Panelists Flay Biology Curriculum As Outdated, Filled With 'Factlets'
Washington--The high-school biology curriculum used in most schools is a crammed and outdated "failure" that must be reworked to give students the basis for understanding such issues as aids, global warming, and genetic engineering, members of a National Academy of Sciences committee said here last week.
The 17-member panel of teachers, scientists, and teacher educators met at a conference that set in motion a year-long examination of precollegiate biology instruction.
A high-quality curriculum is essential, panel members said, since nearly all students take biology; for many, it is the last science course they will ever take.
But students' poor performance on national and international assessments, as well as low enrollments in advanced science courses, indicate that the current curriculum is inadequate, they asserted.
"We know that we are failing," said the panel's chairman, Evelyn E. Handler, president of Brandeis University. "Youngsters are deficient in their knowledge of biology, and are unable to relate what they learn to the rest of their lives."
"This is not a failure of the children," she continued. "It is a failure of public policy."
Ms. Handler and others termed the curriculum too abstract for many students, and said it failed to incorporate much of the recent "explosion" of knowledge in the field.
But its most serious flaw, panelists contended, is the inclusion of too many topics in too little time.
"The amount of material people have tried to put into high-school biology is not consistent with what high-school students, or college students, can assimilate in one year," said R. Stephen Berry, professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago.
Committee members said they had not yet agreed on any recommendations for solving these problems. But whatever proposals they adopt, Ms. Handler said, should ensure that the curriculum is appro4priate for all students, not merely those who plan to pursue a career in science.
"Students should acquire enough science literacy in high school to enable them to function as educated citizens in the body politic," she said. "If we are attempting to make them biologists in their first course, we are not going in the right direction."
Funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the committee was appointed last spring by the board on biology, a branch of the academy's commission on life sciences.
Its appointment represents, according to conference participants, a long-overdue attempt by the prestigious society to take a strong stand on precollegiate science education.
The effort is essential in light of students' low achievement levels in the field, Joseph D. McInerney, director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a Colorado-based curriculum-development group, told the committee.
American students ranked last among 16 nations studied in a recent international assessment, he noted, and newly published results from the 1986 National Assessment of Educational Progress science test showed that only 7.5 percent of high-school students are capable of college-level work in science.
"We do not need any more evidence to convince us that the present approach is unsatisfactory," Mr. McInerney said.
In addition, said Paul DeHart Hurd, professor emeritus of science education at Stanford University, scientists must find a way to enable the curriculum to accommodate recent advances in molecular biology, genetics, and other topics.
These advances have made biology even more complex than it already was, he said, yet the basic structure of the high-school curriculum has remained unchanged since Thomas Huxley wrote the first secondary-school textbook in 1878.
"The diversity of the field is greater than that of the other sciences," said Mr. Hurd, who serves as a spe8cial adviser to the committee. "Significant themes for general education are not easily identifiable."
"What is the cut," he asked, "through 20,000 journals and 400 years of knowledge that we can choose for 150 hours of instruction?"
Most committee members and conference participants agreed that curriculum developers have so far failed to make such judgments.
As a result, argued Bruce M. Alberts, chairman of the academy's commission on life sciences, the curriculum presents topics as a series of "factlets," rather than as a means for understanding the subject.
"If you include every topic in one year, you only spend half a day on Golgi bodies," he said. "You might as well not mention them at all."
The problem has been exacerbated by standardized tests, which emphasize factual recall, rather than comprehension, according to Charles W. Anderson, associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.
The overloaded curriculum has also weakened the quality of textbooks, which continue to define the curriculum for most teachers, added Mr. Hurd. Many texts now exceed 1,000 pages, he said, and can include as many as 2,400 vocabulary words--more than in most introductory foreign-language texts.
"Biology textbooks are the most beautifully illustrated dictionaries we have," he said.
To allow teachers to explore topics in greater depth, John A. Moore, professor emeritus of biology at the University of California at Riverside, argued that more curricular time is necessary.
"How can [legislators] say that solving the problems of a technological society will require a one-year high-school course in biology?" asked Mr. Moore, a member of the nas committee.
Alternatively, suggested Mr. Berry, the committee could consider emulating the British system, in which the three years of high-school science include aspects of biology, chemistry, and physics.
But other panel members contended that a proposal to increase the amount of biology instruction would meet resistance from other curricular organizations. Instead, suggested Clifton Poodry, the committee's vice chairman, the panel should consider recommending the elimination of some less-important topics.
"We have to decide what's important," he said.
One candidate for elimination, Mr. McInerney suggested, is taxonomy, the study of the various classifications of organisms, which has traditionally occupied a major role in the curriculum. This "forced march through the phyla," he said, has required students to memorize hundreds of terms without developing an understanding of life systems.
Conference participants also argued that the way the subject is taught must be overhauled.
Citing research findings that demonstrate the effectiveness of "hands on" instruction, Ms. Handler said teachers should shift from an reliance on textbooks and lectures to an emphasis on laboratory work.
But she and others acknowledged that such a proposal would be expensive and difficult to implement. The recent naep assessment found that fewer than half of teachers have access to laboratories, noted Ina V.S. Mullis, naep's deputy director.
And heavy teaching loads make it difficult to devote much time to indi4vidualized instruction, said Donna Oliver, a committee member who was the 1987 Teacher of the Year.
"I don't think teachers are not qualified or competent," said Ms. Oliver, who currently teaches in the education department at Elon College in North Carolina. "There is not enough time to do what needs to be done."
Other participants suggested that the curriculum should emphasize topics--including environmental and health issues--that would provide the subject matter with more relevance to students' lives than the traditional approach.
"Most Americans will encounter science [only] in its technological manifestations," noted Mr. McInerney.
But Marc Kirschner, professor of biochemistry at the University of California at San Francisco, warned that such an approach might dilute the scientific content of the curriculum.
As a middle ground, Mr. Berry of the University of Chicago suggested, the panel could recommend several curricular options.
"High-school biology serves many functions," he said. "There are many people for whom it is their last exposure to science. For some, it is a big step toward a career in medicine. For a few, it is their first step in a career in science."
"The objectives for each group are different," he said.