Science Benchmarking Report TIMSS 1999–Eighth Grade




CHAPTER 6: Teachers and Instruction

Chapter 6 presents information about science teachers and instruction. Teachers’ reports are given on their educational background, teaching preparation, and instructional practices. Information is also provided about how teachers spend their time related to teaching tasks, the materials used in instruction, the activities students do in class, the use of computers in science lessons, the role of homework, and the reliance on different types of assessment.


Teachers of science design and manage the learning environments that provide students with the opportunity needed to learn science. They structure the content and pace of lessons, introducing new material, selecting various instructional activities, and monitoring students’ developing understanding of the concepts studied. Teachers may help students use technology and tools to investigate scientific ideas, analyze students’ work for misconceptions, and promote positive attitudes towards science. They may also assign homework and conduct formal and informal assessments to evaluate achievement. To collect information about science instruction, TIMSS administered a questionnaire to teachers asking them about some of these issues.

Because the sampling for the teacher questionnaires was based on participating students, teachers’ responses do not necessarily represent all eighth-grade science teachers in each participating entity. Rather, they represent teachers of the representative samples of students assessed. It is important to note that when information from the teacher questionnaire is reported, the student is always the unit of analysis. That is, the data shown are the percentages of students whose teachers reported on various characteristics or instructional strategies. Using the student as the unit of analysis makes it possible to describe the science instruction received by representative samples of students. Although this perspective may differ from that obtained by simply collecting information from teachers, it is consistent with the TIMSS goals of examining the educational contexts and performance of students.

The teachers who completed the questionnaires were the science teachers of the students who took the TIMSS 1999 test. The general sampling procedure was to sample a mathematics class from each participating school, administer the test to those students, and ask both their mathematics and science teachers to complete a background questionnaire. Thus, the information about instruction is tied directly to the students tested and the specific science classes in which they were taught. In countries where students had separate teachers for the science subjects, all science teachers of the students in the sampled mathematics classes were asked to complete questionnaires. Sometimes, however, teachers did not complete the questionnaire assigned to them, so most entities had some percentage of students for whom no teacher questionnaire information is available. The exhibits in this chapter have special notations on this point. For a TIMSS 1999 participating entity (country, state, district, or consortium) where teacher responses are available for 70 to 84 percent of the students, an “r” is included next to the data. Where teacher responses are available for 50 to 69 percent of students, an “s” is included; where they are available for less than 50 percent, an “x” replaces the data.

What Preparation Do Teachers Have for Teaching Science?

This section provides information about background characteristics of science teachers, including age and gender, major area of study, and certification. Teachers’ confidence in teaching various science topics is also discussed.

As shown by the international average at the bottom of Exhibit 6.1, 61 percent of eighth-grade students internationally were taught by teachers between the ages of 30 and 49, 21 percent by teachers age 50 or older, and only 19 percent by teachers younger than age 30. In comparison, the United States had a relatively older teaching force, with 32 percent of students taught by teachers age 50 or older.

Most Benchmarking participants did not differ substantially from the international profile. However, Idaho, Oregon, the Chicago Public Schools, the First in the World Consortium, the Fremont/Lincoln/Westside Public Schools, and the Michigan Invitational Group had less than 10 percent of their students taught by teachers in their 20s. Similarly, Connecticut, Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, Chicago, the Fremont/Lincoln/Westside Public Schools, the Jersey City Public Schools, the Michigan Invitational Group, and the Southwest Pennsylvania Math and Science Collaborative had 65 percent or more of their students taught by teachers age 40 or older, compared with 51 percent internationally and 61 percent in the United States. On the other hand, the teachers in the Delaware Science Coalition were younger than the international average – 69 percent of the students had teachers under age 40 compared with 50 percent internationally.

