Policy & Student Learning: What Textbooks, Assessment, and Professional Development Can Contribute

May 15–17, 2002
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, D.C.

Michigan’s Science Education Reform Efforts

Theron Blakeslee
Michigan Department of Education Science Specialist from 1989 to 2000

Michigan science educators were pleasantly surprised last year when a cluster of Michigan schools scored extremely well on the TIMSS-R test. This group, called the Michigan Invitational Group, was composed of a mix of urban, suburban and rural schools. They were clustered together for the TIMSS-R based on the presence in each school of a set of educational conditions: a curriculum aligned with the state’s science benchmarks, instructional materials that match their curriculum, a plan for comprehensive professional development, the use of assessment data to inform instruction, and open communication with their community – many of the conditions reformers expect to be associated with high levels of student achievement.

Research is being conducted on these schools to find out more about how these educational conditions are actually implemented. But the fact that these schools have achieved at such high levels is encouraging to science education reformers in Michigan who have been working for several decades to create the tools and conditions needed for high levels of science literacy.

Broad policy context and state learning goals

Michigan is a “local control” state. Local boards of education have the responsibility for determining curricula and selecting instructional materials. Michigan’s Public Act 25 of 1990 holds districts accountable for providing a “core academic curriculum,” but no state law specifies what the district curriculum should contain (except one semester of “high school civics”).

The State Department of Education has a long history of providing curriculum guidance to local schools through state learning goals. Until the late 1990’s, these learning goals were referred to as the Essential Goals and Objectives. As interest grew for “standards-based education” and the U.S. Department of Education funded state curriculum frameworks projects, their title was changed to “Standards and Benchmarks” and published in a broad document that included brief guides to planning the curriculum, teaching the standards, assessing student learning, and improving professional development. Standards were developed for teaching, assessment and professional development as well as content. (Actually, the standards for teaching and assessment were borrowed intact, with permission, from the work of Newman, Secada and others at the University of Wisconsin.)

The content standards and benchmarks have received the most attention, because they provide detailed descriptions of what students should know and be able to do – descriptions that have been very useful for local district curriculum development. As with all curriculum documents, they have been revised periodically to meet new societal needs and current science education reform efforts.

In 1989, with the publication of Science for All Americans and a call from the state Department of Education (MDE) to revise the existing Essential Goals and Objectives, a team of K-12 and University science educators developed a new framework for thinking about science education curriculum. Led by Michigan State University, the new framework called for five broad goals (in keeping with the principles set forth in Science for All Americans:

  1. Emphasize understanding over content coverage.
  2. Make learning useful and relevant.
  3. Promote science literacy for all students.
  4. Promote interdisciplinary learning.
  5. Provide tools for teachers.

The Objectives were structured around a unique definition of science literacy. As defined in the Michigan Essential Goals and Objectives for Science Education (MEGOSE; released in 1991), science literacy has three dimensions: Activity, knowledge, and context. The activities of science literacy include describing, explaining, predicting and designing phenomena and systems of the natural world, constructing new scientific knowledge through inquiry, and reflecting on the evidence, reason, history and interconnections of scientific knowledge. Objectives were clustered by elementary, middle school, and high school.

The knowledge is defined in each objective as a set of concepts, terms and tools. Several examples of real-world contexts in which these activities and knowledge are used are also listed.

For convenience, the objectives are listed in five sections: Constructing Scientific Knowledge, Reflecting on Scientific Knowledge, Using Scientific Knowledge in Life Science, Using Scientific Knowledge in Physical Science, and Using Scientific Knowledge in Earth and Space Science. Each of the “Using” sections is further broken into subcategories. With the development of the Michigan Curriculum Framework, each subcategory was designated as a “standard” and each objective within the subcategory was renamed as a “benchmark.”

Sample benchmark showing activity, knowledge and context:

III.2.MS.3 Describe evidence that plants make and store food.

Key concepts: Process and products of food production and transport—photosynthesis, starch, sugar, oxygen, carbon dioxide, water. See III.2.MS.4 (use of food for energy.)

Real-world contexts: Plant food storage organs, such as potato, onion; starch storage in plants grown under different conditions.

In 2000, after nine years of use in planning local district curricula, the benchmarks were somewhat revised. These revisions were based on the experiences of Michigan science teachers, who used Benchmarks for Science Literacy and the National Science Education Standards (both released after the original MEGOSE) as resources. Several benchmarks were deleted, some were moved to other grade levels, and some were revised to improve clarity. Interestingly, no one was arguing for a complete overhaul of the Michigan benchmarks. After nine years of use, teachers still found the state’s framework compelling and the benchmarks adequate (if not sometimes challenging) for describing the content of science education (through early high school).

