Academy Calls for a Panel to Oversee Efforts to Reform Science Education

By Peter West — December 10, 2015 4 min read

‘Pivotal Place’

Lasting improvements in the way science is taught in the schools will come about only if a national body of scientists and science educators is charged with monitoring and improving reform efforts, a report released last week by the National Academy of Sciences concludes.

The report on high-school biology, written by a 13-member committee of the academy’s National Research Council, says that the teaching of biology and the other sciences is plagued by a host of problems documented by numerous studies over the past decade. It cites inadequate textbooks, poorly trained teachers, and ineffectual testing methods, among other deficiencies.

“Simply put,” Timothy H. Goldsmith, the committee’s chairman, said at a press conference here, “curricula and textbooks are typically exercises in memorization rather than an intellectual voyage of exploration—an unproductive system that is reinforced by efforts to measure success and accountability by pedantic standardized tests.”

Changes in the system have not come about, the report contends, because “the scientific community is fragmented into many disciplines that rarely discuss with each other questions of either instruction or curriculum.”

“We are certain ... that the necessary changes cannot be made,” the committee writes, “unless there is a permanent organization to monitor and organize them.”

Although the committee began its work by studying the condition of biology education specifically, “the thrust of our analysis and most of our recommendations have importance for teaching and learning all of the sciences, and in some respects even non-scientific subjects as well,” said Mr. Goldsmith, a professor of biology at Yale University.

The report, “Fulfilling the Promise: Biology Education in the Nation’s Schools,” notes that the panel initially focused on the teaching of biology because “in most schools, biology occupies a pivotal place in the curriculum at the start of the high school sequence of courses.”

It also suggests that, because the content of biology courses ought to be “intrinsically interesting” to children, the subject could reasonably be expected to be a popular and meaningful course of study that would elicit greater interest in the sciences.

The panel found that, although 75 percent to 80 percent of high-school students enroll in a biology course, only about 30 percent of them continue to study science by taking chemistry. Fewer than 15 percent of chemistry students go on to study physics.

The report also notes that, on a recent standardized test in biology, half the students who had never taken the subject scored as high or higher than 40 percent of those who had.

The panel moved beyond a strict emphasis on biology, the report says, because it “quickly recognized how interlocked are the practices that maintain the present unsatisfactory state of precollege science education.”

Because the teaching of the sciences is cumulative, the report states, any effort to improve the poor quality of science instruction must begin at the elementary level.

“The elementary-school years present an opportunity for teaching about the natural world that the nation’s schools have failed to grasp,” it argues.

‘Pivotal Place’

The report calls for an emphasis in the elementary grades on the teaching of natural history and the development of an “intuitive understanding” of science through such “hands-on” projects as raising plants or small animals.

In the middle grades, the report says, science curricula lack a cohesive focus and generally exist as an “anemic version” of high-school biology.

A new focus on human biology at the middle-school level, it says, “should raise the student’s level of motivation and thereby generate a continuing incentive to learn.”

The committee argues that the deficiencies in science instruction can be rectified in a number of ways, including increasing in-service and preservice training for science teachers, mandating “research experiences” under scientific experts for student teachers, giving authors-rather than publishers--control over the content of science texts, and increasing the level of review of texts by science practitioners.

The report emphasizes, however, that improving the state of science education depends not only on teachers and school administrators, but also on scientists and teacher educators.

And while some professional scientists have taken an interest in pre-collegiate education, it notes, "[t]he problem is that, like virtually every other effort at reform, they remain local and isolated contributions, unguided by any overarching plan, unaccompanied by any independent assessment, untouched by any means of propagation, and, hence, ephemeral.”

The establishment of a standing body to provide ''national leadership” on education in all the science would be an important first step toward reversing that trend, the panel maintains.

The National Research Council is setting up a similar group, expected to be in place by December, specifically for biology education, according to an N.R.C. spokesman.

Copies of the report are available, at a cost of $14.95 each, plus shipping, from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20418.