Blueprints Navigation

You are currently in  


Science education reformers have identified three barriers to changing science curriculum and instruction in American classrooms: the state of science curricula, the state of teachers' knowledge, and public awareness of the need for educational reform in science. Most current science curricula are designed to have students memorize a vast number of unrelated facts rather having them explore in depth an integrated series of concepts and principles that cut across traditional disciplines and prepare them for a lifetime of learning about the natural and physical world. Most teachers have been trained in the former style of curriculum and therefore are often unprepared to implement the latter. The public is generally unaware of these issues and is less interested in science education than in reading and mathematics, for example.

Like many curriculum reform efforts today, Project 2061 aims to solve these problems by creating a more student-centered, hands-on, and experiential way of learning science. In addition, Project 2061 strongly suggests that educators move away from the standardized science curriculum offered by widely-used textbooks toward developing science education that is dynamic, flexible, and locally meaningful. Benchmarks for Science Literacy (Benchmarks) (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1993) creates a framework around which teachers, schools, and districts can design class work that will suit the unique needs of their individual students.

Current Status of Reform

While the goals of current science and mathematics education reform are commendable, many of its essential aspects are not dissimilar to large-scale curriculum reform efforts undertaken between the 1950s and 1970s. These projects also saw curriculum and teacher training as key problems and searched for a more hands-on, student-centered approach to science instruction, all the while understanding that major change was a gradual process that would require many years to implement. Despite these laudable efforts and despite the investment of resources, expertise, and federal money (at least $117 million between 1954 and 1975), little of the substance of these changes remained by the mid-1970s. Student learning once again focused primarily on the acquisition of computational skills, and students rarely engaged in activities that allowed for creativity and reflection. The key question for today's science and mathematics education reformers clearly becomes, "Why did these efforts fail?"

NSF Spending on Education

The answers are surely multilayered, but any reform that wishes to avoid the disappointing results of the earlier efforts must recognize two key points. First, the link between the school curriculum and the science practiced in laboratories and universities must be as close as possible so that research scientists, engineers, and other professionals in science-related disciplines can work together with K-12 teachers. Scientists cannot be expected to know all that one should know about teaching and instruction. Likewise, K-12 science teachers and curriculum developers cannot know all that one should know about the nature of research-based science. But the tighter this link, the better school and university science curriculum and instruction will be.

Second, many teachers are unprepared to implement science education as envisioned by Benchmarks and The National Research Council's 1996 National Science Education Standards (Standards). Any reform effort will fail if teachers are poorly prepared to teach science. Most teachers have grown up learning science as a series of unrelated facts to be memorized and recalled, and they continued to learn science that way in the science courses that were required in teacher-education programs. In addition, elementary and secondary school teachers have little or no access to the kinds of professional networks common in the community of academic scientists and thus do not have regular access to conversation about what "real" science is. Some of the projects in the 1970s recognized this deficiency and acknowledged the paramount importance of engaging teachers in the development of new curricula. Recent teacher enhancement projects, such as those sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, have also worked to develop professional networks, aided by the increasing availability of electronic communications in schools. However, when these projects end, schools and universities often find it difficult to support continued funding for the activities. Teachers lose contact with the academic scientists they have worked with and are again left without a professional network to support their reform efforts.

While it is important that reformers recognize these problems as they prepare to proceed with development and implementation, they must also recognize that change will occur incrementally. Therefore, short-term goals must be designed that focus on the following questions:

The short-term goals that emerge from the answers to these and perhaps other questions should be considered in the context of top-down reform strategies, bottom-up reform strategies, and strategies that combine the two. While past reform efforts have generally been either top-down or bottom-up, these two methods of reform are not mutually exclusive. Not only should reform efforts use both top-down and bottom-up strategies, they should also use strategies that combine ingredients of both. This chapter is divided into four sections that focus on these questions and offer options for reform strategies that address them.

