Science Education Moves Up Academy Agenda

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To demonstrate his commitment to education reform as the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce M. Alberts recently invited 100 of the best mathematics and science teachers from this city's schools to dine in the academy's ornate chambers.

As the most prestigious federally chartered scientific-advisory body and the professional home of some of the nation's most accomplished researchers, the academy does not often play host to K-12 classroom teachers.

But the affair, which was co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation, may be a good barometer of changing winds sweeping through the academy's tiled halls.

Mr. Alberts, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California at San Francisco who began a six-year term as the academy's president last July, has placed education reform high on his agenda.

The key to successful science-education reform, he argued in a recent interview, is cultivating teacher professionalism.

"The people who know how to improve science teaching in the schools are the teachers,'' he said. "And in almost no school system do we have a regular mechanism for getting that information back to the [administration].''

Maintaining a Reform Focus

Mr. Alberts came to Washington with a strong reform background as the founder of City Science, a three-year-old program aimed at improving the math and science knowledge of elementary teachers in the San Francisco schools.

But some experienced observers here are skeptical that Mr. Alberts will be able to maintain the focus on education reform that has marked his first months in office.

Moreover, they are concerned that he lacks the political experience shown by his predecessor during more than a decade at the academy's helm.

Even if he wanted to, however, Mr. Alberts probably will be unable to ignore education reform.

This summer, the academy's National Research Council is to release a first full draft of national standards for science content, teaching, and assessment.

Development of the document has been plagued by delays and personnel problems, according to observers. In addition, it is expected to be controversial by design, with the goal of shaking up the field.

"This is only the beginning of the process,'' Mr. Alberts noted. "The standards are designed to drive school science in a way that will make a difference for children.''

Published reports have suggested that Mr. Alberts was not the first choice of the academy's selection committee to succeed Frank Press, who served two terms.

For his part, Mr. Alberts said he too was not at first enthusiastic about taking an administrative job that would take him from San Francisco, his students and laboratory, and City Science.

Indeed, Mr. Alberts's relaxed style seems more suited to a California campus than to the academy's high-pressure environs.

The back cover of the latest edition of his college textbook, The Molecular Biology of the Cell, features a picture of Mr. Alberts and his co-authors walking single file on a London crosswalk, in homage to the cover of the Beatles' record album "Abbey Road.''

Mr. Alberts's informality and his support for teachers also make him different from many of his peers in the scientific community, supporters argue.

"I find it very unusual,'' said Janice Low, the project director for City Science. "People of Bruce's reputation usually call me 'Janet' for about two years.''

'A Big Difference'

Observers here say Mr. Alberts's approach to reform contrasts strongly with that of Mr. Press.

Mr. Press founded the National Science Resources Center--a joint initiative of the academy and the Smithsonian Institution--and the Mathematical Sciences Education Board. He also accepted the challenge of having the academy develop science-education standards.

But Mr. Press generally was content to delegate science-education issues to others within the academy, while Mr. Alberts estimates that he has spent 30 percent of his time so far on the issue.

"There's a big difference,'' said Bill G. Aldridge, the president of the National Science Teachers Association. "Frank was interested in and supportive of education, but he did not himself get involved. He left that to other people.''

Mr. Press "doesn't have the same hands-on experiences with teachers that I've had,'' Mr. Alberts observed.

Another difference between the two men is that Mr. Press garnered considerable experience in Washington politics and bureaucracy before coming to the academy, noted F. James Rutherford, who heads the science-education-reform project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Experience in navigating a complicated bureaucracy can be a valuable skill, Mr. Rutherford remarked, because "God knows, the academy is as complicated as they come.''

Since taking over as president, Mr. Alberts already has launched the Regional Initiatives in Science Education program here and in Los Angeles, which seeks to provide a forum for scientists to help teachers push for reform and to link them through informal communication networks used by scientists.

He also recently traveled to Inverness, Calif., to take part in a conference on reform in urban districts, and has remained involved with City Science.

Even so, Mr. Aldridge said he was skeptical that the academy's crowded agenda would allow Mr. Alberts to maintain that level of participation.

"We all are delighted he is doing it,'' Mr. Aldridge said. "But I think, in the end, he'll end up where he's not able to devote as much time to it.''

Streamlining Standards

Mr. Alberts also has worked to "streamline'' the process of setting science standards.

Several key staff members have left the academy in recent months, leading analysts to suggest that the standards-setting process is deeply troubled. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1994.)

But Mr. Alberts notes that most of the departures occurred before he arrived.

"This is the kind of project that is using all borrowed personnel,'' he pointed out, "and a lot of that turnover is people getting back to their normal careers.''

Mr. Aldridge said Mr. Alberts was right to change the project's administrative structure to give "greater support to the people who have to do the work.''

Mr. Alberts, meanwhile, has asked scientists to conduct an additional review of portions of the content standards. But he believes that the work should be guided by educational professionals.

"I'm sure there are always people who say, 'Our expertise is in advanced scientific research. We have no expertise in science education,''' he said. "My argument is that we need to develop an expertise in it. And we do that by finding the right people to listen to.''

Vol. 13, Issue 30

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