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Deans Seek Improved K-12 Science Teaching

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Arlington, Va.

More than 120 deans of education and science from colleges and universities across the country met here last week to talk about how to turn out better K-12 math and science teachers.

"The compelling issue is that we are seeing a lack of talented people interested in going into the sciences, and we want to change that," said John D. Petersen, the dean of the college of science at Wayne State University in Detroit. "But you can't wait until the freshman year of college to do something about it."

To take part in the forum, the campuses had to send top officials from both their schools of education and science. In some cases, it was the first time deans from the same institution sat down side by side to discuss their common stake in training tomorrow's teachers.

The Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science, at the request of the National Science Foundation, organized the forum in short order. The NSF gave the AAAS a $75,000 grant just two months ago to host the event.

What Standards?

"If we don't get together the people who are responsible for the content and the people responsible for training new teachers, we are never going to reform the system," said Shirley M. Malcom, the head of the AAAS's education and human resources directorate. "You've got to have all the relevant people in the room to have that conversation."

Over the course of the three-day meeting, the deans acknowledged the cultural gulf that separates them from each other--and separates higher education from K-12 public schools.

"I think most of the time if you say 'national science standards,' scientists say, 'What?"' one education school dean lamented.

Perhaps with this in mind, Rodger W. Bybee, the chairman of the National Research Council panel that recently released voluntary national standards in K-12 science, took to the lectern at one of the lunch sessions. After briefly explaining the history of the standards' development, he outlined a sample content standard delineating what students in grades 9 through 12 should know and understand about cells.

Rodney Reed, the dean of the education college at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, reeled off a list of sobering statistics, offering his fellow deans a reminder of the many challenges K-12 teachers face today. Each year, he told them, 350,000 babies are born to cocaine-addicted mothers, and those that survive have short attention spans, poor coordination, and other physical problems. Since 1987, about one-fourth of all preschool children have lived in poverty.

"What kind of skills are teachers going to have to have to get these kids ready to learn?" he asked the group.

Forming Partnerships

The participants also spoke of their struggles getting faculty members from different disciplines to put aside turf issues and talk to each other. And they grappled with how to restructure the tenure process to create more incentives for collaboration.

But the deans did hear from colleagues already working to lower the walls between the schools of education and science on their campuses.

Arturo Pacheco from the University of Texas at El Paso's college of education and John Bristol, his counterpart at the college of science, explained how the "closed loop" of teacher preparation in El Paso makes the need for collaboration crystal clear. Some 86 percent of students at the El Paso campus graduated from local public schools, and 80 percent of El Paso K-12 teachers earned their degrees from the local university.

Even so, the two deans admitted that some tasks--such as getting the math department to hire a math-education expert--have presented hurdles. "The first response from the math department was 'What for?"' Mr. Bristol recalled.

Frederick Stein, the director of the University of Colorado's Center for Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education, pointed to the standards movement as the driving force behind many of the emerging collaborations. "We have to send out teachers who, number one, know what the standards are, and, number two, know what material they could use in their lessons," he said.

Other issues the deans brought to the table included the need to make college and university professors more aware of the existing scholarship on pedagogy and how to use that knowledge to improve not only their own teaching but that of future teachers.

To that end, the deans, led by Susan A. Henry from the college of science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, decided to draft a letter to the editors of Science magazine, asking them to begin accepting scholarly manuscripts on science teaching.

"We believe that the issues of science literacy and improving science teaching on all levels are of great concern to the entire scientific community," they wrote. "Science, because of its international prestige and high standards of excellence, could play a significant role by bringing the most outstanding studies on these topics to the attention of the scientific community."

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