Many Science-Reform Paths Open to Districts
Port Charlotte, Fla.
When a team of teachers in the Charlotte County school district set out on a comprehensive revision of the science curriculum last year, they were delighted to get an offer of help from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In agreeing to become a test site for the association's voluminous "Benchmarks for Science Literacy,'' though, the Florida district took a decisive step down just one of the several paths that lay ahead of it and other districts struggling to revitalize the teaching of science.
With at least five separate national efforts to improve K-12 science instruction currently under way, the choice that the system here faced is likely to pose difficult questions for school officials across the country as well.
For Eileen Harris, the curriculum supervisor for the 15,000-student district, the choice was largely determined by Science for All Americans, the association's reform manifesto and the basis for the benchmarks.
"When I read Science for All Americans,'' Ms. Harris said, "I thought, whoa--this is powerful stuff.''
As a result, Ms. Harris late last year hosted the first of a series of national workshops that association officials hope will help teachers turn the benchmarks into a usable blueprint for classroom instruction.
"They asked us, 'Would you mind being a guinea pig?''' said Ms. Harris. "We said we'd love it.''
Just over a year later, the curriculum-revision team still is hard at work attempting to craft the concepts outlined in the benchmarks into a single, cohesive K-12 curriculum. Team members are picking and choosing the concepts that seem most relevant to the district's instructional goals.
In settling on Project 2061, as the association's overall science-reform project is known, for its blueprint, Charlotte County rejected by default the other national reform plans.
The problem is that many districts are searching so eagerly for a template to guide their reform efforts that they may be seizing on one without considering the various alternatives now in development.
And those involved in the national reforms themselves agree that districts often are so confused about the merits of the various proposals that they are at a loss to determine which will meet their individual needs.
The result, some experts warn, is that the effort to meet the national goal of world pre-eminence in mathematics and science may well be a protracted and confusing shakeout in which different approaches to reform are tested through trial and error.
Reform Through Osmosis?
As efforts to establish national standards for what students should know and be able to do in nearly a dozen subjects begin to bear fruit, some observers already are worried that the enormous quantity of information produced by the various projects will inundate local educators. (See Education Week, Jan. 19, 1994.)
Perhaps nowhere else in the curriculum is the problem as acute as in science, where several independent initiatives are attempting to improve the dismal performance of the nation's students in science.
There are common themes shared by such national initiatives as Project 2061 and the Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science project of the National Science Teachers Association.
Most, for example, emphasize hands-on science and stress a "less is more'' approach to content.
Yet it is far from clear how the various projects relate to one another and whether any single project will emerge as a dominant approach.
"A lot of districts think they're taking a little bit from Scope and Sequence and a little from Project 2061 and, by osmosis, coming up with a reform plan,'' said Bill G. Aldridge, the executive director of the science teachers' group.
But often there are important philosophical differences between the projects, Mr. Aldridge argued, that make such an approach problematic.
Mr. Aldridge said he worries that proponents of instilling science literacy may be adopting that approach because they do not believe that all students, in particular minority students, can learn to perform meaningful science.
While voicing support for Project 2061, the N.S.T.A. has published a guide outlining the ways in which that project differs from its own Scope and Sequence.
Comets and Layer Cakes
The national science-reform initiatives include:
- Project 2061, which takes its name from the year when Halley's Comet will return to the solar system. It is designed to foster creation of a scientifically literate citizenry.
Officials of the A.A.A.S. acknowledge that the benchmarks do not cover more intensive coursework in specialized areas that schools may decide to offer to students with a particular interest in science.
Unlike some other reforms, Project 2061 also specifies that science programs should include some concepts from math and social science.
The association does not require districts to adopt the benchmarks in their entirety.
While encouraging flexibility on the local level, however, that approach runs the risk that a district's final curriculum may resemble the benchmarks in name only.
"We're not going to need all of the benchmarks because there are too many of them,'' Ms. Harris of Charlotte County said. "I don't want teachers to think they're teaching the benchmarks.''
- The science teachers' Scope and Sequence project,which is funded largely by the National Science Foundation. The initiative aims to abolish the traditional "layer cake'' curriculum of biology, chemistry, and physics and replace it with a "circular'' curriculum in which every student would study some aspect of each subject every year.
The project suffered an embarrassing setback last year, when the foundation declined to finance the N.S.T.A.'s application to expand the project to the high school level, essentially leaving it without financial support. The foundation has since agreed to support a drastically smaller version of the project, however. (See Education Week, June 2, 1993.)
- The N.S.F.'s systemic-initiative programs for states, major cities, and rural areas, which seek to encourage widespread reform of math and science instruction through collaboration between schools, business, and government.
The systemic initiatives have been well received. But some participants have argued both that they involve too much top-down oversight by the N.S.F., and that the federal foundation itself has no clear vision of what the programs should achieve. (See Education Week, April 13, 1994.)
- National standards for science content, teaching, and assessment being developed by the National Academy of Sciences.
The National Research Council, an arm of the academy, is expected to release its long-awaited first full draft of the standards next month.
The document is expected to synthesize elements of Science for All Americans, California's well-regarded state science framework, and Scope and Sequence. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1994.)
- The New Standards Project, a national effort to drive reform through the development of effective performance assessments. The project recently lured Elizabeth K. Stage, who helped develop the California framework and oversaw a lengthy review process for the National Research Council's standards, to help launch a science-reform initiative. (See Education Week, Nov. 3, 1993.)
Hard To Reverse
For the Charlotte County schools, like many small districts, the decision to embrace Project 2061 would be difficult to reverse.
"Big districts have more money, and they're constantly into curriculum,'' Ms. Harris noted. "When the little districts pick up on a reform, they tend to stay with it.''
Although they reviewed drafts of Scope and Sequence, Charlotte County school officials were concerned that any meaningful product would not appear for many years.
"We wanted to get started on this project,'' Ms. Harris said. "We just didn't want to wait.''
Ms. Harris said she was not familiar with the National Academy of Sciences' efforts to develop standards. But she expressed skepticism of the value of such a project.
"I don't think that the National Academy of Sciences could possibly come up something better'' than the A.A.A.S. benchmarks, she said.