2 Science Groups Decide To Tackle Reforms Together

By Robert Rothman — March 17, 1990 7 min read

Two national groups working to effect large-scale changes in precollegiate science education have agreed to join forces to ease the implementation of their ambitious reform proposals.

The two projects involved are the National Science Teachers Association’s “scope, sequence, and coordination” program, which is advancing a course structure designed to replace the “layer cake” curriculum in secondary-school science, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061, which has outlined in a first-stage report what students should have learned in science, mathematics, and technology by the end of the 12th grade.

Under the joint agreement reached late last month, schools participating in the nsta project will use Project 2061’s report, “Science for All Americans,” as the basis for the content of their revised curriculum.

The six sites selected by the aaas to devise new forms of curricula and instruction based on the report will in turn consider the science teachers’ proposal as a possible structure for implementing the revised content.

“We are letting 2061 tell us what ought to be taught,” said Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the nsta “We are creating a structure in which it will be taught, and determining what the teaching method should be.”

“This will make it greatly easier” to implement the nsta plan, Mr. Aldridge said. “It will reduce our discussion on content, and allow us to focus on the problem of implementation, which we ought to be focusing on.”

F. James Rutherford, chief education officer at the aaas, said the nsta’s structure “may appeal to” several Project 2061 sites as a way of organizing natural-science coursework in grades 7-12. But he added that sites are free to come up with whatever structure they consider appropriate.

“We are looking for a variety of structures,” he said. “My guess is, one or more sites will adopt that or something like that.”

The joint effort, Mr. Rutherford predicted, will help spread the reform ideas and make schools across the country more receptive to large-scale changes.

“When we come along with our curriculum models,” he said, “if one or more have a structure like that [proposed by the nsta], it will be easier to get paid attention to.”

Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, director of the science- and engineering-education directorate of the National Science Foundation, which has funded both projects, called the agreement between the two groups “good news.”

“Any meaningful collaboration is excellent, especially if it produces quality materials and expedites the use of the materials,” he said.

Scrapping the ‘Layer Cake’

The nsta project, unveiled last year, calls for scrapping the course structure that has dominated science instruction for nearly a century. (See Education Week, April 12, 1989.)

In place of the traditional “layer cake” curriculum--one in which decreasing numbers of students study, sequentially, a year of biology, a year of chemistry, and a year of physics--schools in the nsta project will create a structure to enable all students to study each of the three subjects each year from grade 7 to grade 12.

The extended structure would enhance student learning, Mr. Aldridge explained, by enabling teachers to present material in greater depth and show the connections between science disciplines.

The revised course structure also would enable teachers to present material first in concrete form that students can understand more readily, he said, before introducing them to more abstract concepts.

“The fundamental problem with high-school biology, chemistry, and physics courses is that they are not coordinated, are highly abstract and theoretical, do not spend enough time on each subject, and do not use correct pedagogy,” Mr. Aldridge said.

The reform project is scheduled to be implemented this fall in three schools in Houston. It received an additional boost last month from the California Department of Public Instruction, which awarded $780,000 in grants to 100 high schools to begin planning and implementing the project. About 30 of the schools are expected to put it in place in September.

The local schools may choose from among four possible variations on the nsta plan, ranging from integrating all the disciplines in grades 7-12 to a model that emphasizes the effects of science and technology on society, according to Thomas Sachse, California’s science coordinator.

To ease the schools’ implementation efforts, he added, the state will hold conferences for participants and adjust assessment programs and college and university entrance requirements to ensure that they do not conflict with the project’s goals.

Agreement on Content

Linking the nsta project with Project 2061 would further ease its implementation by removing a major hurdle participating schools have faced, Mr. Aldridge said. Since he outlined his plan, he said, he and his advisers have wrestled with the question of what the content of the revised curriculum should be.

“We can’t get agreement on content,” he said. “It’s a very difficult business. I can see what Jim [Ruth8erford] went through.”

But such an agreement is essential to get his program off the ground, Mr. Aldridge added. “We don’t have time to spend determining what the content ought to be.”

The nsta director added that he did not foresee any conflicts between the two projects, since they share similar goals.

“He is concerned about applications; so are we,” Mr. Aldridge said. “He is concerned about teaching for understanding; so are we.”

To begin the joint project, he said, a team of teachers, scientists, and curriculum specialists that is currently designing a 7th-grade curriculum will examine their proposal in light of the outcomes recommended in “Science for All Americans.”

This summer, Mr. Aldridge added, similar teams, which are expected to design curricula for grades 8-12, are expected to meet with Project 2061 participants and write scope-and-sequence outlines based on that document.

“As we develop curricula,” Mr. Aldridge said, “we will use the outcomes in 2061, and goals derived from those outcomes, to determine the instructional materials appropriate for our project.”

Three Phases

In contrast to the quick implementation schedule for the nsta effort, Project 2061 was designed as a long-range undertaking.

When it was launched in 1985, aaas officials said the project was expected to last decades and to involve thousands of scientists, educators, and policymakers.

During its first phase, which culminated in the production of “Science for All Americans,” teams of scholars and teachers worked for three years to devise a “shared national vision of what Americans want their schools to achieve” in science, social science, mathematics, and technology. (See Education Week, March 1, 1989.)

In contrast to traditional curricula, the “common core of learning” outlined in the document focuses on the connections between scientific disciplines and on an understanding of scientific “habits of mind,’' rather than on specialized vocabulary and procedural details.

During its second phase, which is expected to last until 1992, teams of teachers and researchers at six sites--Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Diego, San Antonio, Greene and Oglethorpe Counties in Georgia,and McFarland, Wis.--are designing curricula and school structures for achieving the goals outlined in “Science for All Americans.”

Following the release of the proposed curricula, the participating schools, as well as any that may wish to join the project, will work, in the third phase, to begin implementing the proposed changes.

In addition to the formal project, Mr. Rutherford said, representatives from several states and districts around the country have told aaas officials they are using the document to remodel their science curricula. He said last week that he would like to set up a network to enable these schools to share ideas among themselves and with project participants.

“They may have some information for us,” he said. “They may have ideas we haven’t come up with.”

No Sense of ‘Urgency’

Mr. Rutherford added that he would encourage the Project 2061 teams to consider employing the nsta model.

“From our viewpoint, what they are doing is interesting,” he said. “It helps break up the syndrome of tightly packed year-long courses, and that’s helpful.”

“If that worked,” he added, “the project participants could build in math, and the other” subjects and grade levels involved in Project 2061.

Mr. Rutherford declined, however, to commit his participants to the use of the scope, sequence, and coordination structure, saying that they should continue to take the time to come up with new ideas before putting any changes in place.

“We want them isolated from having to prove they are doing good work yet,” he said. “We want to let them make mistakes, to go off in fancy directions.”

Despite the boost from the nsta, Mr. Rutherford added, the aaas will continue to stick to its timetable.

“Bill and others feel an urgency,” he said. “But what we are doing takes time. We are going to take that time.”