Teachers Termed Isolated From Science Community
Washington--The isolation of science teachers from the rest of the scientific community has a profound effect on the quality of science education, according to leading scientists and educators who met here this month.
The gathering--the National Forum for School Science, organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science--initiated what its sponsors intend to be an an-nual event bridging the worlds of school science, academic science, and scientific research to produce better instruction at the elementary and secondary levels. Nearly 400 participants attended this year's forum, which was funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Advances of the past two decades have "radically changed" the relation of science to technology and society, said F. James Rutherford, the chief education officer of the aaas, in an interview. "Science teachers," he said, "haven't a sense of that."
The forum is one of several recent aaas initiatives designed to increase communication between the scientific and education communities as a way to improve elementary and secondary programs in science and mathematics. (See related story on this page.)
A Call for Change
"American education is a huge enterprise, and one not easily changed," Mr. Rutherford said. The aaas's goal in undertaking its school-science initiatives, he added, is not to "change the school system," but to bring together scientists and educators at all levels to "increase the level of engagement of both sides."
The first national forum addressed issues related to science teaching. But according to Audrey B. Champagne, the forum's project director, plans call for a different focus each year. Science teaching will be the central topic every third year, she said, with the intervening forums devoted to learning goals and student achievement.
Forum staff members also plan to develop a data base to help in moni-toring science education.
Many of those attending the forum cited the school science teacher's lack of contact with the scientific community as the most critical issue in the field. And they held out little hope that the situation can be significantly altered under present circumstances.
The daily demands of teaching, said Gerald Skoog, president of the National Science Teachers Association and chairman of the secondary-education department at Texas Tech University, can produce a "deadening isolation from colleagues, the profession, and the community."
"As long as science teachers, or any teachers, are expected to teach five classes a day, five days a week, day after day, the energy needed for professional planning and development will be hard to come by," he said.
But Mr. Skoog and others also listed inadequate financial support as one of the demoralizing elements of teaching science in the schools.
"The level of support needed for science education does not exist,"4said Mr. Skoog, citing a recent survey of Texas science teachers showing that many lack access to such basic equipment as desks and filing cabinets. "In my career as a science teacher," he said, "I took those things for granted."
Several participants suggested that offering higher salaries to science teachers--a feature of some recent state and federal proposals to bolster science instruction at the school level--might offset such problems and demonstrate a public commitment to the field.
Paul E. Peterson, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, said differential pay scales for science teachers would also help alleviate the science-teacher shortage.
"The problems in math and science are much greater than in education as a whole," Mr. Peterson said. "If there is a decline in teacher quality, it's because these teachers are going into other professions.''
Science teachers today are faced with an imperative different from that of 25 years ago, said George Pimentel, the director of the chemical biodynamics laboratory at the University of California at Berkley. Then, he said science education could afford to concentrate on the scientifically adept students; today, it cannot.
The issue facing science teachers two decades ago, Mr. Pimentel said, was defined largely in terms of the Soviet Union's Sputnik launch. "They had something up there; we didn't," he said. "Our problem today is that all of society needs to be more scientifically literate."
He suggested that science educators concentrate their efforts at the middle-school level--what he called the "highest leverage spot in the school system." In the middle grades, he said, "students cannot opt out" of science classes. The middle school also "catches a cadre of teachers where we have the most chances to make advances" in teacher training, he added.
But Mr. Pimentel echoed the sentiments of many at the conference when he said that science education should not be "built around the topics to be tested by an achievement exam."
Science teaching should "encourage student inquisitiveness, comfortableness with uncertainty, and a desire to learn more," he said.
Erich Bloch, director of the National Science Foundation, said the nsf plans to spend more than $50- million next year on grants to "a variety" of precollegiate educational programs, giving preference to projects that establish partnerships between education and other areas, such as business and scienti-4fic-research enterprises.
Other conference participants joined Mr. Bloch in advancing the partnership concept of promoting science education. Those attending, for example, included members of the Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, a cooperative effort among scientists, engineers, educators, and representatives of industry to "make science and technology part of the nation's intellectual currency."
The group met in Washington prior to the forum to consider goals for 1986.
John Fowler, director of the Triangle Coalition and also director of special projects for the National Science Teachers Association, said the group's "major thrust is to identify, expand, and serve the network of broad-based local groups forming in this country to support science education."
The coalition plans to develop both a resource booklet and a national data base containing information on local alliances, he said.
The coalition's efforts symbolize, Mr. Fowler said, a change in attitudes among both business and education professionals. Formerly, he said, business executives "would have said the public schools are no business of ours," and school officials were "suspicious" of any interest by the business community in education.
"An important outcome of the coalition will be the relaxing of those tensions," Mr. Fowler predicted.