Reprinted here with the permission of the NSDC Journal of Staff Development. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written permission of the editor.

Journal of Staff Development, Winter 1999

JSD Winter 1999 cover

Racing a Comet

By Mary Ann Brearton and Susan Shuttleworth

"I knew that if there was to be any change in the way that teachers taught science, there had to be a deep change in the philosophy of our staff."

This insight from an elementary school teacher reveals both the promise and peril of standards-based education reform. Certainly, clear and specific content standards for K- 12 education can be a powerful catalyst for change in teaching and learning. With high-quality standards in place across the content disciplines, educators can coordinate reform in an education system and focus on improved academic achievement for all students. That is the promise of standards-based reform.

Nevertheless, to many educators the current standards movement seems far removed from the classroom and the needs of their students. They see little connection between content standards and their daily work. To these teachers, standards-based reform sounds like just another fad, which they assume will fall by the wayside as so many others have. Without a transformation in teachers’ philosophy and practice, standards-based reform simply cannot be implemented.

What does it take to bring about the "deep change" that standards-based reform requires?

Since 1985, Project 2061 — a nationwide education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science — has been in the forefront of the standards movement in science, mathematics, and technology education. Project 2061 has had a major influence on the development of national, state, and local content standards and curriculum frameworks. Project staff have collaborated with educators, researchers, and professional development experts to create effective strategies and teaching techniques for implementing standards-based reform.


Project 2061 began by describing what high school graduates should know and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology (AAAS, 1989). The next step was to specify coherent, specific sets of learning goals for grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12, goals that would enable students to make real progress toward science literacy (AAAS, 1993).

Once these standards were in place, educators began seeking advice on how to use them effectively in the classroom. Project staff traveled to education conferences and workshops throughout the country, presenting techniques for using the standards to guide real-world teaching. Soon, Project 2061 was filling more than 150 workshop requests each year from teachers, college faculty, curriculum developers, and school administrators. Project staff also offered ongoing assistance to schools engaged in science reform.

These relationships with teachers have provided project staff members with valuable insight into the challenges faced by educators as they try to put standards to work. We have seen that the right kind of professional development can be key to successful standards-based reform. (Although the professional development described here is focused on science, mathematics, and technology, the strategies and techniques could be used by teachers in other disciplines as well.)

Content standards encourage educators to focus on the most important goals for student learning. Likewise, professional development standards help educators focus on the knowledge and skills they’ll need to excel in a standards-based world.

Project 2061 believes professional development should strengthen teachers’ knowledge of:

  • The subject matter they teach, and what standards and benchmarks say their students should know;
  • Appropriate cognitive steps for different grades;
  • Research findings on students’ ideas, and techniques to probe for student understanding and misunderstanding;
  • Alternative curriculum materials and their trade-offs, and methods for selecting resources and planning activities to address specific learning goals;
  • Different assessment options and methods for using them to assess understanding; and
  • Special needs of students and strategies to teach all students effectively.


There are now layer upon layer of standards — national, state, and local. Some state and district standards represent a simplified or diluted version of national standards, and frequently lack the K- 12 coherence and clarity of language found in the national documents. Few teachers are able to study all of these documents thoroughly. Nor do they understand how all these standards can be translated into actual lesson plans, student activities, and assessments. Different standards documents also may offer contradictory information, leaving the teacher even more unsure how to proceed.

Through workshops and ongoing support, Project 2061 helps educators learn how to analyze and compare various standards documents to see what they have in common, how they differ, and how they can be used together. Teachers can see how Project 2061’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy compare with the national standards in science, mathematics, and social studies, and can analyze local and state standards through the lens of the more explicit learning goals in the benchmarks.

Project 2061 helps educators use standards and benchmarks for a variety of practical classroom purposes — designing instruction and adapting curriculum materials and assessments, for example.

Participants gain valuable hands-on experience and a deeper understanding that they can share with colleagues in their schools.

Educators also learn how to analyze curriculum materials, to see whether content and instructional strategies are aligned with national, state, and local learning goals. Project 2061 establishes very detailed criteria to use when evaluating textbooks, units, or single activities, helping educators draw conclusions on the material’s strengths and weaknesses. "The procedure gave me a new lens through which to view curriculum materials," said one high school science teacher. "And now that I’ve acquired that lens, I can’t take it off. I no longer just look for a superficial match between the table of contents in textbooks and the state core curriculum. Instead, I examine ideas in a much deeper and more thorough way. I now look carefully at elements like sequence of ideas, synthesis of concepts, common misconceptions, and accuracy of representations. In fact, I no longer only focus on the ideas themselves, but also on the connections between them."


Education reform is complex, difficult, and takes time. Standards-based reform can seem particularly daunting, because it seeks such a fundamental level of change.