Internationally on average, 58 percent of eighth-grade students had female science teachers, and 42 percent had male. However, in the United States and in Canada, Chinese Taipei, England, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Netherlands, the majority of students were taught science by male teachers. The Benchmarking participants varied quite considerably, with South Carolina, Chicago, and Jersey City having more than three-fourths of their students taught by female science teachers, and Oregon, the Fremont/Lincoln/Westside Public Schools, the Project SMART Consortium, and the Southwest Pennsylvania Math and Science Collaborative having more than 60 percent of their students taught by male science teachers.

Exhibit 6.2 presents teachers’ reports about their major areas of study during their post-secondary teacher preparation programs. Teachers’ undergraduate and graduate studies give some indication of their preparation to teach science. Also, research shows that higher achievement in science is associated with teachers having a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in science.(1) According to their teachers, however, US eighth-grade students were less likely than those in other countries to be taught science by teachers with a major area of study in science.

In countries such as the United States that offer eighth-grade science as a single general subject, 42 percent of students on average internationally were in a science class taught by a teacher whose major area of study was biology, 23 percent physics, 30 percent chemistry, 44 percent science education, 25 percent mathematics or mathematics education, and 30 percent general education. (Note that teachers can have dual majors, or different majors at the undergraduate and graduate level.) The United States was similar to the international profile, although with somewhat fewer students taught by physics and chemistry teachers and considerably more taught by teachers with a major in general education or some other area.

Among Benchmarking participants, in almost every jurisdiction the majority of students were in science classes in which the teacher’s major area was science education or general education. In addition, in eight of the jurisdictions – Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, the Academy School District, the Delaware Science Coalition, the First in the World Consortium, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and the Michigan Invitational Group – the majority of students had science teachers with a major in some other non-science subject. More than half the students in Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, Texas, the Academy School District, First in the World, the Fremont/Lincoln/Westside Public Schools, Naperville, and Rochester were taught science by teachers with a major in biology. Teachers with a major in physics or chemistry were rare; only in the Academy School District, Naperville, and Project SMART were more than 30 percent of students taught by such teachers.

In countries such as Belgium (Flemish), Chinese Taipei, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and the Russian Federation, where the science subjects are taught as separate courses, typically greater percentages of students were taught science by teachers with a major in the area they were teaching. On average across all the TIMSS 1999 separate-science countries, 85 percent of students were taught biology by teachers with a major in biology, 75 percent were taught physics by a physics major, and 87 percent were taught chemistry by a chemistry major.

To gauge teachers’ confidence in their ability to teach science topics, TIMSS constructed an index of teachers’ confidence in their preparation to teach science (CPTS), presented in Exhibit 6.3. Teachers were asked how well prepared they felt to teach each of 10 science topics (e.g., earth’s features and physical processes, chemical reactivity and transformation). There were three possible responses: very well prepared was assigned a value of three, somewhat prepared two, and not well prepared one. Students were assigned to the high level of the index if their teachers reported feeling very well prepared, on average, across the 10 topics (2.75 or higher). The medium level indicates that teachers reported being somewhat to well prepared (averages from 2.25 to 2.75), and the low level that they felt only somewhat prepared or less (averages less than 2.25). Because in some countries teachers specialize in separate science subjects, they could answer that they did not teach some of the topics. In computing the index value, topics that a teacher did not teach were excluded from the average.

In general, teachers reported only moderate confidence in their preparation to teach science, with just 20 percent of students, on average internationally, taught by teachers who believed they were very well prepared and another 41 percent by teachers somewhat to well prepared. On average across countries, 39 percent of students had teachers with a low level of confidence, and in three of the highest-performing countries, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea, more than half the students had teachers who felt only somewhat prepared or less. In the United States, science teachers generally reported greater confidence in their preparation than did their peers in other countries, with only the Czech Republic reporting greater confidence among the comparison countries. Despite this, however, teachers in the US overall and in many Benchmarking entities generally expressed much less confidence in their preparation to teach eighth-grade science than mathematics. In the US as a whole, 87 percent of the students had teachers who reported a high level of confidence in their preparation to teach mathematics,(2) compared with 27 percent for science. This figure for science ranged from 56 percent in the Academy School District to 14 percent in the Delaware Science Coalition across the Benchmarking entities, with half of them exceeding the national average. Teachers in a number of the lower-scoring jurisdictions reported relatively high levels of confidence in their preparation, possibly because they are teaching a science curriculum that is not very demanding.

