Sciences Group Unveils Plan To Revise Curricula
Washington--The American Association for the Advancement of Science last week launched a major school-reform initiative that is expected to extend over decades and involve not only a curricular remolding but changes in teacher training, course materials, testing, and school organization.
The initiative moves the aaas's Project 2061--named for the date of the next appearance of Halley's Comet--into its implementation phase. It was described at a press conference here in which leaders in the scientific and education communities unveiled a blueprint for learning developed over three years from the work of several panels of scholars.
The report, "Science for all Americans," represents, it says, a "shared national vision of what Americans want their schools to achieve'' in science, mathematics, and technology.
William O. Baker, co-chairman of the 26-member committee that compiled the report, said that the project's scientific-literacy goals were an essential ingredient of any plan for regaining the country's competitive edge in the world market.
"We can't wait any longer for the treatment of deficiencies, which are deadly," said Mr. Baker, former chairman of the board of AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories Inc.
"It isn't that we don't know what to do," he asserted. "It's absolutely certain we're not yet doing it."
The report's blueprint of essential learning goals--what it calls a ''common core of learning"--stresses the connections among scientific disciplines, rather than the boundaries between them.
It encourages schools to emphasize ideas and thinking skills over the specialized vocabulary and procedural detail that most students now are expected to memorize.
"This is an effort to move schools away from teaching mountains and mountains of disaggregated pieces of information," said F. James Rutherford, the project's director, "and push them in the direction of cogent explanations of how the world works."
As a next step, he said, project officials will work with teams of teachers and scholars at six sites around the country to develop curricular models for achieving the goals set forth in the report.
Subsequently, the aaas plans to work with officials in those and other school districts to implement the models through changes in teacher training, testing, materials and technology, school organization, and state and local policies.
At a January meeting in San Francisco, educators said that the project has the potential to lead to "revolutionary" changes in the way science is taught. But they warned that the association faces substantial obstacles in implementing its ambitious plans. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1989.)
Project 2061 was first undertaken in 1985 with a $923,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and a $400,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
It was aimed, according to the report released last week, at helping the nation achieve scientific literacy--a "central goal of education'' that so far "eludes us in the United States."
"A cascade of recent studies has made it abundantly clear," the report says, "that by both national standards and international norms, U.S. education is failing to adequately educate too many students--and hence failing the nation."
Specifically, it notes that many teachers are inadequately prepared to teach science, and that even if they are well-prepared, their "crushing teaching loads" make it impossible to teach the subject well.
Moreover, it states, textbooks and current methods of instruction, "far from helping, actually impede progress toward scientific literacy."
"They emphasize learning of answers more than the exploration of questions," the report states, "memory at the expense of critical thought, bits and pieces of information instead of understandings in context, recitation over argument, reading in lieu of doing."
To turn the situation around, the report argues, will take a sustained effort to retrain teachers, develop new curricular materials and forms of testing, and restructure schools to accommodate new methods of instruction.
But, it notes, "a necessary first step in achieving systematic reform in science, mathematics, and technology education is reaching a clear understanding of what constitutes scientific literacy."
To achieve such an understanding, the aaas board of directors in 1985 named the 26-member panel of scientists and educators that compiled the new report. Its membership included such leading educators as Judith E. Lanier, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University and chairman of the Holmes Group, Ted Sanders, Illinois superintendent of education, and Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
The panel, known as the National Council on Science and Technology Education, was charged with answering the question: "Out of all the possibilities, what knowledge, skills, and habits of mind associated with science, mathematics, and technology should all Americans have by the time they leave school?"
The council consulted reports from five panels of scholars, who had developed statements on learning goals in biological and health sciences, mathematics, physical and information science and engineering, social and behavioral sciences, and technology. Council members also sought advice from a range of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, historians, and educators.
The result of their work represents a consensus that, in the report's words, "fairly reflects the views of the scientific community."
Specifically, the council concluded that "the scientifically literate person is one who is aware that science, mathematics, and technology are interdependent human enterprises with strengths and limitations; understands key concepts and principles of science; is familiar with the natural world and recognizes both its diversity and unity; and uses scientific knowledge and scientific ways of thinking for individual and social purposes." (See excerpts on page 23.)
The proposed learning goals are appropriate for all Americans, the report adds, regardless of their backgrounds or career aspirations. But it notes also that the recommendations are "deliberately ambitious, for it would be worse to underestimate what students can learn than to expect too much."
"The national council is convinced that--given clear goals, the right resources, and good teaching throughout 13 years of schooling--essentially all students will be able to reach all the recommended goals by the time they graduate from high school."
In addition to recommending changes in the content of instruction, the report suggests that the way science and math is taught should be rethought to make it "consistent with the nature of scientific inquiry."
Teachers, it says, should start with questions about nature, engage students actively, allow them to work in teams, and deemphasize the memorization of technical vocabulary.
"For teachers to concentrate on vocabulary," it warns, "is to detract from science as a process, to put learning for understanding in jeopardy, and to risk being misled about what students have learned."
In addition to releasing the project's goal-setting report, aaas officials also announced last week the launching of its second phase.
During that phase, which is expected to last three years, teams of 25 teachers in six locations nationwide will develop model curricula for achieving the goals outlined in "Science for All Americans."
The locations include: San Diego; San Francisco; San Antonio; Greene and Oglethorpe Counties in Georgia; McFarland, Wis.; and an Eastern city yet to be named.
Phase II of the project will be underwritten by a $1.9-million grant from the National Science Foundation and a $700,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation.
It will also benefit from $1.1 million worth of computer equipment donated by the International Business Machines Corporation, with participating states and school districts providing additional funding.
In Phase II, teachers and administrators will work several days each month and during summers with scholars at nearby universities to develop "blueprints for action," according to Mr. Rutherford.
Deborah Larson, a high-school English teacher in the McFarland, Wis., schools, attended last week's press conference and expressed her enthusiasm for the project.
"This is the first time I have been given the time and resources to dream in a creative way," she said.
Copies of "Science for All Americans" are available for $14.50 each, with discounts for multiple orders. Copies of the five panel reports are $8.50 each; a complete set of all six reports costs $35. Contact: aaas Books, Department 2061, P.O. Box 753, Waldorf, Md. 20604.