Project 2061 Teams Fine-Tuning Models For Science-Education Reforms

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SAN DIEGO--In the schools that Philip Gay and his colleagues envision, science would no longer be a compartmentalized course in a student's daily schedule, but an ongoing, inquiry-based, interdisciplinary process reflecting a personal search for knowledge.

"A big part of our philosophy," Mr. Gay, a science supervisor for the San Diego Unified School District, told a recent visitor, "is that the student is not an open vessel for pouring learning into."

The curriculum model that Mr. Gay and 24 of his colleagues here have developed over the last three years is one of a half-dozen alternative approaches to teaching science literacy produced by six teams in urban, suburban, and rural school districts nationwide as part of Project 2061. The project is a long-term curriculum-reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The teams' work is expected to exert a strong influence on an effort, led by the National Academy of Sciences, to develop national standards in science education. In addition to developing curricular models, representatives from the teams are drawing up "benchmarks"--which outline what students are expected to know and be able to do at key points in their school careers--that are expected to form the basis of the standards.

Already, the A.A.A.S. effort has sparked behind-the-scenes tensions with other science-education-reform projects, particularly one led by the National Science Teachers Association. The N.S.T.A. is about to unveil its own report on what students should know and be able to do in science. (See related story, page 1.)

F. James Rutherford, the director of Project 2061, is quick to note that the national standards must include a variety of viewpoints, including those of the N.S.T.A.

But, he said in an interview late last month, "the better job we do [in devising the benchmarks], the more likely it is that they will influence the standards process and survive."

Three-Phase Project

Project 2061 began seven years ago, when, in reaction to growing national alarm about the flagging achievement of American students in science and mathematics, the National Council on Science and Technology Education of the A.A.A.S. set out to determine what understandings and habits of mind are essential to the development of a "scientifically literate" citizenry.

The project takes its name both from the fact that Halley's comet made one of its periodic passes near Earth in the year of its inception and from the realization that students entering school in mid-1980's would likely be alive to see the comet return in 2061.

The name also indicates, officials point out, that curriculum reform cannot be successful as a series of "quick fixes," but only as the end result of a long and carefully considered process.

In 1989, the panel's findings were published in "Science for All Americans," a 217-page call for reform written jointly by Mr. Rutherford and Andrew Ahlgren, the project's associate director.

At that time, the association launched the second phase of the project by naming six sites--including San Diego--at which educators would create curriculum models that would lead to the learning outcomes outlined in the document.

The third, and most complex, phase is now under way. In addition to refining the curriculum models and developing benchmarks, the teams are producing a computerized resource database of curriculum resources.

Eventually, project officials say, they hope to influence teaching nationally on a district-by-district basis by encouraging educators to adopt the curriculum models.

Despite the clamor for some immediate product from Project 2061 to bolster local reform efforts, Mr. Rutherford argues that preparation for implementation--what he terms "D-Day"--should not be rushed.

"I think that most of the world out there would say that 'I can't wait,' " he said. "But I personally would not be unhappy if we were [not] ready for D-Day [until] the end of the decade."

Painstaking 'Back Mapping'

From its inception, Project 2061 has stressed that curriculum design should take place among educators and in schools--where "teaching and learning occur"--reflecting a belief that teachers would be more willing to accept radical reforms if the alternative models were developed by their peers.

"Today, if you wanted to do something new, you could go to any school district in the land and get hundreds of reasons why you couldn't do it," Mr. Rutherford explained.

The six sites chosen to build the curriculum models were thought to be representative of important geographic, demographic, socioeconomic, and other factors that might affect reform.

In addition to San Diego, they include school districts in the rural counties of Elbert, Greene, and Oglethorpe near Athens, Ga.; McFarland, Wis., a small town near Madison; and Philadelphia, San Antonio, and San Francisco.

At each site, for the last three years, interdisciplinary teams of elementary-, middle-, and high-school teachers, principals, and curriculum specialists have been painstakingly "back mapping" the information contained in "Science for All Americans,'' breaking down the essential elements of science literacy in order to incorporate them into a radically innovative K-12 curriculum.

Although time-consuming, the process was vital to the development of curriculum models, officials said, because "Science for All Americans" concerned itself only with the competence of high-school graduates, not with the process of developing science literacy in younger children.

"That was a very useful step in the development of our thinking," said Mr. Gay, who serves as the Project 2061 specialist for San Diego.

Distinct Visions

In developing their plans, the site teams were asked to ignore current barriers to what is possible to achieve and instead to come up with visions of what curricula ought to look like.

In the San Diego team's vision, for example, students would have access to fully equipped laboratory facilities in their schools to conduct their own scientific inquiries, and would eventually spend several weeks in more sophisticated regional resource centers researching problems of particular interest.

"We were asked to dream, so we dreamed big," said Mr. Gay.

After evaluating draft documents submitted by the six teams, A.A.A.S. officials distilled their ideas into four distinct models, and published them in an update on the progress of the initiative.

They include a model that emphasizes "how the world works," which focuses on explaining natural phenomena; a "design'' model that focuses on engineering solutions to "real world" problems; an interdisciplinary model on "human concerns," such as the environment; and an "inquiry based" model, drawn from plans from San Diego and Philadelphia, that emphasizes the idea of science "as a way of knowing."