Top-Down Reform:
Needed Changes in Government Policy

Government policy-federal, state, and local-has the power to effect fundamental change in classroom practice. Although federal funding has some influence on K-12 school programs, local school boards continue to have direct control over American schools. And in the last 25 years, the role of states in U.S. education-even at the local level-has grown considerably (Goertz, 1993). The increased focus on course requirements and state comparisons during the 1980s helped move even more power to the state level. Although this movement increased the number of students from all backgrounds taking academic courses (Porter, Kirst, Osthoff, & Schneider, 1993), little attention was paid to what was being taught in those courses. Now states around the country are beginning to use policy instruments, such as curriculum frameworks, assessments, and teacher certification requirements, to directly impact both content and instruction in schools. Many are doing so under the rubric of a policy and governance strategy called "systemic reform." This strategy calls for states to develop a common set of standards or principles around which their schools should operate, then use these standards to develop goals for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. This reform also requires states to organize and distribute resources more effectively to meet standards-based goals.

States give their districts and schools varying degrees of flexibility to design their own strategies for meeting state-imposed standards. For example, state-mandated textbooks and assessments narrow the options that individual districts and schools have for designing their own programs. If science and mathematics educators hope to see reforms implemented on a wide scale, they must work to influence state-level policies that support more flexibility. Reforms should include comprehensive attention to curriculum frameworks, assessment, teachers, and curriculum materials. If state policy impacting these four areas runs antithetical to the goals of science education reform, it will surely kill reform efforts. But policies that at least open the space for innovation-and at best actively support science and mathematics education-can be a key ingredient to the success of reform.

Curriculum Frameworks

In the past, state guidelines for instruction in various disciplines received little attention from educators. However, these guidelines-commonly called curriculum frameworks-are beginning to play a greater role in guiding state-wide instruction. Frameworks are now often developed in a public forum, and many states use them as catalysts for school reform. When this chapter was written, many states were publishing new or revised statewide curriculum frameworks-37 in science and 33 in mathematics-and most were already in the process of implementing them (Blank & Pechman, 1995). More and more of these frameworks are beginning to mirror the goals of science and mathematics reform by using standards that emphasize the conceptual ideas of a field rather than its highly specialized details. These standards include Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993), National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996), and Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989).

Nonetheless, frameworks take very different forms from state to state. For instance, California and South Carolina provide a relatively high level of detail, discussing the larger conceptual ideas of science, its pedagogy, the sequencing of instruction, and assessment. Texas and Mississippi limit their frameworks to statements of the science content goals and objectives, offering only optional suggestions for instruction. Finally, states such as Pennsylvania have developed nondisciplinary frameworks that do not discuss sequencing or pedagogy. Content-only and nondisciplinary approaches may be used more often in states with a history of strong local control because they provide more flexibility to school districts. Some of the states that proposed detailed content and pedagogy have been forced to rewrite their frameworks by powerful groups who oppose values and attitudes statements that are often expressed or implied in more detailed frameworks. Some coalitions strongly oppose goals such as problem-solving, higher-order thinking, and heterogeneous grouping because they feel it detracts from student learning of specific subjects. These groups have forced several states to switch from the development of frameworks that make suggestions for teaching and learning science processes to more disciplinary-based frameworks.

Although the "bare-bones," disciplinary-based frameworks do not always align perfectly with Benchmarks-mainly because they are often grade-level or course specific rather than interdisciplinary across grade ranges-they are much more viable politically. In addition, they make it possible to provide a great deal of guidance and flexibility to teachers. On the other hand, state frameworks that do not contain at least some degree of specificity or instructional guidance will have little practical value to teachers and school administrators who must figure out how to translate the broad concepts of the frameworks into classroom units and lesson plans. To solve this problem, local school districts can use Benchmarks, which provides both a high degree of specificity and a great deal of flexibility. Project 2061's proponents will have a powerful tool to advance reforms if they extend their influence on the development of state science curriculum frameworks to include the work that local districts do to implement those frameworks.


Like state influence in general, the influence of state-wide (and even nationwide) testing has grown dramatically in the last 20 years. As discussed at length in Blueprints' Chapter 8: Assessment, these tests often are the most important influence on what gets taught in the classroom. Recognizing this, many science and mathematics educators have become increasingly concerned about the limitations of multiple-choice, standardized tests, and have begun to focus increasing attention on developing so-called "authentic assessments." These authentic assessments often include portfolios of student work, performance-based exams, and open-ended response items that are designed to test students' ability to think reflectively rather than reflexively. Many hope, and science education reformers must also hope, that the use of these assessments will continue to increase. They have great potential to promote more experiential learning and critical thinking skills, two key goals of science and mathematics education reform.

