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Toward Equity in Science Instruction
Toward Equity in Science Instruction
Peter Hewson
Peter Hewson

Instituting reform is particularly urgent in urban schools because of the array of obstacles these schools face. Teachers and students work under stressful conditions. Students have higher truancy rates, lower graduation rates, and lower achievement levels than their peers in nonurban settings. In addition, teachers in urban schools are less likely to be adequately prepared or to have access to needed resources. Urban school leaders say that higher academic achievement and teacher recruitment are their schools’ most critical needs.

These needs are an important equity issue, says WCER researcher Peter Hewson, because large urban districts educate 25% of all school-age students, 35% of all poor students, 30% of all English language learners, and nearly 50% of all minority children.

Hewson and colleagues maintain that equitable reform of science education in urban schools involves:

  • a cohesiveness of school and community around clearly understood and accepted goals of reform;
  • responsible and accessible leadership;
  • teachers who feel effective, autonomous, and respected; and
  • a community that is supportive and involved.

Equity is central to the current reform movement in science education. Although all students are capable of understanding and doing science, persistent and widespread differences continue to exist in students’ access, retention, and achievement, depending on their culture, gender, race, and socioeconomic status.

Faced with large classes and little equipment, many urban science teachers use whole-class instructional techniques (lectures, class reading, worksheets), which put students in the role of passive learners. With this type of instruction, there are few opportunities for students to develop higher order thinking skills.

Although the movement toward standards-based education has led urban teachers to expect more from their students, instruction is increasingly affected by the accountability requirements of statewide tests. “Teaching to the test” often means drilling students on repetitive examples which may further alienate urban students from learning science.

Elements of inequity

Hewson and colleagues are identifying progress in, and obstacles to, equitable reform. Hewson and colleagues have used an analytical tool to assess the progress of two urban middle schools toward equity in the reform of science education. The tool, called an equity metric, was developed by Jane Butler Kahle of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, while she was a fellow at UW-Madison’s National Institute for Science Education ( The metric delineates the conditions within classrooms, schools, and districts that define equity in science education. It groups indicators of equity into three categories:

  1. Student access to quality education
  2. Student retention within the system, and within mathematics and science
  3. Student achievement, as a result of participation in the system

The metric also enumerates what can, and should, be measured to assess progress toward equity.

Measuring progress toward equity

Using the equity metric to study Urban Middle School and Webster Middle School (both pseudonyms)—allowed Hewson and colleagues to map and compare schools’ readiness for, and progress toward, reform. The two schools had many similarities, yet each had a unique set of factors that influenced equity in the reform of science education.

Each school combined a magnet program with a special program that met district-wide needs. Per-pupil expenditure was slightly more than $8,000 at both sites. Both enrolled predominantly minority students, although Urban’s students represented multiple cultures.

Urban Middle School was going through difficult times. It had failing grades on the district’s indicators for student achievement, school attendance, and school climate. Teacher morale was low, and turnover among teachers and administrative staff was high. The school’s environment was in constant flux. The principal had proposed a vision of academic achievement that challenged low expectations for the school’s diverse, mobile student body, but many teachers did not accept that vision. An influential group questioned equity and resisted reform. Thus, administrative effort was spent on reacting to events rather than on implementing the principal’s vision.

Webster Middle School adhered to the Paideia philosophy, which favors a general liberal arts program. Paideia aims to create a school environment in which all children are given the same opportunities to learn. The principal at Webster involved teachers in making decisions that changed instruction. Staff turnover was low: Webster had had only three principals since 1985. Webster met many of the criteria for successful middle schools, and it had taken a number of steps to better meet the needs of its urban students. For example, it eliminated tracking, offered the same curriculum for all students, created stable learning communities (teams), and provided a safe environment for students and teachers.


Hewson and colleagues analyzed the progress of Urban and Webster Middle Schools toward equity using the equity metric’s three indicators: student access to quality education, student retention, and student achievement. Additional indicators are included in the equity metric’s “overall” category.

Student access. At Urban, the cultural differences between teachers and students produced challenges. For example, teachers did not believe that their students could meet the goals in the school’s academic achievement plan. At Webster, in contrast to Urban, administrators, parents, teachers, and students had agreed on high academic and behavioral standards for students. The overall quality of mathematics and science courses at Webster provided students with opportunities to learn and resulted in enhanced achievement.

Student retention. Indicators of student retention in school and in science classes are teacher expectations and behavior, teacher and student attitudes and beliefs, and instructional quality. Recent research has shown that other factors—such as teachers’ qualifications, content knowledge, and pedagogical practices—also influence student retention and achievement. Science teachers at Webster were highly qualified, all holding secondary school science certifications and taking graduate courses in science. They had been involved in extensive professional development that emphasized standards-based teaching practices. They held high expectations for their students and believed that all students could reach high standards. They had good relations with their students and chose topics relevant to the students’ lives.

At Urban Middle School, the principal held high expectations for the students, but those expectations were not shared schoolwide. Many teachers disagreed with the goal that 30% of its eighth graders should pass the state’s ninth-grade state proficiency test. At Urban, as at many other urban schools, teachers had low expectations of students’ abilities. Teaching at Urban did not reflect culturally relevant pedagogy characterized by high teacher expectations, inclusion of students in knowledge production, or engagement of students in a critique of society’s social structure.

Student achievement. The quality of the science courses at Webster Middle School and the school’s overall positive climate resulted in student achievement in science that was higher than that found at other schools in its district or at Urban Middle School. Because of the scarcity of European American students in the science classes at both Webster and Urban, Hewson and colleagues were unable to assess any effect on the achievement gaps between European American and other students.

Overall indicators. Webster and Urban differed with respect to their equity plans and implementation. At Urban, an academic achievement plan with strong equity components was approved. Yet its implementation was jeopardized because of the school’s fragile administrative infrastructure. There was no community of learners, and teachers did not focus on student learning. Meanwhile, Webster students who belonged to groups traditionally underrepresented in science succeeded. Webster teachers had autonomy, felt a sense of community, and held high expectations for student learning. At the time of the study, however, Webster did not have a specific equity plan.

Webster also ranked well in parental involvement. Parents were members of the school’s decision-making committees and served on selection committees for new teachers. Parents at Urban were involved in creating the school’s academic achievement plan, but they were not involved in other decision-making committees.


The two schools studied by Hewson and colleagues illustrate the diversity of experiences for students, teachers, and administrators in urban schools. When mapped against the equity metric, those different experiences reveal two schools at different stages in reaching equity in the reform of science education. In addition, they illustrate that indicators of equity can be used to identify both progress in, and obstacles to, equitable reform.

Hewson’s conclusions are not framed exclusively in terms of science education. The reason for this may be seen in the Urban case study. A combination of factors, perhaps unique in urban schools, consumed the attention of science teachers and left them with little time or energy to teach science. In successful schools, teachers assume they have the conditions needed to support quality teaching. But try as they might, Urban’s science teachers could not focus on science teaching. Webster’s science teachers, in contrast, worked in a cooperative, stable environment that provided the time and space to focus their energies on teaching science.

For more information, contact Hewson at

This research was funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (REC 9602137; J. B. Kahle, Principal Investigator). Some material in this article was originally published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol. 38, no. 10 (December 2001), pp. 1130–11-44.

See also NISE Research Monograph No. 9, Reaching Equity in Systemic Reform: How Do We Assess Progress and Problems? Published by the National Institute for Science Education (NISE), available online at