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Misconceptions, Mindsets Said To Impede Math, Science Reform

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Inverness, Calif.

Most of the many barriers to implementing effective programs for improving mathematics and science education in elementary schools have little to do with classroom practice and much to do with political problems and public misunderstanding, according to reform-minded urban educators gathered at an unusual conference here.

The invitational conference late last month provided a forum for teams of scientists, district administrators, and teachers from Baltimore; Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; New York; San Francisco; Pasadena, Calif.; and Las Vegas, Nev., to discuss strategies for enhancing elementary science and math teaching.

In a series of unusually frank discussions, proponents of inquiry-based elementary science said that despite political rhetoric touting effective science education, they must cope daily with distractions and frustrations that impede change.

Those problems, they said, include counterproductive federal programs; a frequent turnover of superintendents; budget cuts; apathy or even hostility toward science instruction from administrators and classroom teachers; and demands from lawmakers and the public for higher test scores rather than high-quality instruction.

"All of these urban districts are operating in an 'emergency room' situation,'' observed Andrea Bowen, the math and science coordinator for the Baltimore public schools.

"You do what you can to keep the patient alive ... and it may not be pretty,'' Ms. Bowen added.

Yet, in spite of these obstacles, Ms. Bowen and others here said that excellent hands-on science instruction for all students is an achievable long-term goal.

Representatives from Pasadena, for example, said that their successful collaboration with scientists from the California Institute of Technology to implement a hands-on approach in one school eventually convinced district officials to adopt the curriculum districtwide.

And despite continued reluctance on the part of some classroom teachers to implement the kit-based curriculum, it has been a widespread success.

"When my co-workers started threatening not to let students do science unless they behaved, then we knew it had to be working,'' said Irene Phillips, a Pasadena science-resource teacher.

But successful national reform will hinge on changing the cultures of individual districts, which generally emphasize the improvement of reading skills in elementary school and frequently do not monitor whether teachers are actually teaching science effectively, said Hubert Dyasi of the City College of New York, who supervises a teacher training program for a local district.

'Design for Instability'

Districts are "used to waiting out change,'' added Karen Worth of the Massachusetts-based Education Development Center, a consultant to the Cleveland schools.

"On the other hand,'' she continued, "they're very good at keeping programs in place, if they buy into [them].''

Sharing local frustrations and successes was a vital part of the three-day meeting, which was held to develop a network of urban officials who can share reform strategies.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the meeting was organized by Mark St. John, the president of Inverness Research Associates, a consulting firm that has evaluated some of the programs discussed here.

To explain what the network's goals should be, Mr. St. John chose a metaphor that seemed appropriate for a meeting held in a coastal town not far from the epicenter of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"We're trying to build a foundation on ground that continues to move underneath us,'' he said. "So [we] have to engineer and design for instability.''

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