State Assessment AccountabilityCosts and public acceptance are barriers to the development and use of authentic assessments. Larger states are able to pay for the development of science assessments that are aligned with their own frameworks and that include open-ended and performance items. States with fewer resources must use "off-the-shelf" commercial tests that are mainly multiple-choice format and often are poorly aligned with the state framework. School districts face similar difficulties in aligning frameworks and assessments. Although many states have begun to use enhanced multiple-choice exams (e.g., exams that include graphs, measuring tools, and so on) and open-ended items in state-wide assessments, a variety of technical issues still plague authentic assessments and make them problematic for policy makers concerned about public accountability. Likewise, several groups resist authentic assessments because of their inability to clearly quantify a student's performance. California and Kentucky, for example, had to shelve their authentic assessments in the face of public criticism that they were not sufficiently objective and reliable.

Whether a state or school district uses authentic assessments or relies heavily on standardized, multiple-choice testing, assessments exert a powerful influence on curriculum and instruction. And the higher the stakes associated with performance on the exam, the more it will influence the curriculum. Though some of the indirect results of high-stakes exams-such as teaching to the test, focusing on skills and vocabulary, and taking time away from instruction-are inconsistent with many of the aims of reform, educators must recognize the power that assessments exert on practice and must therefore be prepared to attempt to influence the design of state and national exams, following the suggestions in Chapter 8.


Reforms have little chance of producing more than isolated impact without fundamentally affecting teachers. A recent study indicated that there are major problems in the teaching force, including many out-of-subject and non-certified teachers, and high rates of turnover and leaving the field (National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, 1996). The report identified ten indicators of teacher quality:

Of these ten indicators, one state currently meets seven, three states meet none, and the majority of states meet fewer than four.

States use a wide variety of policies to influence the quality of the teaching force, including salaries, incentive pay, certification and license renewal, evaluation, and staff development. The surest way for science and mathematics education reform to make fundamental change is to place strong emphasis on the certification, evaluation, and staff development of teachers, administrators, and policymakers.

Certification. Just as assessment influences classroom practice, a state's certification process for teachers affects the practices of teacher-training institutions. Though it is difficult to change the content of higher education curricula, institutions have changed their teacher-training programs when high numbers of students have not passed certification exams. In an attempt to change the nature of its teaching force, Oklahoma is now tying its certification requirements to standards devised by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) for high-performing, experienced teachers. Teacher educators would be well-advised to work with NBPTS or similar organizations in determining the content of their programs.

Evaluation. In the 1980s, many states attempted to strengthen their teacher evaluation processes. However, these efforts were not very successful in influencing education. First, teacher shortages in some states and localities precluded districts from eliminating teachers, no matter how they performed on the evaluations. In addition, teaching evaluations have tended to focus on generic teaching competencies. For instance, Cycle of Standards-Based Instructional ImprovementMinnesota's Educational Effectiveness Program, created in 1983, used 15 general "effective schools" criteria as a basis for evaluation and assistance. It is important to recognize that the context of a teaching situation, the content of what is being taught, and the particular instructional goal all must be considered in defining and evaluating effective teaching (Sclan & Darling-Hammond, 1992). Reformers should develop and refine models of teaching science that align with the goals of Benchmarks and Standards, use them as the basis for evaluations systems, and tie staff development to evaluation to produce a system that builds science teaching competency toward standards-based goals.

Staff Development. Largely because supporters of staff development efforts lack political power, many states do not provide any funding at all for staff development, leaving it to individual districts. Even when states do provide funds for staff development, they rarely support the type of long-term, flexible, and developmental science learning process that Project 2061 envisions for teachers and students. Fiscal crises nationwide and broad popular support for belt tightening in state bureaucracies ensure that this political reality will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.