Local district curriculum development

A wide variety of local district curricula have been developed, based on the state benchmarks. High schools offer various courses, some required and some elective, while intending to teach the benchmarks to all students; middle schools arrange their offerings in various combinations of “general science” or “layer cake” courses; elementary schools make decisions about which grades should teach which benchmarks without any particular guidance other than their own deliberation.

However, the enacted curricula in many classrooms varies widely from the benchmarks, for a variety of reasons. In some classrooms, traditional reliance on conventional textbooks overrides the specifications of a local scope and sequence. Even the use of non-conventional “new” instructional materials, such as FOSS (Lawrence Hall of Science), FAST (University of Hawaii) or Insights Biology (Education Development Center), puts pressure on teachers to deviate from the benchmarks when the chapters or lessons in the “new” materials contains different content from the local district written curriculum.

Additionally, even though the state benchmarks are fairly detailed (including lists of key concepts), some teachers interpret them as broad topics and teach “beyond the benchmarks” by adding more content than is actually specified, leaving less time for teaching in depth.

Some of this misinterpretation of the state benchmarks is deliberate, some is by mistake. Mistakes often happen when school districts publish local curriculum documents that list only the “activity” part of the benchmark and not the key concepts or real-world contexts (which happens fairly often). Without the key concepts, teachers can interpret the benchmark to include any content that they are accustomed to teaching. This also happens deliberately, even when the key concepts are specified, by teachers who simply ignore them in favor of their traditional content, for whatever reasons.

Many districts are taking the “unit planning” approach to creating their curriculum, designing units from scratch or using various collections of existing unit-based instructional materials to design their elementary curricula. A few are doing this at the middle school level. Many districts have found that creating units from scratch is extremely time-consuming, although the units they develop are aligned better with the state benchmarks than commercially available units. Michigan State University has been a leader in preparing both preservice and inservice teachers to teach from a unit-based perspective, providing detailed templates for unit development and an on-line unit development “environment” for designing, sharing, testing and revising units (the Michigan Science Education Resources Network). MDE has also provided resources for local district curriculum development through the Science Education Guidebook and the Science Education Resources web site. (The MDE Science Education Resources web site originally cited is no longer available. -Ed.)

Mandated state testing

The primary force that draws local district attention to the state’s learning goals has been mandated statewide testing of every student in grades 5, 8 and 11. The state test (the “MEAP,” or Michigan Educational Assessment Program) is a criterion-referenced paper and pencil instrument developed specifically for Michigan and based on Michigan’s benchmarks. It has been in place for two decades in various forms, revised each time the state benchmarks are revised. The test is not timed, but takes about 2 hours.

The State Legislature initiated state testing as a means for periodically assessing the achievement levels of students and holding schools accountable for efforts to raise achievement. The business sector in Michigan supports statewide testing, seeing it as a way to ensure that students who graduate from high school are prepared for the jobs they offer.

The state science tests are relatively difficult. Fewer than 50% of 5th graders pass the elementary test, and only about 20% of 8th graders pass the middle school test. Approximately 60% of 11th graders pass the high school test, but it is scored differently than the elementary and middle school tests (lower cut scores allow more students to pass).

To provide an incentive for high school students to take the test and do as well on it as they can, the state provides a $2500 college scholarship for those students who pass all of the subject areas; an additional $500 is awarded to students who also pass the 8th grade tests. The state also provides monetary “Golden Apple Awards” to the highest scoring and most improved schools in the state.

The science test includes a mix of multiple choice and constructed response items, grouped in “cluster problems,” “text criticism problems,” and “investigation problems.” The cluster problems present a scenario and then ask 4 or 5 related questions based on the scenario, including one constructed response item. The text criticism presents a reading passage taken (with permission) from a science magazine, and 4 or 5 questions that require students to use their science understanding as it applies to the text. The investigation problems were based on an investigation that all students completed in their classes during the month prior to the test (5th and 8th grade only). Students completed a journal during the actual investigation, then used it to answer questions on the MEAP. Budget cuts have placed the investigation on hold in 2001-2002. The high school test poses an imaginary investigation, then asks questions related to it.

MEAP scores are routinely published in state newspapers, comparing districts in their regions. Educators have complained bitterly about this practice, which continues despite their insistence that factors other than curriculum and teaching influence test results. Several studies have highlighted those districts who score well on the tests despite low socioeconomic conditions.

Because of the emphasis placed on the MEAP tests, schools are driven to show yearly improvements in their scores. They take several approaches: Aligning their curriculum to the questions posed on the previous tests; aligning their curriculum to the state benchmarks; preparing students for the types of questions asked on the tests by incorporating those types into classroom assessments; and motivating students to try their hardest on the day of the test. The strategy of improving the quality of instruction is not usually part of these efforts.

