Cover: Changing the Subject

Changing the Subject

K–12 Teachers' Use of and Access to Science-Specific Instructional Materials, Feedback, and Professional Learning

Published Apr 21, 2021

by Sy Doan, Al Lucero

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Research Questions

  1. To what extent do teachers report using self-created or non-curriculum materials as part of their main instructional materials in science?
  2. To what extent do principals understand science standards, provide feedback on the use of science curricula, and incorporate science curricula into observation processes?
  3. To what extent do teachers report participating in science-specific professional development?
  4. Do teacher reports of instructional material use, evaluation and feedback, and professional development differ between science and ELA and math?

Ambitious federal goals for preparing students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields require coordinated efforts and supports for the country's science instructors. Increased attention to the needs of science instructors and the provision of supports to address those needs are particularly important in light of documented shortages of STEM kindergarten through 12th grade (K–12) teachers across several states.

In this Data Note, researchers use nationally representative survey data of K–12 teachers from the 2020 American Instructional Resources Survey to examine how teachers' science instruction is supported and whether these supports differ from those that teachers report for English language arts (ELA) and math instruction.

Researchers found marked differences in teachers' reports of instructional supports as they relate to the science instructional environment relative to teachers' reports on instructional environments in ELA and math. These differences suggest that access to formal materials, feedback, and support is lacking for science instruction relative to instruction in ELA and math.

Key Findings

Teachers are more likely to rely on self-created and non-curriculum materials in science than in math or ELA

  • Sixty percent of teachers classified a non-curriculum material as a main material in science, compared with 50 percent of teachers for math and 52 percent of teachers for ELA.
  • Thirty percent of science teachers indicated that self-created curriculum materials were among their main materials — the same percentage as ELA teachers but a significantly higher percentage than math teachers (16 percent).

Teachers are less likely to report that principals provide feedback on science curricula and know which science curricula are standards-aligned

  • Although 74 percent and 70 percent of teachers agreed that their principal provided feedback on how well they use their math and ELA curricula, respectively, only 58 percent of teachers indicated the same with regard to science curricula.
  • The percentage of teachers agreeing that their principal understood which science curricula were aligned with state standards was at least 15 percentage points lower than the percentages of teachers agreeing that their principals understood their math or ELA curricula.

Teachers engage in science-specific professional development significantly less than ELA- and math-specific professional development

  • Only 41 percent of teachers reported spending at least one day (eight hours) on science-specific professional development since the last academic year, compared with 73 percent and 66 percent of teachers for ELA- and math-specific professional development, respectively.
  • Similarly, significantly more teachers reported receiving no subject-specific professional development in science (17 percent) than in ELA (4 percent) or math (6 percent).


  • Increase national and state efforts to produce and disseminate ratings of science instructional materials. Teachers are more likely to incorporate self-created materials and non-curriculum materials into their science instruction than their math and ELA instruction. Although combining and creating instructional materials is common for all K–12 teachers, this curation process may be more difficult for science teachers given that efforts by EdReports and other organizations to provide comprehensive ratings of the quality of science instructional materials are ongoing. Information highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of science instructional materials can help educators identify the materials that work best for their students.
  • Encourage educators with science degrees or science classroom experience to become school leaders with targeted recruitment and professional development. Increased dissemination of information about the quality of science instructional materials and explicit guidance for school leaders to provide more subject-specific feedback can open the pathway for teachers to receive more science-specific feedback.
  • Increase science-specific professional learning modules and identify barriers that prevent science instructors from participating in professional learning. Teachers were less likely to report participation in science-specific professional development opportunities relative to professional development in ELA and math. Further investigation may be able to determine whether this difference is a result of a lack of availability of science-specific professional learning or of other factors that prohibit teachers from taking advantage of science-specific professional learning activities, such as increased instructional planning or instructional material search time commitments for science instructors.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Overdeck Family Foundation.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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