Science and mathematics education reformers should work closely with states that do provide funding for staff development in order to help them create targeted, substantive programs for districts and schools. In states that provide minimal or no financial support for staff development, professional associations can try to influence teacher-training institutions and state certification processes. In these states, any efforts to influence staff development activities should be focused at the district level. A long-term goal can be to design workshops to introduce teachers to the goals of Benchmarks and Standards. A truly effective system would also include state-wide networks of teachers, district offices, and "coaches" who have been similarly trained and who provide ongoing training and support to schools implementing these goals.

Instructional Materials

Hands-on Work in Science Class

Although about half the states approve textbooks and other instructional materials for schools, mandantory adoption of those materials varies widely from state to state. Some policy makers have talked of moving away from textbook use, with frequent claims that textbooks are a mile wide and an inch deep, that they are written by publishers whose aim is not to offend, that they therefore address only the most watered down content, and that they limit teacher options and tend to stifle teacher creativity (Schmidt, McKnight, & Raizen, 1996). States have begun to respond to these criticisms. Not only have many states pushed the publishers of their textbooks to adopt higher standards of quality, they have also worked to diversify the materials that are eligible for adoption. For example, several states now encourage science teachers to use science kits, videodisks, or computer software programs in their classrooms. Science and mathematics educators would do well to take advantage of this climate of flexibility and reform. Providing students with more relevant, hands-on learning experiences is not only the aim of science and mathematics educators, it also seems to be the aim of a growing number of educational policymakers.

Adding Flexibility

Many states are actively working to increase the flexibility of their policies, recognizing the limits of past efforts aimed strictly at top-down reform. Numerous states see standard-setting policies that are modeled after Benchmarks and Standards as a promising method for combining state-level accountability needs with local needs for control of instruction and curriculum design. Science and mathematics educators would be well-advised to use these new mechanisms and their counterparts-deregulation, charter schools legislation, local needs assessment processes, and the like-to allow for local experimentation along lines consonant with reform ideals. The current climate of reform at the state level is one in which lasting, meaningful change can flourish.

Bottom-Up Reform:
Needed Changes in School Policy

By the mid-1980s, the substantial limits of top-down reform had begun to reveal themselves, and policy makers increasingly focused attention on "restructuring." Most restructuring policies held that teacher and parent empowerment was the key to effective education. Although the reasoning was logical and the intention admirable, most restructuring policies ignored curriculum content. Without such focus, it was difficult to effect changes in student learning (Porter, 1993).

District-based Reform

Theoretically, systemic reform attempts to address this issue by bringing subject-matter content into local empowerment strategies. Many of today's systemic reform initiatives, however, tend to decentralize control from the state to the school, bypassing the district. Policymakers should be careful not to get carried away with the romantic idea of delegating all decision-making to individual school sites. Spillane's 1994 study of a Michigan school district illustrates how powerful districts are in mediating between state policy and classroom practice. Despite a strong set of incentives and sanctions designed to make districts comply with new state reading standards, the district was instead able to focus professional development, curricular materials, and student assessments on more traditional forms of reading.

The power of local districts should not be overlooked in any sweeping reform strategy. They are close enough to school sites to understand the subtleties of local context, but powerful enough to influence practice at a group of schools, eliminating the difficult task of making change on a school-by-school basis. Policymakers must consider that district administrators interpret policy changes in the light of their own organizational, social, and political context.

To bypass district administrators and focus on school personnel will not diminish the importance of the district in the change process. Districts play a major role in mobilizing and influencing local political support for reform initiatives, and their opposition can kill those efforts with ease.

As increased state level control over educational goals begins to make its influence felt in the coming years, science and mathematics education reformers would do well to use districts as the unit of dissemination and development. Under current Goals 2000 plans, 90% of states' allocations of federal grants for goal setting will go to local districts. Science leaders might consider ways to provide (or ask states, foundations, or others to provide) incentive grants to local districts interested in implementing Benchmarks and Standards.

School-based Reform

As an overall change strategy, focusing on the school or district level as the unit of development holds promise. Building networks of schools or districts that aim toward science reform would allow them to learn from each other, cooperate to obtain technical assistance, and break down the isolation that so often plagues educators. Grants for start-up costs and implementation also may be more easily obtained by a coalition of schools with common goals.