The four-part summary, officials note, reflects the diversity of thinking and approach that is vital to the project's success.

But some common themes also emerged among the teams. Those in both McFarland, Wis., and San Diego, for example, espoused the idea of non-graded classrooms.

While they express satisfaction with the result of the process, team members also note that some stresses have developed along the way.

Some districts have willingly provided release time for team members, they say, but others were less generous. Some districts were also more anxious than others for immediate results from the project.

Yet most of those interviewed said they hoped to see the process through, however long it takes.

"I'm not sure how long phase three might take," said Joan M. Drennan, the 2061 coordinator for the San Antonio project. "It might take the rest of my lifetime. But none of us has lost patience yet."

Sidetracked by Standards

Despite the strong interest in developing curricular models, however, the process has, to some extent, been sidetracked in recent months by the national push to create standards in core school subjects, officials say.

Led in part by President Bush's call for standards as part of his America 2000 education strategy, the Congress is now considering a proposal to develop standards in science and other subjects and a system of assessments to measure student performance against such standards.

Such a push, A.A.A.S. officials say, accelerated their effort to develop benchmarks correlated with "Science for All Americans" that will eventually be incorporated as assessment tools into the various curriculum models.

"Standards were really not a part of the process from the beginning," Ms. Drennan said. "It's been an interloper."

But, she and others agree, the development of benchmarks is vital to the project's success.

"The process is expected to answer two very important questions," said Lana Scott, the team leader of the McFarland project, who also is taking a leading role in the development of benchmarks. "What would be the best way to [create] standards and who's the audience?"

The seriousness with which the A.A.A.S. regards the benchmarks process was evident during the association's annual meeting last month in Chicago.

A session on Project 2061 and science standards featured David Florio, who is helping lead the standards project at the National Academy of Sciences, and Diane Briars, the mathematics coordinator for the Pittsburgh school district, who helped draft the standards for curriculum and teaching adopted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Ms. Briars told the audience that the existence of comprehensive and universally accepted standards provides math educators with an important lever to spur reform.

"It's a political document to create necessary change," she said.

In part, the Project 2061 benchmarks are being developed by a method similar to the "back mapping" that took place early in the project.

"But then, the issue of the national standards was not visible," Ms. Scott noted. "Now, it's a way of defining how broadly or how narrowly defined the concepts need to be [in order] to be of value."

Jo Ellen Roseman, the project's curriculum director, said that team representatives have vigorously debated the appropriate wording of the benchmarks. A slight change in wording, she pointed out, could make a major difference in the type of student abilities the document calls for.

"A lot of the inside argument has to do with language," Mr. Rutherford agreed. "Do you, for example, say people will be able to 'say', or 'express', or 'write' something?"

Ms. Roseman also noted that the benchmarks will gauge student performance at the 2nd-, 5th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade levels, a departure from the usual pattern adopted by such programs as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests students in grades 4, 8, and 12.

"If you read the literature, between ages of 5 and 10, a tremendous amount of development goes on," she explained. "So we needed that intermediate step."

'A Piece of the Action'

But while the A.A.A.S. expects the national-standards effort to draw heavily from the Project 2061 benchmarks, other science educators, principally the National Science Teachers Association, are angling to ensure their voices are heard as well.

The soon-to-be-published N.S.T.A. document, comparable in purpose to "Science for All Americans," lays out a "content core" as a guide for developers of new science curricula. The document is based on the association's Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science Project, which is being developed with funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Education Department.

Shepherded from its inception by Bill Aldridge, the association's executive director, the project proposes to break down the traditional "layer cake" secondary-school sequence of courses in biology, chemistry, physics into smaller, integrated courses that would be taught over six years.

While officials of the N.S.T.A. and A.A.A.S. projects remain publicly cordial and supportive of each others' efforts, observers say that some friction already has developed between advocates of the different approaches.

"Everybody wants a piece of the action on this one," said one insider in the standards-setting project.

Mr. Rutherford of the A.A.A.S., who noted that Project 2061 was lauded by President Bush during a teleconference at the association's 1991 annual meeting, said that, among many involved in setting standards, "it is generally believed that 'Science for All Americans' is a starting place."

But, he added, "when it comes down to it, I think there will differences of opinion."

One major difference of approach focuses on the scope of the reform effort. Project 2061, for example, considers familiarity with the social sciences and technology, as well with math, as key components of science literacy, while others concentrate on the more narrow field of science.

In part, the National Academy of Sciences project was designed to mediate between such disputes, and those close to the standards-setting process note that Project 2061 officials are not expected to dominate the board of experts that shortly will be appointed to oversee the development of standards.

But even before such standards are set, most observers agree, the A.A.A.S. project has already exerted an influence on schools. States such as California and Maryland, as well as the framework for the 1994 NAEP science assessment, have drawn on Project 2061's work.

Mr. Rutherford's "project is influencing American education," said one observer. "But it's more likely to come about as a result of people reading 'Science for All Americans' " than from the work of the six teams.

Those within Project 2061, however, are convinced that the efforts so far have assured them some measure of national prominence.

"We're very visible now," said Ms. Drennan of San Antonio. "People have to pay attention to the project. They can't dismiss us."

Vol. 11, Issue 24, Pages 1, 11

Published in Print: March 4, 1992, as Project 2061 Teams Fine-Tuning Models For Science-Education Reforms
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