Center Urges Larger Federal Role in Science Reform

By Robert Rothman — August 02, 1989 4 min read

The growing consensus on steps needed to reform elementary science education will not produce results without the “purposeful involvement’’ of the federal government, a forthcoming report contends.

The report by the National Center for Improving Science Education, a research “mini-center” funded by the U.S. Education Department, calls for a bigger role by the government in conducting research on needed science knowledge and skills, developing new forms of assessment in the field, and training science educators.

“Research questions that cry out for answers are not likely to be answered unless the federal government defines the task and provides the funds,” the report argues, “nor are the separate efforts of states likely to be efficiently coordinated unless the federal government asserts leadership.”

Among its other recommendations, the report advocates the creation of a “national assistance center for science education.” The purpose of the center, it says, would be to “put in the hands of agencies serving teachers, science educators, and policymakers the very best that is known about effective science education.”

Elementary Years ‘Critical’

The report, entitled “Getting Americans Started in Science,” offers a blueprint for instruction in grades K-6 that reflects approaches advocated in recent years by numerous special commissions and leading science educators.

It urges a greater emphasis on hands-on learning, the use of performance-based tests, and the redesign of teacher-preparation programs around more effective instructional methods.

The United States “can no longer afford its present approach to science education,” the authors warn. Today, they write, “most children are not taught science at all, and when they are, they are taught in a manner that progressively diminishes their interest in the subject and their confidence in their capacity to learn it.”

The National Center for Improving Science Education is one of five federally funded “mini-centers” in education established in 1987. It is run by The Network Inc., a research firm based in Andover, Mass., and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a Colorado-based organization.

In addition to its overview of K-6 science education, expected to be released this month, the center last month issued separate reports detailing its recommendations on elementary curricula, assessment, and teacher preparation in the subject.

The center decided to focus its initial effort on elementary schools, according to its director, Senta A. Raizen, because high-quality science instruction is in a “nonexistent state in many schools at that level.”

“All of us feel elementary school is critical,” she said, because ''you lose so many kids to science” at that point.

The report argues that “those responsible for the elementary-school curriculum, if they expect more than a few elite children to become seriously engaged with science, must give it equal billing with reading, writing, and mathematics.”

At the same time, it stresses, the methods of science instruction must also change. In place of the current dominance of textbooks and lectures, it says, schools should focus “almost exclusively” on hands-on, activity-based instruction.

Citing decades of research on such instruction’s effectiveness, report concludes that “children are most likely to learn and remember” if they have opportunities to handle materials such as plants and rocks; use scales, microscopes, and other tools; and examine natural phenomena.

The report also recommends that elementary-grade science courses cover fewer topics in greater depth. As a framework for such a “less is more” curriculum, it proposes that teachers organize the subject by themes, such as cause and effect, systems, scale, and diversity.

Testing and Teacher Training

The authors also urge the creation of new forms of assessment that accurately measure the kinds of learning that educators deem important.

They argue that “the current multiple-choice format of tests favors factual knowledge at the periphery of science, and sheds little light on whether students understand connections between facts and concepts.”

In place of such tests, the report calls for the development of “authentic” forms of assessment that match the proposed curriculum and learning goals. Those assessments, it says, would “be indistinguishable from instructional tasks” and would probe children’s depth of understanding, as well as factual knowledge.

Implementation of changes in curriculum and assessment, the report emphasizes, would require a “fundamental change in the content and pedagogy of science education for undergraduate students preparing to be elementary teachers, and in the professional development and support of current teachers.”

The report recommends that all prospective elementary teachers major in an academic discipline, rather than in education, and that they study one or more of the sciences.

In addition, it suggests that science courses for prospective teachers be redesigned to serve as models for the kind of instruction recommended for elementary classrooms.

Information on ordering copies of “Getting Americans Started in Science” may be obtained by writing Publications, The Network Inc., 290 S. Main St., Andover, Mass. 01810.

Copies of “Science and Technology Education for the Elementary Years: Frameworks for Curriculum and Instruction” and “Developing and Supporting Teachers for Elementary School Education” are available at that address for $12 each; copies of “Assessment in Elementary School Education” are $15 each.

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1989 edition of Education Week as Center Urges Larger Federal Role in Science Reform