst August 2015.

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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