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


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Several influential committee members threatened to write a minority report that they would present to the state board.

Mr. Seaborg, and others in the Associated Scientists group, do not reflect the consensus of the larger scientific community, says Ramon Lopez, the director of education for the American Physical Society in College Park, Md. Considering California's vast influences on textbook and curriculum development nationally, the state board should not endorse a document that many scientists disapprove of, he argues.

"Scientists understand that you learn science by doing science," says Mr. Lopez, whose group is leading the latest campaign against the proposal. "Simply by the breadth of the content material and the prescriptive level of detail, it is very difficult to imagine that teachers will be able to do much more than have kids memorize things."

Another point of contention among standards commission members involved the structure of science classes. Early drafts of the document combined the standards for grades 6-8. That way, each school could decide when to teach earth science, life science, and physical science and whether to teach the subjects in an integrated or disciplinary fashion.

Such clustering of standards was criticized by Seaborg and others. The original legislation had called for grade-by-grade standards, though standards documents for other subjects already had ignored that edict. What's more, standards that span several grades would make it difficult for test-makers to design the companion assessment system.

The committee almost splintered over the issue. Joining Seaborg among the dissenters was Hoover Institution fellow Bill Evers, the commissioner who had written the minority report on the math standards. Together, they threatened to write another minority report that they would present to the state board. "All of our work was colored by that threat," says Sussman of the Science Coalition. "It weakened the position of [our] group. We knew we could win some battles within the commission that we would lose with the board." Reluctantly, the advocates of clustered standards agreed to have students study earth science in 6th grade, life science in 7th grade, and physical science in 8th grade.

But several on the science committee remained uncomfortable with such a traditional tack. Mike Aiello, an award-winning biology teacher at San Luis Obispo High School, pointed to the recent poor showing of American students on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study as proof of the need for an integrated approach. "The lesson of TIMSS is that we ought to build on these subjects each year," he says. "That way, as kids move through the system, they will retain more knowledge, and we won't have to reteach so much."

Slowly a compromise began to emerge. The standards would continue to focus on a separate discipline in each of the three grades. But each grade would include strands from the other two disciplines. For example, sections titled "Earth and Life History" and "Physical Principles in Living Systems" were added to the 7th grade standards for life science.

The final major controversy revolved around the high school standards. The first draft included an enormous amount of material. A single example from a single discipline, physics: "Students know that the force on a moving particle (with charge q) in a magnetic field is qvBsin(a) where a is the angle between v and B (v and B are the magnitudes of vectors v and B, respectively), and students use the right-hand rule to find the direction of this force."

During the standards commission's two years of work, the media often characterized the disagreements as a split between scientists and science educators.

Teachers on the committee said it would be impossible to teach all students all that material. As Aiello puts it, "If you don't give people something that's a reasonable stretch, a lot of people will just say, 'Forget it.'" After lengthy discussion, another compromise was reached. Some of the standards would be marked with asterisks, indicating that those items were optional. Students would be expected to master all the standards without asterisks. In addition, high schools would be expected to offer all the asterisked material for students who planned to go on in science. And in a final twist, the committee recommended that all students master the asterisked standards in at least one scientific discipline.

Seaborg had a problem with the plan. He believed that far too many items remained optional. "The standards would be strengthened by removing the asterisks on some of the 9-12 standards to raise the level of expectations for all students," he told the other commissioners.

During the standards commission's two years of work, the media often characterized the disagreements as a split between scientists and science educators. Outsiders also often blamed the commission's differences on politics. But the lines were not nearly that clear.

Many of the commissioners and consultants caution against dividing the group into two separate camps. "It makes for good arguments," says WestEd's Sussman. "But it doesn't do much to resolve the issues."

Metzenberg agrees. "There are polar extremes on many of these issues, and both extremes are wrong."

Still, the commissioners had profound differences on issues that go to the heart of education--instructional style, the appropriate age at which to introduce material, the best way to assess student learning, and the interpretation of research. Their frequent clashes were rooted in fundamental disagreements over what and how children should learn.

