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Published in Print: September 30, 1998, as Science FRICTION


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California's reading wars are legendary. But when a team of experts offered to help set its science curriculum, the state had a new fight on its hands.

Sacramento, Calif.

Setting education standards for math and science was supposed to be easy. As education scholar Diane Ravitch wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece during the debate over national standards: "Mathematics and science work according to the same principles regardless of the city, state, or nation. The airplane that just flew over my house doesn't care what country it is in; it works the same way in Austria, Nigeria, and Japan as it does in the United States."

But California's recent efforts to set academic standards have turned expectations on their head. The language arts and history/social science standards, which have inspired heated debates elsewhere, emerged from the state standards commission with little controversy. But the quest to arrive at a set of science standards--and math standards before them--has set off a nasty intellectual tussle.

California is certainly not the first state to write science standards; almost 40 have documents that describe what students should know and be able to do in the subject. But California's feud raises a worrisome issue at a time when education is heavily invested in the idea of standards-based reform: Writing science standards is not as easy as most people thought it would be.

And now, with a decision from the state school board due in days, the conflict has flared up again. Scientific societies from across the country are attempting to dissuade state board members from accepting the science document prepared by the standards commission.

What that document says likely will shape science instruction in California for years to come and probably will influence classrooms nationwide. With 5 million school-age children and 10 percent of the nation's textbook market, California's actions can't be ignored.The state has been moving toward high standards in science education--and never quite getting there--for the past 15 years. The process began in 1983, shortly after Bill Honig was elected state superintendent. It was a particularly unsettled time. A Nation at Risk, with its dire warnings of educational mediocrity, had just been published. International assessments ranked American students low in academic performance. Predictions of a collapsing education system seemed a telling rebuke to the Reagan administration's "Morning in America" optimism.

A forceful innovator, Honig instituted a number of far-reaching reforms. But his most important innovation focused on shaping what gets taught in the classroom. He created panels of teachers, experts from various academic fields, and members of the business community to rewrite the state's curriculum frameworks to describe a vision of what all students should know.

Honig's blueprint was one of the first clear statements of what has since become a touchstone in education. Other policymakers soon latched on to his idea of high and specific expectations as a driver of education reform. And by the end of the 1980s, at a historic education summit in Charlottesville, Va., convened by President Bush, the nation's governors agreed on the need to set high academic standards for all students.

The frameworks that California constructed under Honig, however, went beyond standards. They were broader and more discursive, encompassing both content and method of instruction. They were meant to determine what and how students should learn, which in turn would shape textbooks, staff development, and especially assessments.

The plan did not fare as well in practice as in theory. One big problem, many observers believe, was the frameworks' tendency to prescribe pedagogy. In science, for example, successive revisions of the frameworks moved progressively toward experiential learning, overarching themes, and a "less is more" philosophy toward content.

As the math standards staggered toward completion last fall, the commission put out a request for proposals for consultants to draft the science standards.

When such progressivism, especially in language arts, seeped into the statewide testing system, the public balked. In 1994, shortly before being re-elected, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson responded to widespread public criticism of the California Learning Assessment System, or CLAS, by killing the test.

California educators and policymakers decided that one reason for CLAS' failure was a lack of clear, easily measurable content standards. To change that, the legislature in 1995 created the academic standards commission, a group of 21 representatives from the scientific, academic, and parent communities. Wilson appointed 12 people to the commission; the new state superintendent, Delaine Eastin, appointed six and was named a commissioner herself; and the California Assembly and Senate each appointed one member.

From the beginning, the legislature wanted the commission to be as open as possible. "An explicit decision was made that this should be a public process, not one internal to the education community," says Scott Hill, the executive director of the commission. "It was supposed to be a Madisonian experience, where people with widely different philosophies would come together to fight over what the standards should be." As a result, the commission did not turn to task forces of educators to write the standards, as most states have done. Instead, it hired consultants to compile drafts, which the commission would then review and revise.

The legislature directed the commission to write standards in four areas: language arts and mathematics first, followed by history/social science and science. Given California's legendary clash in the 1980s over phonics vs. whole language, everyone geared for a battle over language arts. Surprisingly, mathematics emerged as the flashpoint.

A backlash against the existing math frameworks had been building for several years. Well-organized parent groups in Palo Alto, San Diego, and elsewhere had been protesting the gradual alignment of math instruction with the standards promulgated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In the views of those critics, the NCTM standards de-emphasize basic skills like computation and overemphasize discovery-based learning.