Exhibit R3.1 in the reference section provides the detail for the 10 topics comprising the confidence in preparation index. Teachers were most confident in their preparation to teach biology topics, with more than 50 percent of students, on average internationally, having teachers who reported feeling very well prepared to teach these topics. Teachers had less confidence in their preparation to teach earth science topics, particularly the solar system and the universe. Between 45 and 51 percent of students across countries had teachers who reported feeling very well prepared to teach chemistry or physics topics, compared with 39 percent for environmental and resource issues and 34 percent for scientific methods and inquiry skills. Teachers in the United States overall expressed greater than average confidence in their preparation to teach topics in earth science, environmental and resource issues, and scientific methods and inquiry skills. The Benchmarking participants generally followed the pattern for the United States.

Exhibit R3.2 shows principals’ opinions about the degree to which shortages of qualified science teachers affect the capacity to provide instruction. On average internationally, principals reported that such shortages affect the quality of instruction some or a lot for 35 percent of students in countries with general/integrated science, and for somewhat fewer in the separate-science countries. In the United States, and among Benchmarking participants generally, relatively few students were in schools where such shortages affected instructional capacity. In Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, less than 10 percent of students were in schools with science teacher shortages, and in the Academy School District, the First in the World Consortium, the Fremont/Lincoln/Westside Public Schools, and Naperville, no students at all were reported to be in such schools. In the Michigan Invitational Group, however, 40 percent of students were in schools with science teacher shortages.

Teachers’ beliefs about science learning and instruction are to some degree related to their preparation. Exhibits R3.3 and R3.4 in the reference section show the percentages of eighth-grade students whose science teachers reported certain beliefs about science, the way science should be taught, and the importance of various abilities in achieving success in the discipline. In general, teachers revealed a fairly practical view of science. Across countries and Benchmarking entities, there was substantial agreement that science is primarily a practical and structured guide for addressing real situations, and that it is important for teachers to give students prescriptive and sequential directions for doing science experiments. Also across Benchmarking entities but less so across the comparison countries, there was substantial agreement that science is primarily a formal way of representing the real world. Benchmarking entities were less in agreement that some students have a natural talent for science and others do not. Teachers also generally agreed that all of the skills shown in Exhibit R3.4 (thinking in a sequential and procedural manner, being able to think creatively, understanding how science is used in the real world, and being able to provide reasons to support conclusions) are very important for students’ success in science.

How teachers spend their time in school is determined mainly by school and district policies and practices, but the perspectives they gain during their teacher preparation can also have an effect. Across countries, students’ science teachers spent only 58 percent of their formally scheduled school time teaching science, and 71 percent of their time teaching altogether (see Exhibit R3.5 in the reference section). Additionally, 10 percent was spent on curriculum planning, and about 20 percent on various administrative and other duties. The results for the United States as a whole and for most of the Benchmarking entities were very similar to the international profile.

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1 Goldhaber, D.D. and Brewer, D.J. (1997), “Evaluating the Effect of Teacher Degree Level on Educational Performance” in W. Fowler (ed.), Developments in School Finance, 1996, NCES 97-535, Washington DC: National Center for Education Statistics; Darling-Hammond, L. (2000), Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence, Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(1).
2 Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Gonzalez, E.J., O’Connor, K.M., Chrostowski, S.J., Gregory, K.D., Garden, R.A., and Smith, T.A. (2001), Mathematics Benchmarking Report, TIMSS 1999 – Eighth Grade: Achievement for US States and Districts in an International Context, Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

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