Science Center Outlines 'Systemic' Effort To Reform Instruction

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in Middle Grades By Peter West

Improving science instruction in the middle grades, an area considered by many as a weak link in efforts to reform the teaching of that subject, will require a "systemic approach" that focuses on individual schools and on teacher training, according to a new report.

"Clearly, what we need and what we currently have, are, in many cases, worlds apart," concludes the report issued by the National Center for Improving Science Education, a federally funded partnership between The network Inc. and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study.

"The school itself must be the unit of change if science education is to improve," it argues. "It is only at the school level that science learning can be related to other disciplines."

The 86-page document, entitled "Developing and Supporting Teachers for Science Education in the Middle Years," is the third in a series of five reports by the center that focus on instruction in those grades.

The report recommends improving both the pre-service and in-service training of science teachers for the middle grades, as well as reconfiguring the environment in which they teach.

Science instruction at that level of schooling has long been a stepchild of the field, it maintains, noting that many middle- and junior-high-school teaching posts are filled by teachers who are between assignments in the higher or lower grades.

"Typically," it observes, "teachers do not become teachers of the middle grades by choice."

As a consequence, the report says, large numbers of such teachers either "dislike" their work or are "overwhelmed" by their assignments.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that the teachers generally have a great deal of breadth, but seldom any depth, to their science training, the report argues.

And, it states, teachers in the middle grades, due to a lack of formal training in dealing with the unpredictable physical and emotional changes experienced by adolescents, frequently and unfairly dismiss their students as unteachable.

Need for Clearer Core

The findings contained in the center's report echo criticisms of the preparation of middle- and junior-high-school science teachers published last fall in a comprehensive report on science education by the National Research Council. (See Education Week, Sept. 12, 1990.)

The new report argues that the constraints of "departmentalized, ability-grouped 50-minute-period situations" prevalent in the middle grades prevent teachers from developing any subject matter in depth and discourage students from making active investigations.

Science educators in the middle grades, it says, are more likely to have acquired their teaching skills entirely from experience than from pre-service training, because "even as late as 1987, not even one-third of teacher-education institutions had programs for middle-level teachers."

"We suspect that what they know, they have learned for themselves," the authors state.

Among a series of recommendations, the report calls for:

An enunciation, at the national level, of an ideal core curriculum for the middle grades.

"Because a major focus of the middle-school concept is the organization of academic disciplines around an integrated core that focuses on essential knowledge," the report states, "we need a clearer view of this integrated curriculum."

The establishment of local centers to help educate teachers in the field.

"The changes teachers and administrators need to make are so profound; thus it is unlikely they will occur in today's schools without external support or assistance," the report argues.

Collaboration between higher education and the schools to improve teacher-education programs.

"Clearly," the report says, "the reform of middle-grade science education requires a systemic approach--one in which all levels and components of the education community share the same purpose and vision of the future."

Copies of the report may be ordered from the publications department at The network Inc., 300 Brickstone Square, Suite 900, Andover, Mass. 01810.

Vol. 10, Issue 23

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