Project 2061 hopes, in the long term, to influence schools and districts so they build coherent K-12 math and science curricula. We want educators to make better choices when adopting curriculum materials, and better use of assessments. We hope to influence curriculum material developers as well, so they will provide texts and other materials that meet the standards.

Changes like these require school districts and teachers to have a long-term commitment to formal professional development. Educators need numerous opportunities to learn, reflect, and discuss ideas with peers. It’s not enough to simply attend a workshop. Educators must use what they learn in an ongoing process of examining their classroom planning and practice, sharing with colleagues what they’ve learned, and expanding their leadership roles in their school districts.

One middle school teacher, for example, said her experience with Project 2061 inspired her to "take on the whole school district. I had a cooperative mission: Unite the district, get them excited about science, align our curriculum, and inspire teachers and students." She began organizing faculty meetings and advocating that staff development time be dedicated to working on aligning science curriculum to the benchmarks. "We have big plans to continue work on aligning curriculum, writing performance tasks, and coordinating curriculum between schools," she said. "We also hope to continue educating the school board, teachers, staff, and community."

In these ways, individual educators can begin making incremental change in their schools and districts, which must be the first step in any larger transformation.


American Association for the Advancement of Science (1989). Science for all Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.

National Research Council (1996). National science education standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Useem, E., Culbertson, J., & Buchanan, J. (October 1997). The contributions of teacher networks to Philadelphia’s school reform. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Education Fund.

Group taps into expertise

For three years, a group of K-12 teachers and administrators in Philadelphia met with Project 2061 staff for up to a month every summer and once a week during the school year. The Philadelphia educators studied Project 2061 benchmarks and ways to apply them in real-world classrooms. Eventually, these educators were ready to conduct similar workshops for other Philadelphia teachers.

In its 1997 report on the city’s school reform efforts, the Philadelphia Education Fund, an influential nonprofit group which offers professional development and other resources to improve Philadelphia schools, said Project 2061 "brought important perspectives and expertise to the district’s efforts: knowledge that standards creation can be frustrating and takes time; experience in articulating work across all grade levels; skill in analyzing textbooks and materials to see if they are standards-driven; experience with constructivist teaching methods; and a commitment to addressing diversity" (Useem, Culbertson, & Buchanan, 1997, p. 11).


Resources for Science Literacy: Professional Development by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Science & Engineering Indicators—1998 (NSB 98-1) by the National Science Board. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.

Celestial inspiration

In June 1985, the year Halley’s Comet soared across the sky, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) created a new long-term K-12 science, mathematics, and technology education reform initiative, Project 2061. The name embodied the idea that education is for a lifetime—many children born in 1985 (and starting the seventh grade in 1998) would still be alive when the comet returned in 2061. Project 2061’s mandate was to transform education in America so that all students would be prepared to live interesting, responsible lives during this 76-year span of accelerating scientific and technological change.

The making of national learning goals

In 1989, Project 2061 produced Science for All Americans, which defined what all students should know and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology when they graduate from high school. Also in 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989) published the first set of national mathematics standards. In 1993, in order to provide more specific learning goals, Project 2061 created Benchmarks for Science Literacy, which outlined specific learning goals in science, mathematics, and technology for students in grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Benchmarks was used extensively to create the content standards for the National Science Education Standards published by the National Research Council in 1996.

With these sets of standards, educators across the country now have national learning goals with a remarkable degree of congruity to guide them in science, mathematics, and technology education reform. These goals are rooted in the belief that:

  • Education reform must be comprehensive, long-term, and centered on all students;
  • Curriculum reform must be shaped by the lasting knowledge and skills students should acquire at each grade level;
  • Standards represent thresholds, rather than advanced performance;
  • Material covered in classrooms must be radically reduced. Educators must emphasize "depth over breadth," "less is more," and understanding over the memorization of technical terms; and
  • Standards do not require uniform curricula, teaching methods, or materials, but should enable teachers to select learning experiences for students that take into account state and district requirements, student backgrounds and interests, teacher preferences, and the local environment.

Professional development programs

In 1998, Project 2061 received a three-year, $2 million grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to launch a new self-sustaining enterprise, Project 2061 Professional Development Programs. These programs seek to help educators:

  • Understand what standards expect students to know and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology;
  • Design more coherent curriculum and select more effective learning materials and assessments;
  • Teach with more focus and skill;
  • Learn more about the subjects they teach; and
  • Make connections with other educators committed to reform.

The program offers training opportunities and ongoing assistance for educators on examining curriculum, promoting partnerships, analyzing existing state or local standards, building classroom knowledge, learning about research and its applications in the classroom, and building local capacity for reform.

For more information about Project 2061 Professional Development Programs, call (888) PDP-2061 or e-mail

Brearton, M. A., Shuttleworth, S. 1999. Racing a Comet. Journal of Staff Development, Winter.