When Scientific Literacy is a Matter of Life and Death

The Covid-19 crisis has put a spotlight on the importance of science.  More than at any time I can recall (with the possible exception of panic over the Soviet launch of Sputnik), scientists are in the news.  We count on them to find a cure for people with the Covid-19 virus and a vaccine to prevent new cases.  We count on them to predict the progression of the pandemic, and to discover public health strategies to minimize its spread.  We are justifiably proud of the brilliance, dedication, and hard work scientists are exhibiting every day.

Yet the Covid-19 pandemic is also throwing a harsh light on the scientific understanding of the whole population.  Today, scientific literacy can be a matter of life or death.  Although political leaders, advised by science experts, may recommend what we should do to minimize risks to ourselves and our families, people have to make their own judgments about what is safe and what is not.  The graphs in the newspaper showing how new infections and deaths are trending have real meaning.  They should inform what choices people make.  We are bombarded with advice on the Internet, from friends and neighbors, from television, in the news.  Yet these sources are likely to conflict.  Which should we believe?  Is it safe to go for a walk?  To the grocery store?  To church?  To a party?  Is Grandpa safer at home or in assisted living?

Scientific literacy is something we all should have learned in school. I would define scientific literacy as an understanding of scientific method, a basic understanding of how things work in nature and in technology, and an understanding of how scientists generate new knowledge and subject possible treatments, such as medicines, to rigorous tests.  All of these understandings, and many more, are ordinarily useful in generally understanding the news, for example, but for most people they do not have major personal consequences.  But now they do, and it is terrifying to hear the misconceptions and misinformation people have.  In the current situation, a misconception or misinformation can kill you, or cause you to make decisions that can lead to the death of a family member.


The importance of scientific literacy in the whole population is now apparent in everyday life.  Yet scientific literacy has not been emphasized in our schools.  Especially in elementary schools, science has taken a back seat, because reading and mathematics are tested every year on state tests, beginning in third grade, but science is not tested in most years.  Many elementary teachers will admit that their own preparation in science was insufficient.  In secondary schools, science classes seem to have been developed to produce scientists, which is of course necessary, but not to produce a population that values and understands scientific information.  And now we are paying the price for this limited focus.

One indicator of our limited focus on science education is the substantial imbalance between the amount of rigorous research in science compared to the amount in mathematics and reading.  I have written reviews of research in each of these areas (see www.bestevidence.org), and it is striking how many fewer experimental studies there are in elementary and secondary science.  Take a look at the What Works Clearinghouse, for another example.  There are many programs in the WWC that focus on reading and mathematics, but science?  Not so many.   Given the obvious importance of science and technology to our economy, you would imagine that investments in research in science education would be a top priority, but judging from the numbers of studies of science programs for elementary and secondary schools, that is certainly not taking place.

The Covid-19 pandemic is giving us a hard lesson in the importance of science for all Americans, not just those preparing to become scientists.  I hope we are learning this lesson, and when the crisis is over, I hope our government and private foundations will greatly increase their investments in research, development, evaluation, and dissemination of proven science approaches for all students.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Photo credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

To Pluto and Beyond

Like many others, I was thrilled to see The New Horizons spacecraft reach and photograph Pluto. After being banished from the League of Planets shortly after New Horizons was launched, I’ll bet Pluto felt much better with all the attention.

Those who read this blog are probably expecting me to go into a rant at this point about how much we are willing to spend to send a spacecraft to take pictures and how little we are willing to spend on finding out how to help our nation’s children learn to read the newspaper or understand the math or the space science around this marvelous event. Well, consider it ranted. It does not make me feel any better that funding for NASA itself is being cut. We are a hugely wealthy country, and we can afford to go to Pluto and to educate our children to a much higher standard than we do. In fact, the way we became a hugely wealthy country, and the only way we can maintain our wealth into the future, is by investing in education, science, technology and invention.

My colleagues and I recently completed reviews of research on elementary and then secondary science education. You can find them here. The reviews find very similar outcomes at the different grade levels. Instructional methods emphasizing professional development for teachers on well-defined teaching strategies, such as cooperative learning and science-reading integration, have solid effects on science learning outcomes. Moving from one textbook to another almost never makes a difference, and use of science kits does not improve science learning. Technology-focused programs have a great deal of promise, but the studies are few and of limited quality, at least so far.

However, the most depressing finding is that there were far too few studies, across all science teaching approaches, that met even modest standards of rigor. Using our standards (which just require a control group, initial equality, fair measures, and a duration of 12 weeks), there were just 21 secondary studies in the past quarter-century. The number was the same for elementary studies. This is shameful. Science teaching is widely acknowledged to be a key to our nation’s future, yet our investment in high-quality studies and innovation is so low that we really know very little about how to do it better.

To explore the universe, to cure diseases, to engineer new solutions of all kinds, requires a population that is proficient in science, technology and mathematics. Is there anyone on the (still recognized) planet Earth who does not know this? Yet if we were serious about going boldly where no nation has gone before, would we continue to invest so little in understanding how to engage and excite our students in science, math, and technology?

Today, we rely on an extraordinary but tiny elite for the scientific progress we do make. We need to extend far beyond this, as more and more occupations come to require deep understanding of science and math. We need to enable teachers in elementary and secondary schools to democratize science knowledge and skill. There is no question that we can design better teaching methods and technologies, evaluate them, and scale them up. I wonder when we will get serious about doing so?

Congratulations to NASA, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, and the American taxpayer for the New Horizons trip to Pluto. But consider this. The next generation of scientists and engineers who will perform the marvels of the future are in elementary and secondary classes right now. Improving science learning for these precious future scientists and engineers is essential for our nation’s future.