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Harvard Education Letter, September/October 1998 - Volume 14

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From Sputnik to TIMSS: Reforms in Science Education Make Headway Despite Setbacks

More time is needed for widespread classroom changes

By Naomi Frelindich

When final science scores from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests came out late last year, U.S. students proved to be behind half of those in other developed countries by the eighth grade, and dead last by the final year of secondary school. The low scores, though shocking, were not unexpected: The U.S. has been trying to overhaul science education since the Russians launched Sputnik in the 1950s, but progress has been slow.

While many new science courses were developed in the 1960s in response to Sputnik, that period of reform halted shortly after U.S. astronauts landed on the moon, according to James Rutherford, former director of Project 2061, the American Association for Advancement of Science’s program for revamping K-12 science education. With the crisis over, science reform stopped short of producing a "critical mass" of newly trained teachers. "It wasn’t rooted in the schools yet, so we went back to the traditional ways of doing things," says Rutherford.

Worries over whether the U.S. can keep up in the global economy have ushered in the current period of science education reform, says Rutherford, whose 1990 book, Science for All Americans is considered "the bible" for these efforts. Unlike the 1960s, though, there is general consensus on what concepts students should be learning from kindergarten through 12th grade. But translating those expectations into the classroom remains the central task. In-depth studies of TIMSS results, combined with case studies of reform efforts, are shedding even more light on the many changes that are still necessary. Among them are wider dissemination of newer inquiry-based science materials and intensive training of teachers in how to use them. "Trying to put together the pieces is the challenge now," Rutherford says.

Beyond Standards

Although the TIMSS scores don’t reflect it, there have been major national and statewide efforts to improve science literacy in the schools. Some 46 states have adopted science standards or curriculum frameworks. Many of these frameworks are based on standards set by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences. In addition, about half of all states have instituted state-wide tests in science, just like those in reading and math.

But standards have proved to be only a starting point—teachers also need new materials and training to interpret and follow them. In a 1998 analysis of state standards, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation gave only six states top marks for having standards that were sufficiently specific when it came to content. Since releasing its own "Benchmarks for Science Literacy" in 1993, the AAAS’s Project 2061 (named for the year that Haley’s Comet will return) has recently embarked on a series of workshops aimed at introducing standards to teachers in individual school districts, and is working on a database to help middle school teachers, in particular, find curriculum materials to meet them. "That’s the big obstacle," says Mary Koppal of Project 2061. "People want to use standards and benchmarks, but they want to know what works."

Ohio Reform Shows Results

When the National Science Foundation announced its intention to award millions of dollars in grants for statewide science education reforms, Jane Butler Kahle, a professor at Ohio’s Miami University teamed up with physics Nobel laureate Kenneth G. Wilson to come up with a plan. Their idea was to train middle school teachers in inquiry-based physics—a "gatekeeper" subject that students need to take in order to take higher-level science courses. The goals were to create a more knowledgeable teaching force and to engage more female and minority students in the subject, since these students are more likely to opt out of science after middle school.

What they came up with "was successful beyond anyone’s expectations" wrote Kahle in a 1997 article for Science Educator. Dubbed the "Discovery Institute," the six-week summer program trained teachers in math, life science, and physics. Taught by master teachers, mathematicians, and scientists at eight sites throughout Ohio, the institutes stressed teaching teachers "the way we wanted them to teach," says Kahle. Teachers received stipends of up to $60 a day and could earn college credits by attending. Unlike the typical lecture-lab science course, those taking Discovery's Physics By Inquiry institute learned by doing. For example, teachers were told to put together light bulbs, batteries, and strips of aluminum to make the bulbs light as part of learning about electricity.

To reach even more teachers, a two-week summer workshop for individual districts was developed to help teachers work through actual curricula in a way consistent with national science standards. "Teachers who go through the two-week institutes are very likely to go the next summer to the six-week institute because we whet their appetite," said Kahle. Whereas many programs peak at reaching the 10 percent of teachers who usually volunteer for reforms, the Discovery Program reached almost 40 percent of middle school teachers in participating districts. The initial cost of both the two- and six-week training was about $25 per hour per participant, but this figure decreased as the program grew.

To measure the program’s success, Kahle and her colleagues surveyed teachers, principals, and parents, and visited schools to gauge changes in teacher practices. They also developed their own test to see how well students of teachers who did and did nor participate in Discovery training were able to think conceptually and interpret data. Results show clearly that students in "reform" classrooms with teachers who have attended Discovery Institutes are more likely to write about how they solve problems, to work in small groups, and to use hands-on materials than those in "non-reform" classrooms. Results also show that teachers in reform classrooms use more inquiry-based teaching approaches, which require students to support their claims, encourage questions, and inspire students to discuss subjects. These practices remained evident three years after teachers were trained.

Test scores were not only higher in reform classrooms, but girls actually outscored boys within their racial groups. African Americans in reform classrooms scored as well as white students in non-reform classrooms. Studies like these are done every year, and results are published and given to stare legislators to boost support for the program. Ohio has also changed teacher certification criteria to require "intense experiences with inquiry," says Kahle.

"We have changed attitudes about what constitutes good professional development in the state," she says. "That maybe the long-lasting effect of what we’ve done."

For Further Information

J.B. Sable. “Systemic Reform: Challenges and Changes.” Science Educator 6, no.1 (Spring 1997): 1-6.

Ohio’s Systemic Initiative: Discovery, 420 MeGuiley Hall, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056.1693; 513-529-1686 (evaluation) or 937.775.2726 (K-12 Programs);

Less Is More

Since the 1980s, evidence has been mounting that "hands-on, inquiry-based" materials recommended by national science standards impact facts just as well as the traditional lecture approach, with the added bonus of improving student attitudes toward science, (HEL, May/June 1990).

