Panel urges broad changes in teaching of science


A national commission will recommend sweeping changes today in science education in public schools, saying that existing curriculums try to cover too much, do not teach enough practical application of science and fail to integrate the subject with math and technology.

The four-year study, Benchmarks for Science Literacy, offers broad recommendations for what students should know after the second, fifth, eighth and 12th grades. Students as young as 5 should receive regular science lessons -- not just scattered experiments like collecting snowflakes and learning that they all have six points -- and these lessons should be given as often as reading or arithmetic, the study said.

For older children, the study said typical curriculums for all scientific fields include largely useless requirements, like memorizing all 109 known chemical elements in the periodic table. Instead, the study suggests that teachers delve more deeply into scientific skills and methods that have broader use, like devising and testing theories, or drawing conclusions from experimental data.

"One of the major weaknesses in science education today is that it doesn't address what students should know to be science literate," said F. James Rutherford, director of a continuing education project for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which conducted the study.

Science is the second subject for which national benchmarks have been established. Math standards were introduced four years ago by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and other education groups are continuing to meet to set standards for English, history, civics, geography, the arts and other subjects. But many officials worry about the implications such standards would have on local control of public schools.

When math standards were introduced in 1989, there was opposition from parents and even some math teachers who decried the standards' promotion of calculators and the de-emphasis on memorizing multiplication tables. Parents and teachers worried that students, by using a calculator, would lose the ability to perform long division.

The fears and opposition, though, have slowly given way, as 41 states have adopted the math standards in their education policies. Following the recommendations of the math council, many teachers have voluntarily undergone a retraining effort so that they can better teach problem-solving skills and critical thinking in math, and move away from memorization drills.

Early evidence shows that student scores on standardized math tests have stopped their free fall of the 1980s, and some studies have shown a slight improvement in test scores since 1989. Although students still learn the multiplication and division tables, educators say the efficiency of calculators and computers over paper and pencil have allowed students and teachers to cover much more math in the same amount of class time.

Speaking of the current way science is taught in public schools, Mr. Rutherford said: "It fails for a lot of reasons, mainly because it tries to cram too much detail. It doesn't connect the knowledge of science with math and technology."

The 418-page study offers very specific guidelines in 12 areas, including basic life sciences, biology and physics. In the life sciences, the study says young children should know, for example, that all fish share common physical characteristics, though they may be as different as a goldfish or a marlin. In physical science, eighth-graders should know that light from the sun is a spectrum of colors. In physics, 12th-graders should understand the qualitative principle of motion -- that is, an object's acceleration is directly proportional to applied force and inversely proportional to its mass.

"When we teach science, we teach the product, not the science," said Gloria Takahashi, a member of the commission and a high school teacher in La Habra, Calif. "We are not teaching the process as effectively, and that is what we should be doing."

The study also said science education could be improved by overhauling the preparation of science teachers who are themselves sometimes deficient in the field. Schools also need more money for laboratories and equipment, and, the report said, teachers must overcome their bias against girls and members of minority groups. The study cited a wide body of research showing that both groups have been discriminated against to the detriment of the scientific community.

Education experts like Terrel H. Bell, the former secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, argue that the standards give schools and teachers wide latitude to develop their own lessons.

In fact, to encourage teachers to do just that, the American Association for the Advancement of Science deliberately made no recommendations on testing. "If you have national tests, we fear that will lead teachers to take our benchmarks and use them as test questions," said Franklyn G. Jenifer, president of Howard University and chairman of the commission.

The recommendations themselves, like the math standards before them, complement federal efforts to inject new vigor into curriculums. In 1989, the governors of all the states, led by then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, wrote and adopted six national education goals. The goals were wholly embraced by the Clinton administration in its Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate.

One of the goals is that by the year 2000, American students will rank first worldwide in math and science literacy. The science benchmarks will be distributed to the states and will form the basis of overhauls in curriculums.

"This is a long-term effort," Mr. Jenifer said. "This is not a quick fix by any stretch of the imagination. It must involve all levels of society, from the teacher to the student to the politician to the parents and to policy makers."

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