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Project 2061 Puts Big Mark On Curriculum

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A decade-long national science-reform project crafted by a federation of scientists has had a big impact on both national standards for science education and state curriculum frameworks, an independent study has found.

Project 2061, launched in 1985 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, produced both "Science for All Americans" in 1989 and "Benchmarks for Science Literacy" in 1993. The influence of those documents on the movement for voluntary national standards in science "is one of the project's most significant contributions," concludes the year-long evaluation conducted by SRI International of Menlo Park, Calif., and released last week.

"Project 2061's broad influence demonstrates its positive contribution to the national climate for science education reform," the report says. Taking concepts in different stages of development from different groups, it says, "Project 2061 wove these concepts together into one coherent, comprehensive, compelling vision of science literacy and disseminated the unified vision to a greater number of communities and audiences than ever before."

Some educators interviewed for the study, however, questioned the relevance of the project at the classroom level and the worth of any national standards or benchmarks.

With an annual operating budget of $3.5 million, Project 2061 takes its name from the year in which Halley's comet is next expected to swing by Earth--a way of illustrating the program's long-range vision for improving science literacy. It is based at the AAAS headquarters in Washington.

"Science for All Americans," which represented four years of work, defined the core of science that was most worth learning. It recommended that reform involve all children, all grades, and all subjects and called for connections among the sciences, mathematics, and technology, as well as between those disciplines and the arts, humanities, and vocational subjects.

"Benchmarks for Science Literacy" specified learning goals for grades 2, 5, 8, and 12.

Project 2061, which is promoted and financed in part by the National Science Foundation for use in the federal agency's 17-state reform initiative in science and math, has also profoundly influenced the work of science educators at the state level, the SRI evaluation shows. Ninety percent of the state leaders in science education who were interviewed for the new study said they use or refer to the benchmarks document in their daily work; nearly two-thirds said they use "Science for All Americans."

Those leaders--state science supervisors, leaders of professional associations, and curriculum-framework writers--said the most common use of Project 2061 is to help design curriculum standards or frameworks. States also used the project's documents to write curriculum materials and to plan teachers' professional development.

According to the report, the state leaders believe that the most influential aspects of Project 2061's strategy are that the benchmarks are geared toward all students; that there should be grade-specific goals based on research; that defining specific outcome goals is an important reform step; that science is best learned through performing science; and that Project 2061 tools can aid local curriculum efforts.

Questions Raised

Although generally positive, the SRI evaluation also uncovered some concerns and shortcomings.

Some experts interviewed for the study doubted the relevance of the two Project 2061 reform documents to teachers' daily classroom activities. They also wondered about the feasibility of having all students achieve the goals laid out in the benchmarks document.

Others, while supportive of Project 2061 overall, saw a contradiction, the report says, in Project 2061's advocating science as active learning and inquiry and at the same time providing a list of more than 800 benchmarks for students.

Still others challenged the concept of standards or benchmarks of any kind. "What are we supposed to do with these documents?" the report quotes one "well-known science educator" as asking.

Another science education reformer, when asked what difference it would make if the two Project 2061 documents did not exist, told evaluators: "None!" She argued that they are too remote from the everyday concerns and needs of teachers and students.

In Massachusetts, for instance, the AAAS benchmarks were a strong influence in the creation of the state's science curriculum frameworks, released last year, said Thomas Noonan, the administrator of the office of math and science at the Massachusetts education department.

But Mr. Noonan said that the Project 2061 documents have not yet become as directly useful or relevant to the classroom teacher. "I think in some schools, we're in an awareness stage only," he said of the local-level impact. The next step in Massachusetts, he said, is to implement the curriculum frameworks--and by extension the Project 2061 benchmarks--and start training teachers to use the documents.

The apparent lack of influence at the classroom level is "not surprising, because our approach isn't to develop classroom practices or materials," said F. James Rutherford, the director of Project 2061.

"Nevertheless," he said, "we really have to do a better job at communicating with the entire community of educators and citizens." He said Project 2061 personnel planned to have a greater presence at meetings of teacher professional organizations and to build awareness through publications and the Internet.

The nearly $300,000 evaluation also found that the world of textbook publishing has yet to subscribe fully to Project 2061's vision of science literacy.

Bulging Textbooks

Instead of following the idea of "less is more"--which emphasizes the inclusion of only the most important ideas within topic areas--publishers, the study found, have made only small changes in books. And they have simply added those changes to the already overwhelming volume of topics covered in a given science text.

That did not surprise science education reformers. "What tends to happen is textbook publishers need to capture the largest market," said Senta A. Raizen, the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, based in Washington. "They're obviously trying to satisfy anything that anybody says is important."

Mr. Rutherford said that not enough time has elapsed since the reform documents were published for textbooks to have been significantly converted.

"Our strategy is to gradually get [publishers'] attention and give them ways they can do their work differently as we work on ways to change the market," he said.

The Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts underwrote the evaluation and helps finance Project 2061. The project also receives funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City, and the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Free summaries of the SRI evaluation of Project 2061 are available from the AAAS, 1333 H. St., N.W., P.O. Box 2446, Washington, D.C., 20005; (202) 326-6666; or email project2061@aaas.org.

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