MDE has provided support through the Michigan Assessment Team (MAT) for the creation of useful classroom assessments and the development of assessment literacy. MAT membership changes annually to allow participation by a wide range of teachers and districts.

The need for adequate instructional materials

MDE realized that the twin policies of establishing learning goals and mandating an assessment would not by themselves transform science education or raise levels of science literacy. Teachers needed classroom tools to help transform the benchmarks into everyday instruction.

Existing instructional materials at all levels were not very effective classroom tools. They were not written to address the state benchmarks – in many cases they were not written in conformity with the goals of science literacy. Several organizations in Michigan took on the challenge of developing instructional materials that were aligned to the state benchmarks and in-line with the goals of science literacy.

The New Directions Units. MDE obtained a substantial grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to develop model teaching units based on the state benchmarks. Chemistry That Applies and Food, Energy and Growth are two of the units developed under this grant. Only a few units were developed for elementary, middle and high school – not a complete curriculum. But those teachers who use the materials consistently report improvements in achievement and attitudes toward science learning.

Battle Creek Math and Science Center Units. Several of the state’s regional Mathematics and Science Centers have developed complete unit-based curricula for the elementary grades, including the kits of equipment needed to do hands-on investigations. The units developed by Battle Creek Area Mathematics and Science Center are used by over 100 districts across the state, because they combine inquiry-based science with content that is clearly aligned to the Michigan Benchmarks.

Many districts have developed an elementary science program based around the best instructional materials they can find. This often includes some combination of New Directions units, Battle Creek, FOSS, Insights, BSCS T.R.A.K.S., STC (National Science Resources Center), etc. Fewer districts choose full-year programs such as SCIS III or FAST (University of Hawaii), possibly because they are less well known. Michigan has a commercial supplier who leases the kits of equipment to be used with most STC units and some FOSS units – ones that are in demand from districts.

The interplay between curriculum development at the district level (creating a “scope and sequence” based on state benchmarks) and adoption of instructional materials is difficult. Districts often develop first their scope and sequence, incorporating in it the best intentions for an aligned curriculum, and then look for instructional materials to “deliver” the curriculum. But they are disappointed in their search for instructional materials: Many do not address the Michigan Benchmarks adequately. This is why districts “mix and match” instructional units from various publishers – to try to get adequately alignment with the state benchmarks in units that they think will do a good job of teaching. Every unit has its own approach to developing the content, and even when the content is aligned, the approach may not be satisfactory to the teachers who will use the unit.

Professional development initiatives

Michigan has spent a great deal of money on professional development, yet teachers continue to complain that “changing my practice isn’t sufficient if I’m the only teacher in the school who teaches this way” – meaning that we have a lot of work still to do.

Professional development has always been viewed as important, even if there is little consensus about the content, timing, types of providers or degree of participation. Teacher certification laws require on-going professional development as well as a fifth year of study after the bachelor’s degree. For several years in the early 1990’s the Legislature appropriated funds for professional development, allocated to local districts on a per pupil basis. For the past 10 years the Legislature has provided funding for 33 regional Mathematics and Science Centers, who, as part of their charters, provide professional development. Districts have relied heavily on Eisenhower funds, both the per pupil allocations and the Higher Education competitive grants, as well as Goals 2000 competitive grants. National Science Foundation Statewide, Urban and Rural Systemic Initiatives have provided targeted professional development.

Professional development is available from Intermediate School Districts, Mathematics and Science Centers, commercial publishers (especially the commercial publishers of programs funded by non-profit organizations, such as Active Physics, Earth Comm, etc.), and within local districts by science coordinators or specialists. MDE has provided targeted professional development, especially with its Equity Tool Kit, developed in collaboration with North Central Regional Education Laboratory. This tool kit provides principles and resources for helping districts assure that all students reach high levels of science literacy.

Standards for Professional Development are included in the Michigan Curriculum Framework, adopted from the National Staff Development Council’s Standards. MDE produced and distributes a video that showcases alternative professional development approaches, called The Power of Collaboration. Several attempts have been made to write a coherent and expansive statewide professional development plan, but none have taken hold.

Even with a history of commitment to high standards and professional development, the state benchmarks are often misinterpreted; very little meaningful assessment is taking place; and districts continue to adopt encyclopedic textbooks. Reforming science teaching in a large, diverse state is a huge challenge. There are classrooms where effective, even exceptional teaching and learning takes place. Those teachers often participate on state and county-wide committees, find funding sources for new projects, and share what they know with colleagues whenever possible. Districts in the TIMSS Michigan Invitational Group probably have a larger percentage of those teachers than many districts, as well as other characteristics that contribute to higher achievement gains.

What has been clear from Michigan’s efforts is that a foundation of high standards, effective instructional materials, and supportive professional development, while not sufficient in itself, is at least necessary to promote higher levels of science literacy.