Standards Found To Present Challenge to Teachers

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Vast and striking differences divide the instruction methods envisioned in national standards for science and mathematics education and the everyday practice of high school teachers, according to a survey of teacher attitudes.

High school teachers are far more reluctant than their colleagues in the lower grades to embrace new teaching techniques, the National Science Foundation survey found.

And many teachers at all levels say they do not know how to help parents participate in their children's education.

Closing the gap between theory and classroom practice is the biggest challenge facing the movement to implement standards-based teaching, said Iris R. Weiss, a researcher who conducted the survey for the N.S.F.

"Developing those standards was a very hard thing to do," said Ms. Weiss, who also served on the National Academy of Sciences' standards panel. "But having standards is only the smallest step toward implementing reform of science education."

Ms. Weiss, of Horizon Research Inc., a Chapel Hill, N.C., company, surveyed 6,000 K-12 teachers at about 1,250 schools for the report, titled "A Profile of Science and Mathematics Education in the United States: 1993."

She made her findings public late last month, during the annual meeting here of the National Science Teachers Association.

A Bleak Picture

Using as a benchmark data compiled during the late 1970's and mid-1980's, Ms. Weiss painted a bleak picture of how little progress has been made since then toward the "science for all students" goal outlined in the standards.

The data from her survey showed that high school teachers are far more satisfied with their teaching techniques than their elementary and middle school counterparts are.

And they are, at best, hesitant to adopt some of the teaching strategies that are central elements of many reform efforts: cooperative learning, heterogeneous grouping, and an emphasis on learning concepts rather than memorizing facts.

"I don't see any realization on the part of high school teachers of the need to abandon the tried-and-true methods," Ms. Weiss said in an interview. "They seem to think, 'We've been doing quite well, thank you.'"

Elementary teachers, on the other hand, are far more receptive to the practices endorsed in the standards, though those teachers are in many cases woefully unprepared to teach science or math, she said.

"The culture of elementary schools and the attitudes of elementary teachers are far more conducive to reform," Ms. Weiss said.

Four Basic Questions

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics drew up standards for math content and teaching in the late 1980's.

The National Research Council, an arm of the academy, released its draft of standards for what children should know and be able to do in science late last year. (See Education Week, 12/7/94.)

Hundreds of educators and scientists nationwide are critiquing the draft science standards, which are expected to appear in their final form in the fall.

Ms. Weiss's survey was designed to help answer four basic questions about teachers' desire and ability to start using standards-based instruction:

  • How ready are teachers in terms of both content and pedagogy to teach to the standards?
  • To what extent do teachers support reform notions embodied in the standards?
  • What are teachers trying to accomplish in their instruction and what activities do they use to meet their objectives?
  • What barriers exist to effective and equitable math instruction?

High Schools Lagging

Ms. Weiss said a comparison with a similar survey of teacher attitudes in 1986 shows some progress toward adopting the tenets of the standards.

The standards, for example, endorse engaging students in investigations, rather than lessons based on hearing lectures.

Elementary schools have taken that endorsement to heart, the new survey found. Sixty-five percent of elementary science lessons involved some sort of hands-on instruction, compared with 45 percent in 1986.

But the survey found that high schools lag far behind--with 94 percent of science and math classes still requiring students to listen and take notes from the teacher at least once a week.

In math, 98 percent of high school classes answer problems from textbooks at least once a week, the survey found. About 86 percent do so on a daily basis.

Ms. Weiss said teachers must overcome considerable barriers in their efforts to offer effective hands-on instruction.

She found, for example, that 15 percent of schools reported spending nothing on materials for science instruction in the previous year.

And though the standards call for the application of new technology such as computers and graphing calculators where appropriate in the curriculum, the survey found few teachers ready to use it. More than half of science and math teachers felt poorly prepared to integrate computers into their lessons.

Parent Involvement

Although the standards call for parents to become more involved in their children's education, the survey found that many teachers are unsure of how to help them do so. More than a third of elementary teachers and more than half of high school teachers said they felt unprepared to form effective partnerships with parents.

Ms. Weiss argued for a two-tiered approach to help teachers align their classroom practices with the standards: better college preparation for elementary school teachers and better professional development at the district level. Both are essential if elementary educators are to achieve the scientific and mathematical proficiency they now lack, she said.

She conceded, however, that while the reform strategies at elementary schools in many individual districts are promising, "the problems of 'scaling up' are huge."

Encouraging high school teachers to adopt new techniques will be a much more difficult task, she added. "Changing attitudes is a huge problem."

Vol. 14, Issue 28

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