Educators Preview ‘Revolutionary’ Plan For Science Reform

By Robert Rothman — January 25, 1989 6 min read

San Francisco--A forthcoming report by the nation’s largest science organization has the potential to lead to “revolutionary” changes in science education, participants at a conference here said.

But they warned that even though the group has pledged to push its recommendations over the next few decades, it faces formidable obstacles to making the ambitious plan a reality in the classroom.

The report--the first phase of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061--is expected to outline a new definition of what all high-school graduates should know and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology.

Following the release of the report, the group plans to work with teams of educators in about five districts to develop model curricula aiming to achieve the desired outcomes. Then, over the next 15 to 20 years, officials said, the group will work with those districts and others to put the curricula into effect.

“What ‘2061' proposes is nothing short of revolutionary,” Betty Levitin, president of the Mathematics/Science Network, a Berkeley, Calif.-based teachers’ group, said at a conference held in conjunction with the aaas’s annual meeting here.

“The question is,” she added, “whether we have the political will to implement this revolution.”

Achieving such outcomes will require extraordinary cooperation among educators and policymakers in order to bring about substantial changes in curricular materials, testing, and teacher training, Ms. Levitin and others pointed out.

“Unless every segment of the education community gets together and acts in a coordinated, cohesive way, we’ll be at loggerheads,” said Leonard Rovins, president of the National School Boards Association.

But large-scale efforts are essential if schools are to raise the “shockingly bad” levels of current students’ achievement, added Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“Any effort to bring about improvements in schools through reform-type modifications of what we do now are not going to get us very far,” he said. “We’re not going to move from current figures to fairly acceptable levels [of achievement] by doing what we’re doing better.”

Return of Halley’s Comet

The aaas’s Project 2061 was launched in 1985 with grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The project took its name from the expected date of the return of Halley’s comet, said F. James Rutherford, the project’s director. The name was intended to convey the idea that school reform should address the needs of students of the future, whose world will have been reshaped by science and technology.

“The need for reform is not to re4create the schools of the past, but to create the schools of the future,” Mr. Rutherford said.

E. Alden Dunham, chairman of Carnegie’s education-grant program, argued that the curriculum-reform project was “of a piece” with the foundation’s efforts to upgrade teacher preparation through its support of the National Board of Professional Teacher Standards.

“If you are going to address one, you have to address the other,” added Shirley M. Malcom, head of the aaas’s office of opportunities in science and a member of the national teacher-standards board.

Setting Goals

During Project 2061’s first phase, groups of scholars developed statements on educational goals in five fields: biological and health sciences; mathematics; physical and information sciences and engineering, social, and behavioral sciences; and technology.

The effort is an essential first step in curricular reform, maintained Bill Honig, California state superintendent of public instruction.

“What is exciting about ‘2061' is the idea of getting the best minds in the country together and agreeing on what high-school graduates should know,” he said. “Preceding any implementation, getting things taught in class, is a well-developed plan.”

Ted Sanders, Illinois superintendent of education, said the proposal differs from prior goal-setting efforts because it focuses on student outcomes instead of school practices.

“A long time ago,” he said, “states decided that it was convenient to specify as goals those things that ought to be taught, instead of those things that ought to be learned.”

‘Fresh Thinking’

Some educators have expressed concern, however, that the proposal may not reflect a scholarly consensus about what students should know, noted Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. The teams chosen to write the report, he pointed out, lack most of the recognized experts in science education.

Mr. Rutherford responded that the organization deliberately chose scholars from outside the science-education establishment.

“The given wisdom,” he said, “is that if you want to bring about change in an institution, you involve in every aspect all the stakeholders in that institution.”

“In this case, the given wisdom is not right,” he added.

To get “fresh thinking about goals,” he continued, “you deliberately avoid starting with the people involved, who are so much aware of the impediments and restraints and why things aren’t working.”

Courses for ‘Red-Hots’

The result, Mr. Rutherford said, is a set of goals for all students--not just those who intend to pursue careers in science and technology.

The recommendations “are not the sciences you need to know, it’s the other way around,” he observed. “They say, ‘What is the science you need to know in order to know about the world?”’

“I looked for the word ‘physics,’ and it does not appear,” said Donald N. Langenberg, a physicist who is chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “That’s one of its hallmarks of success.”

Glenn T. Seaborg, university professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, questioned what the proposal would do for “red-hot” students with an avid interest in the field.

“Obviously, there will have to be additional courses available for them,” he said.

Mr. Sanders argued, however, that the proposed reform would be better than the current system, which he said has failed either to provide general science literacy or to serve talented students.

Mr. Rutherford also said the report would propose a shift from a curriculum stuffed with lists of facts in narrowly defined disciplines to one that helps develop students’ “scientific habits of mind.”

Concepts and Facts

“Teaching people lots of words is not the same thing as educating them,” he said.

“As we have added more to the curriculum, we have literally seen less as a result,” Mr. Sanders observed. “If we attend properly to this report, less will become more.”

But Deborah Meier, director of the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, warned that the proposal may not go far enough in paring down the curriculum so that it can be taught effectively.

For one thing, she noted, many of the items the report would eliminate are “things we are not teaching now.”

Moreover, “It’s harder to teach concepts than it is to teach facts,’' she said.

Teacher Training Is Key

“Concepts are only learned through facts,” Ms. Meier continued. “Even if you don’t test for them, you still have to teach them.”

Achieving such reforms will re8quire substantial investments in teacher training, noted Mr. Rovins of the school-boards association.

“If we impose more and more learning on kids,” he asked, “how many more dropouts will we have unless teachers are well prepared to deal with them?”

To avoid such problems, the aaas reformers should start by making sure that schools of education prepare all teachers to teach the new curriculum, suggested David G. Imig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

But that change alone will be insufficient, argued Lee S. Shulman, professor of education at Stanford University.

“What’s going to do that job?” he asked. “Fifteen credit-hours of teacher preparation? You’ve got to be kidding.”

The reforms proposed in Project 2061 can be effective, Mr. Shulman said, only if states change their teacher-certification policies to reflect the initiative’s pedagogical goals. Colleges also must overhaul their undergraduate instruction to offer models to prospective teachers, he added.

“Now the challenge is ours,” said Mr. Sanders of Illinois. “Our commitment will make this vision what it has the potential to become.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Educators Preview ‘Revolutionary’ Plan For Science Reform