Maryland District Taps Science Community To Conduct Audit

By Peter West — April 22, 1992 6 min read
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He notes, for example, that two teachers obtained permission from their supervisors to teach a unit on spawning fish, setting up an obstacle course that pupils, in the role of salmon, were required to navigate.

As a pediatrician in this western Maryland community, Charles E. Wright has ministered to the physical needs of children for more than a quarter of a century.

During the past year, he has taken an active interest in the nourishment of their minds as well.

Dr. Wright was one of four dozen local residents who answered a call from the Frederick County school system to help conduct an extensive audit of the district’s science curriculum.

“It was a worthwhile exercise for me because I believe the community should get involved in the school system,’' Dr. Wright says. “And, though I’ve been taking care of kids in this community for a long time, I’d never really sat in the classroom.’'

In fact, Dr. Wright and his colleagues have spent roughly 200 hours observing science classes and interviewing students and teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools.

And while both committee members and school-board officials decline to discuss the recommendations contained in the final reports--which were to be completed last week--they agree that the process was vital to both the community and the school system.

“As a discipline, science is changing as rapidly as any I know,’' says Noel T. Farmer Jr., the superintendent of the 29,000-student district. “The question of how we are going to accommodate that change as a school district is very important to us.’'

While various national groups--such as the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Resources Center, a cooperative venture of the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution--have called for greater cooperation between the scientific and the education communities, the effort here reflects a pressing local need.

Until relatively recently, Frederick County was a patchwork of largely rural communities interspersed by verdant farmland in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains.

But the sense of remoteness that encouraged the state’s legislature to encamp here, 90 miles from the state capital in Annapolis, to escape secessionist fever during the Civil War--and that lingered for more than a century afterward--is rapidly becoming a memory.

Bumper crops of high-technology businesses and housing tracts for their employees bloom in former cornfields along the I-270 corridor that leads to Washington.

The rapid transformation, noted Thomas Natolly, the school system’s director of the department for instructional-program analysis and compensatory services, has put some stress on the established order in recent years, as the community has had to accommodate the influx of highly skilled and technically oriented residents.

“I don’t see the [school] board saying, ‘We have a problem in science,’'' says Mr. Natolly, who acted as a liaison to the audit teams.

Nevertheless, he notes, school officials requested the audit as a way of helping the school system keep up with such changes.

“Schools are, to some degree, a reflection of what happens in society,’' Mr. Farmer adds. “All those things go into the mix of analysis.’'

A Lasting Effect

In deciding to undertake the audit, district officials sought the advice of their counterparts in the adjacent Howard County School system--where Mr. Farmer was employed before coming to Frederick County--which performed a similar audit five years ago.

The audit there produced five major recommendations: emphasizing the importance of science for all students; redefining the focus of science leadership in the district; utilizing community resources; adopting an ongoing evaluation process; and establishing a mechanism for change in science instruction.

Lee Summerville, Howard County’s coordinator of science curriculum, says that the evaluation has had a lasting effect on the district’s science instruction.

“Now,’' she notes, “we have a K-12 program, and science is taught almost every day in the elementary schools.’'

In addition, says Ms. Summerville, who is preparing a five-year status report on the original assessment, the district has spent $2 million over the past five years to upgrade its science-teaching materials.

And a parent-advisory panel meets regularly, helping to keep district officials’ “wits about them’’ in regard to science reform, she says.

‘A Valuable Resource’

Likewise, officials here say, the audit in Frederick County has sparked an impressive response in the community.

Although the school district limited potential applicants to those who reside or work in the community or who have children in the public schools, nearly half of the volunteers were medical doctors or held doctorates in a scientific field, Mr. Natolly points out.

“It was surprising to me that we were able to get the caliber of people that we did,’' he says.

In addition to those like Dr. Wright, who are employed by local businesses, the teams of auditors included employees of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Burroughs Corporation, the U.S. Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Army’s chemical-warfare laboratory at nearby Fort Detrick.

“If we went out and hired those kinds of people to do this, it would cost a fortune,’' Mr. Farmer notes. “For us not to take advantage of this resource, I think would be overlooking a valuable opportunity.’'

The community also seemed to support the audit by responding in large numbers to a survey of teachers, students, parents, and former students that was conducted early in the process.

The response by local residents, participants point out, led to an unintended consequence of the audit: a cadre of parents and other adults with a vested interest in the performance of the school system.

“I don’t think that when this [report] is finally accepted [the school board] will see the end of all this,’' says Barry Diamondstone, the deputy director of the N.I.S.T.'s chemical science and technology laboratory, who served on the high-school auditing committee.

And, Mr. Natolly believes, the school system can count on many of the scientists as allies as they attempt to implement their recommendations.
“I honestly believe that some [of them] felt that the science program needed a great deal of adjustment,’' he says. “And I think they found that many concerns and preconceived ideas [they had] going in were incorrect.’'

‘Strong Points’ Noted

But, despite such strong support, the audit process has not been without its restrictions and conflicts.

“They didn’t evaluate teachers; we made that very clear,’' Mr. Natolly says. “But they were looking at curriculum, they were looking at materials, and they were looking at facilities.’'

Some volunteers say, though, that they felt the schools should do more to encourage students to view science as “hard work,’' not just an easy elective.

Michael Souders, a physicist at the N.I.S.T. and a member of the middle-school committee, argues that schools need to establish a smoother transition between elementary schools, where science is mostly discovery-based, and later grades, where more rigorous experimentation is stressed.

But many auditors also came away from the process with a new respect for teachers and teaching.

Nile Oldham, an N.I.S.T. physicist, says that, while local elementary teachers were not always well prepared to teach science, there were “certainly strong points’’ to the elementary-science curriculum.

He notes, for example, that two teachers obtained permission from their supervisors to teach a unit on spawning fish, setting up an obstacle course that pupils, in the role of salmon, were required to navigate.

“They attempted to go outside of the curriculum to teach meaningful science,’' he says, “and they were successful.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 1992 edition of Education Week as Maryland District Taps Science Community To Conduct Audit


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