On one side, says Bill Evers of the Hoover Institution, are people who emphasize the content of science instruction. On the other are those who focus on inquiry as a means of learning science. "The content-rich group believes that instruction should be mostly the conveying of objective knowledge," explains Evers, a Seaborg ally on most issues. "That doesn't necessarily mean rote memorization. But memorization doesn't strike them as counterproductive. So the lecture method, while it shouldn't occupy 100 percent of a class, could be used to convey knowledge, and they would be comfortable with that."

In his formulation, the opposing camp focuses on the process of doing science. Members of this group believe that students master content largely from doing projects in which they can rediscover scientific concepts for themselves, Evers says.

Bonnie Brunkhorst, the lead consultant for the Science Coalition, rejects Evers' distinctions. "We're all in favor of students learning content, and it's irresponsible to say that any one group favors content more than any other," she says.

The two also disagree over the issue of age-appropriateness.

Brunkhorst insists that introducing certain scientific ideas to students too early is counterproductive. "When we know from generations of experience that most students cannot learn a particular abstract concept when they are 5 years old, it's not responsible to say that we're going to teach them that concept anyway. You need to focus attention on what students can learn and then leave open opportunities for them to learn more."

For his part, Evers says the notion has been overblown. "Young people have open minds. So students are being cheated by not getting a full range of instruction in the younger grades. Instead of talking about what's age-appropriate," he argues, "we should be talking about what's intellectually appropriate."

Good science classes require well-trained teachers, up-to-date materials, a supportive school system, and time to do the job right.

Instructional methods and assessments are additional points of difference between the two. Lectures should be just part of the instruction mix, Brunkhorst believes. And assessments should consist of multiple measures, not the straightforward tests of content mastery favored by Evers.

These are not easy issues to resolve. Evers terms the research base favoring inquiry-based learning "a joke." But he admits that research supporting direct instruction is equally deficient.

Counters Brunkhorst: "For the last 100 years, we have practiced a traditional approach to teaching, and we have a rich base of evidence that this approach has not worked. It might have worked for the Glenn Seaborgs of the world, but we haven't succeeded in making science usable for the general population. What more evidence do we need than the millions of students who have come through our educational system without learning science?"

T here were times during the standards-writing process in which the differences among the commissioners appeared insurmountable. The process seemed on the verge of breaking down.

But it did not. In the month before the commission's July 1 deadline for turning the standards over to the state school board, members of the science committee held a flurry of telephone conference calls and hurried meetings near airports. They added some content at the elementary school level, smoothed out the disciplinary strands at the middle school level, and agreed on what should carry an asterisk at the high school level.

On the day before the final scheduled meeting of the full commission, the committee decided that the standards were ready to go.

First, though, all the commissioners had to vote on the standards. The tally was 16 in favor, none opposed, and two abstaining. (Three commissioners were not present.) One abstention was from La Tanya Wright, a parent and home schooler who worked on the history/social science standards. Ms. Wright was concerned about the optional items, given that the standards were meant to apply to all students.

Seaborg also abstained. He continued to contend that too many of the high school standards had asterisks. And he insisted that the high school standards should be broken down by grade and discipline, with biology in 9th grade, chemistry in 10th, physics in 11th, and earth science in 12th.

After the commission's final meeting, the state board told the members that their job was over. Originally, they were to have converted the content standards into performance standards, which would then have been converted into tests. But the governor pressured the commission to relinquish that task to the school board.

Even though their job is completed, the commissioners wonder if their effort will have an impact. Good science classes require well-trained teachers, up-to-date materials, a supportive school system, and time to do the job right. A sheaf of standards sitting on a shelf doesn't magically produce those things. "This commission can write standards, but that doesn't mean anyone's going to do anything," Aiello says.

Nor do standards provide the resources many say are needed to improve California's overall education performance. The state remains in the bottom third of the nation in per-pupil spending, for example. "The educational system is entrusted with achieving high standards but is not given the resources to deal with all the problems it faces," says Hill, the commission's executive director.

Still, the commissioners were generally pleased with their work. Even Seaborg praised the standards as "challenging," despite the reservations that led to his abstention from the final vote.

"It's been a difficult process," concludes Hill, "but this is democracy in action."

Vol. 18, Issue 4, Pages 24-29

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