The commission's work on math standards became a lightning rod. Advocates testified at public hearings, packed commission meetings, and aired their arguments in the media. Newspaper articles and opinion pieces descended to the level of pitting "Third World-worshipping, standards-loathing" reformers against "math nazis." Wracked by dissent, the commission struggled toward consensus. Finally, with its deadline looming, it agreed on a document to forward to the state school board, though one commissioner felt compelled to append a minority report.

At the state board, the situation worsened. Made up entirely of Wilson appointees, the board felt that the proposed standards still slighted the basics. Two of its members edited the document to correct the problem, though opinion is still divided over how much the edits changed the standards. For example, the board changed one 3rd grade standard from "build up the multiplication table from 0 x 0 to 10 x 10 and commit to memory" to "memorize to automaticity the multiplication table for numbers between 1 and 10." Finally, last December, the board ended the protracted battle and approved the math standards.

Against this backdrop of bitterness and acrimony, the work of the commission's science committee began.

As the math standards staggered toward completion last fall, the commission put out a request for proposals for consultants to draft the science standards. Two groups of science educators and scientists applied for the job.

One, the Science Coalition, was led by Bonnie Brunkhorst, a professor of science education and geology at California State University-San Bernardino and a former president of the National Science Teachers Association. Members of her group generally favored the progressive-style reforms that have swept science in recent years, which made some of them chary about getting involved in standards-setting. Having watched the uproar over math, they knew the political climate did not favor their ideas. But they decided to try to work from the inside rather than from the outside. "We wanted to make the document as good as possible," says Art Sussman, the director of the Eisenhower Regional Consortium at WestEd, a federally funded education laboratory in San Francisco, and a leader of the San Bernardino group.

The commission hired both groups and asked them to merge their memberships to produce the drafts.

The other group, known as Associated Scientists, was led by Stan Metzenberg, an assistant professor of biology at California State University-Northridge. This group was stocked with advocates of more traditional teaching approaches. Its roster also featured three Nobel Prize winners--Harvard's Dudley Herschbach, Stanford's Henry Taube, and Glenn Seaborg.

Though Seaborg and the Associated Scientists offered to write the new standards for free, the commission voted in January to award the contract to the San Bernardino group, pointing to its experience producing standards and its more thorough proposal. The decision immediately was protested, and after considerable media coverage, the commission compromised. It hired both groups and asked them to merge their memberships to produce the drafts. The governor named Seaborg as both a member of the commission and the chairman of the panel that would review the consultants' work and then prepare it for a vote before the full commission.

Seaborg is an icon of science. Now 86, he is one of the last old-guard scientists who worked on the atomic bomb in World War II. In 1941, he discovered the element plutonium, which contributed to his 1951 Nobel Prize in chemistry. During the war, he headed the group that devised the processes used to produce the plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. In 1974, he discovered another unstable element, atomic number 106, which was recently named seaborgium.

Seaborg also has a longtime interest in education. A member of the national commission that produced A Nation at Risk, Seaborg and Harvard physics professor and historian Gerald Holton generally are credited with writing the report's most striking passages. And as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the chairman of Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science, Seaborg often has decried the sorry state of scientific literacy in America.

The decision to merge the two groups quickly ran into trouble. Though outwardly quite similar, the groups had radically different ideas about science education. Seaborg opened a commission meeting in June, for example, by announcing that he wanted to break the high school standards down by grade level, despite a previous agreement that the standards should cover grades 9-12 as a whole. He went on to fault what was then the current draft of the standards for not introducing astronomy in 1st grade, cells in 2nd grade, and atoms in 3rd grade, as is done in the Core Knowledge Sequence derived from the ideas of E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

"We've been trying very hard to make these standards rigorous," Seaborg said at the meeting, a tie with the periodic table of elements peeking from beneath his three-piece suit. "We want them to be well-coordinated so that in elementary school students are prepared for middle school, and in middle school they are prepared for high school. I believe that there's a tendency to underestimate what students can learn, and that's something I've been arguing against--people who want to take all of these things out because they say that children can't understand them."

The first major issue to emerge in the committee concerned how much content to include, particularly at the elementary level. From the beginning, Seaborg and his allies adhered to a "more is more" philosophy--both in terms of the amount of material covered and its depth at each grade. "I don't believe you can do harm by introducing material too early," says Metzenberg, the lead consultant for Associated Scientists. "There's a possibility that an idea might go over some students' heads and that they might be frustrated by that. But to say that things are made of objects too small to see and those things are called atoms, I don't think that hurts a child."

Vol. 18, Issue 4, Pages 24-29

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