Assessments like those devised by Ohio researchers (see box) are also confirming that new inquiry-based approaches can raise scores, even among girls and minorities, groups that traditionally have not performed well in science.

Unfortunately, the textbooks that most schools rely on, especially in middle and high schools, have not been revamped to emphasize these new methods. "Despite a recognition that Project 2061 and other national reform documents are calling for reduced content and different approaches to teaching than in the past, publishers have made only incremental changes, layered on top of existing textbook formats and content," say the authors of an SRI International report on Project 2061.

The problem with U.S. science texts is that they take the "mile-wide, inch-deep" approach, says William H. Schmidt, research coordinator at Michigan State University’s U.S. TIMSS National Research Center. Schmidt and his colleagues analyzed 491 curriculum guides and 628 textbooks from around the world to get a picture of how the U.S. taught math and science as compared to other countries. Based on their study "A Splintered Vision," Schmidt argues that the U.S. did poorly on TIMSS primarily because its science curriculum attempts too much and is repetitive from year to year. Countries that did better on TIMSS have more focused curriculum, he says. "If you look at a [U.S.] 8th-grade science book, it has 65 topics in it," he says. "The German and Japanese textbooks have five topics in them and the international average is 20. Science has big theorems, but the way it’s conveyed to U.S. students is like a large laundry list."

Minnesota’s experience with the TIMSS tests confirms Schmidt’s thesis, says Bill Linder-Scholer, executive director of SciMathMN, a nonprofit reform organization that sponsored Minnesota’s participation in the test. Minnesota students tied with Singapore’s for the best scores on the TIMSS 8th-grade earth science test, primarily because 95 percent of its 8th-graders take earth science (as opposed to a mix of science subjects) and because there was "common agreement" among teachers to focus on only four topics within that subject, says Linder-Scholer. "We have no magic bullet," he says. The fundamental lesson is about alignment."

Some new curriculum is being developed to correct this problem. In stark contrast to the 65 topics found in the 650-page earth science text most commonly used in middle schools, the National Science Resources Center, for example, is developing an earth science course that focuses on only three topics taught entirely with activities and thin "student guides."

Centralized Efforts Work

Despite these pockets of progress, reformers at the National Science Foundation (NSF) have discovered just how difficult it is to bring about widespread improvement. Between 1991 and 1993, the NSF signed cooperative agreements with 25 states to carry out "standards-based systemic reform throughout their jurisdictions." These Statewide Systemic Initiative (SSI) grants averaged about $10 million, and there was great latitude in how the state programs could be executed. States typically contracted to universities or other outside groups to set up teacher development programs, introduce new curriculum, and try to measure success.

A study of the SSI program released in March by SRI International concluded that it "had limited, moderate, and uneven impacts on classroom practice." The programs that failed often suffered from what program manager Patrick Shields calls the "let a thousand flowers bloom approach"—giving money to many local initiatives to do what they want with it. However, centrally managed programs like Ohio’s (see box) that feature intensive teacher training did far better. "Programs that were able to show a real impact on students and teachers were those that started early were able to provide intensive high-quality professional development, and used pre-made curriculum materials," said Shields.

Learning by Doing

Teacher training plays an especially important role in science education efforts for two major reasons: science as a field is constantly buffeted by new discoveries, and the learning curve is steeper because teachers generally have had little specialized training in science. The average elementary school teacher has taken only one college course in science.

Reform efforts focused only on new curriculum without adequate teacher training appear to be "doomed," say John Cannon and David Crowther of the University of Nevada. After spending $1 million on a new hands-on, activity-based curriculum called "Science Place," one large Nevada school district saw its reforms fail because teachers at its 56 elementary school didn’t know how to use it, according to a 1997 case study by the two researchers. Although the publisher provided training for 10 local teachers, who were then paid to provide workshops for other teachers, only 59 percent of the district’s teachers attended even a single workshop. Teachers complained that there was not enough time during the year to complete the units or to work out problems. Without continued training for teachers using "Science Place" and incentives for teachers to attend workshops, the reform was "doomed from the beginning to trip and fall," the authors concluded.

The best professional development in science is collaborative, stresses content learning, and is done over a period of weeks with opportunities for follow-up discussions, experts say. There is no one model. In Massachusetts, for example, state education officials are using videotapes to show teachers how to teach to statewide tests that 10th-graders will have to pass to graduate beginning in 2003. In New Jersey, a partnership with the Merck Institute for Science Education and local districts stresses fundamental science concepts, as well as classroom management skills for keeping teaching materials stocked and organized.

Some of the most effective training is being done far away from schools in government labs, science museums, and even on beaches, says Susan Loucks-Horsley, a director of professional development at the National Research Council. Programs in these settings can show teachers exactly what is meant by inquiry-based learning so they can model and guide discussions in the classroom, she says. "They can take a field trip to the beach to look at erosion, develop questions, and do an investigation. All of a sudden they have questions about what they are seeing and realize they need to know more," said Loucks-Horsley. "Inquiry-based learning is not just posing questions to teachers and kids; it’s exploring physical and natural phenomenon in a way that they learn serious scientific principles."

In the end, the goal is not simply for U.S. students to score better on TIMSS, reformers say, but to construct the classroom of the future. "The longer thing, which we think will take 25 to 50 years to accomplish," says Rutherford, "is to really put in place the next system, the next curriculum that will turn out, across the board, students who are really comfortable with math, science, and technology, and know how to use it and control it and who can participate in a more interesting and safer world."

For Further Information

"A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education," 1997. Available from the U.S. TIMSS National Research Center, Michigan State University, College of Education, 455 Erickson

© 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

Frelindich, N. 1998. From Sputnik to TIMSS: Reforms in Science Education Make Headway Despite Setbacks. The Harvard Education Letter, 14.