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Scientists Protest Exclusion From Standards Writing

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Nearly three dozen prominent scientists, frustrated by their lack of influence over how science is taught in schools, are protesting a California commission's recent rejection of their proposal to write the state's content standards in the subject.

The Associated Scientists, a group headed by three Nobel Prize winners, filed a formal appeal with the state this month after another group, dominated by educators, was chosen to write the science standards. The appeal could postpone work on the document until next month.

"The 'dumbing down' of science in school curricula has prevented most productive dialogue between scientists and K-12 teachers, and is a continuing source of frustration and disappointment," the group wrote in its proposal. "School districts, through their adoption of science standards that lack any value to actual scientists, exclude and repel the very individuals who could help them improve and excel."

The group, which is co-chaired by Glenn T. Seaborg, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and a co-author of the influential 1983 report A Nation at Risk, claims the commission unfairly judged its proposal.

The dispute has drawn comparisons with one surrounding the state's math standards, which has pitted those who want a more traditional, content-based approach to teaching the subject against educators who favor newer, more hands-on methods. ("Math Showdown Looms Over Standards in Calif.," Nov. 5, 1997.)

A state-appointed commission that has been charged with producing California's first-ever standards in four core subjects must submit proposals for science and social studies to the state school board by next summer. The state board approved the commission's proposed language arts standards Nov. 13; the board is expected to vote on math standards next month.

Better Qualified?

The state standards commission this month voted unanimously to select a group led by scholars at California State University-San Bernardino. Commission officials say that the selection had nothing to do with ideology. The chosen group, headed by science educators and others who have contributed to the writing of national science standards and the state's Challenge Standards, is more qualified for the job, they say.

The criteria for the contract required that the group have at least two years' standards-writing experience, significant content-area expertise, demonstrated ability in group decisionmaking, a formal staffing plan, and a budget.

While the Associated Scientists met the criteria in content-area expertise, and offered to write the standards for free, the group did not have enough experience in the other areas, commission officials say. The commission will pay $178,000 to the San Bernardino group, which boasts its own Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

"Our mission is raising the standard for all students and producing those standards by bringing in the best expertise of both educators and scientists, and using a process of review and consensus," said Bonnie J. Brunkhorst, an education and science professor at Cal State-San Bernardino who will act as project director.

But Stan Metzenberg, an assistant professor of biology at California State University-Northridge who organized the scientists' group and serves as its co-chairman, said many educators lack the scientific background to produce rigorous content standards."We fear [the other group] will develop standards that are more fuzzy," Mr. Metzenberg said.

He points to one example for grades K-2 in the physical sciences section of the state's Challenge Standards, voluntary standards that have been piloted in about 50 of the state's 1,000 districts. "They have students going around the room figuring out what is hot and what is cold," Mr. Metzenberg said. "That is pretty lowbrow stuff, even for young students."

The state's general services department will review the commission's evaluation of both proposals to see if the selection process was fair. If it finds fault with the process, the commission will have to re-evaluate the proposals.

Web Only

Web Resources
  • The National Academy of Sciences provides an on-line version of the national science education standards, which stress the application of the scientific method to students' everyday lives. statement from the National Academy of Sciences on the importance of including scientists in the process of drafting standards for science education.
  • From the American Association for the Advancement of Science, read about Project 2061 which aims to forge a K-12 curriculum from the science literacy goals for high school graduates.
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