Goal-Setting National 'Blueprint' Is Urged To Stem the Decline in Science Proficiency
Washington--Science educators and members of the Congress last week called for a clearer national "blueprint" for reversing the low levels of science achievement documented by a recent student assessment.
The leaders outlined here a proposed national policy that would provide "focused programs and clear goals" in science education.
Their action came a week after the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a report concluding that the majority of U.S. high-school students "are poorly equipped for informed citizenship and productive performance in the workplace, let alone postsecondary studies in science."
The results of naep's nationwide test of students in grades 3, 7, and 11 indicate that "science and technology education has simply become less than a girder in the educational infrastructure," said Representative Thomas C. Sawyer, Democrat of Ohio.
He was joined at a Capitol Hill briefing on the proposed policy initiative by another Ohio Democrat, Senator John Glenn, and by Representative Bill Green, Republican of New York.
John M. Fowler, director of the Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, noted at the briefing that though "the data are new, the situation is not new."
"Leaders have been aware of the state of science literacy for some time," he said. "But this massive problem has not been attacked at any level with the intensity, creativity, or level of resources needed to turn it around."
Mr. Fowler asserted that while "reform must happen at the local level, leadership must come from the top."
"How do we get people who have not experienced the benefits of science literacy to demand it for themselves?" he asked. "That takes leadership."
The proposed initiative, outlined in a policy statement prepared by the Triangle Coalition's Congressional task force, would provide such leadership on a national level, said Gary Allen, chairman of the task force. It would set goals for the nation's science-education programs, he said, and establish "standards" by which policymakers can evaluate reforms.
"We've had national assessments before," said Representative Sawyer. "They've produced a lot of hand-wringing and calls to do more. But we haven't yet had a blueprint" for needed improvements.
Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, also contended that though economic competitiveness has been a prominent theme of the Presidential campaign, neither candidate has offered an effective blueprint for providing the base of scientific literacy that would help achieve it.
Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee, has not responded to the association's proposals for improvements in science education, Mr. Aldridge said. And proposals put forth by the Republican nominee, Vice President George Bush, he added, "do not address the problem."
Mr. Bush has recommended the creation of specialty high schools for talented students, which could also serve as teacher-training centers.
But while that proposal might help a few students, Mr. Aldridge asserted, "the problem is science education for the general population."
The Triangle Coalition's policy statement is aimed, according to Mr. Allen, at providing "a convincing and clear statement of national policy, with focused programs and clear goals."
"What we propose is not a set of programs to address specific needs," he said.
The statement sets as a national goal the development of a broad pool of citizens who are "functionally literate" in science and technology.
To achieve this goal, it recommends that national policymakers target resources to "critical needs"--such as underserved students, undertrained teachers, neglected subject areas, and pivotal grade levels--rather than spread the support across school districts and disciplines.
Addressing these problems doubtlessly will require additional federal resources, Mr. Fowler said, but the most significant improvements are likely to come through local alliances between educators and businesses.
Walter L. Purdy, director of education services for the Edison Electric Institute, stressed, however, that while businesses can assist schools, "the change agents must be the education community."
"The key will be what takes place in the classroom day in and day out," he said.
'Purview of White Males'
The naep report highlighted the needs in science education that are most critical, Mr. Fowler and others argued.
The report found, for example, that minority and female students performed well below the levels of their white male peers, said Audrey B. Champagne, senior project director in the office of science and technology education at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The reasons for such gaps, "reside deep in American culture," she said. "Science is perceived as the purview of white males."
In addition, Ms. Champagne noted, "the resources required for teaching science well are generally not available," particularly for minority and female students.
Such problems are perhaps most acute for students in rural and urban schools, said Greg Crosby, associate director of the Triangle Coalition.
Elementary science classes in these areas, he noted, "are twice as likely as those in suburban areas to take place in classrooms with no science equipment."
The naep report also corroborated recent studies that have found that many science classrooms are staffed with unqualified teachers, and that many schools fail to offer science instruction at all, particularly in the physical sciences.
"At the present time, many science teachers, unfortunately, are being assigned or reassigned to teach subjects for which they are not adequately prepared," said LaMoine L. Motz, president of the nsta
This situation is likely to get "far worse" over the next few years, Mr. Aldridge said, as many current teachers reach retirement age and enrollment increases force schools to add science classes.
"I don't know where we're going to get people to teach those classes," he said.
'Pulling One Leg'
The nsta has urged that the National Science Foundation develop fellowship programs for science teachers in schools with a majority of disadvantaged students, and multi-year summer institutes for high-school teachers.
Other educators argued last week that the naep findings also suggest the need to overhaul the science curriculum in most schools.
"Many school districts have not adopted a proper approach to science," said Mr. Motz of the nsta, "one that describes science as an experience, utilizing inquiry and discovery skills."
Curricular reform must be accompanied by new tests that measure higher-order skills, rather than simple factual recall, added Mr. Aldridge.
"We can attribute a lot of the failure [in the naep results] to testing that measures trivial skills," he said.
Mr. Fowler stressed that such reforms must begin at the elementary level, where students' attitudes toward science develop.
"Without changes there," he said, "improvements in other levels will be much harder to come by."
It is also crucial, argued Senta A. Raizen, director of the NationalCenter for Improving Science Education, that all of the proposed reforms occur at the same time.
"It's not enough," she said, "to change the curriculum, assessment, how teachers are educated, whatprincipals think a good classroom looks like, the expectations of school boards, or the materials distributed to teachers."
"Pulling on one leg doesn't do the trick," Ms. Raizen said.