There are several trade-offs involved in a school-centered strategy of bottom-up change. Certainly, school by school change is more expensive, and its reach is more limited. It also may miss the very schools that need help the most. Voluntary, bottom-up approaches do not provide the political leverage that is sometimes needed for change, and may only attract schools at the high end of the socioeconomic scale. School by school change increases the complexity of district administrators' jobs, which is to assure the public that programs are effective and students are achieving. These reasons argue that, although individual schools can and do manage to develop impressive changes, an overall strategy for reform in science education should not depend solely on school-level approaches.

Lessons from Project 2061 Sites

For any school or district wishing to put the goals of Science for All Americans (AAAS, 1989) into practice, the School-District Centers involved with Project 2061's reform efforts provide valuable lessons. Several factors have influenced the outcomes at the six sites: bottom-up design; external support and funding from AAAS; multilevel, multidisciplinary teams; encouragement to "dream big" and develop a vision unhampered by current school organization, design, or district politics; and a lengthy planning and development period (Massel & Hetrick, 1993).

Just as the sites provide lessons on how to ensure the success of science education reform, they also illustrate examples of the many pitfalls that await a district or school attempting such broad change. For instance, the open-ended nature of the project was in conflict with some important local realities, such as constraints on teachers' time, politicians' needs for accountability, and parental understanding. The long-term strategy of the project also made it difficult for some, especially those outside the core team, to stay actively involved. If curriculum design is to engage teachers on an ongoing basis-and surely it should-these difficult realities will have to be addressed.

Recommendations for a Professional Learning Strategy

To address the difficult issue of teacher capacity, science and mathematics education reformers can consider focusing on a strategy of professional learning, with strong ties to curriculum development. This strategy would combine elements of both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Professional Challenges

The models of learning embraced by reformers-based on the idea that learners construct their own knowledge-force teachers to become more active decision makers in the classroom and use materials and lessons that meet the unique needs of their students. In short, this approach may ask some teachers to teach in a way they have never been taught, which sometimes goes against the grain of today's classroom organization. In addition, it requires teachers to have much greater facility with subject matter than they currently do. They must be prepared to contend with a degree of complexity and uncertainty that was probably not a part of their training, and to not know the answer to many student questions. Overcoming these challenges is no small task. Research on the reforms of the mid-1970s, which were heavily supported and widely implemented, showed that most teachers who experimented with experience-based learning and new curriculum materials quickly returned to more comfortable, traditional methods (Stake, Easely, & Anastasiou, 1978).

Staff Development Today

Much staff development today is ineffective because it is fragmented in conception, episodic in delivery, and inconsistently distributed among teachers. It is often designed by experts distant from the classroom, with schools rarely taking responsibility for it. Teachers in most staff development exercises are consumers of knowledge produced elsewhere, a reality that is wholly inconsistent with the goals and philosophy of reform (Little, 1993).

Most Frequent Types of Professional Development
In addition, many teachers are poorly situated professionally to engage in the kind of networking that takes place among academic scientists at frequent conferences. Teachers can hardly be expected to provide hands-on activities and help children construct knowledge in science if they are not given the resources to construct their own ideas about science content and teaching. Likewise, it is not surprising that teachers might have difficulty implementing many science curricula. These materials are often developed by professional scientists, and teachers and professional scientists are almost completely isolated from each other.

Some successful efforts to confront these challenges have been made, such as the Urban Mathematics Collaborative (Webb, Heck, & Tate; 1996) and a smaller network of Math A teachers in San Francisco described by Adams (1992). Both of these efforts recognized that building long-term teacher development rests heavily on three factors: subject-matter expertise, knowledge of education policy, and a strong connection to a broader professional community. The Urban Mathematics Collaborative reaped the benefits of connecting teachers to influential people in their discipline and to state and national policy makers, while helping teachers to recognize expertise and incorporate it in their teaching.

Project 2061 school sites have in some ways functioned much like these two collaborative networks. In fact, several teachers who were trained at these sites and interviewed for this chapter said it was the best professional development they had received in their lives. Other studies have shown that teachers tend to consider staff development most effective when it offers substantive depth and focus, adequate time to grapple with ideas and materials, opportunity to consult with colleagues and experts, and a sense of doing real work rather than being "talked at" by experts. Project 2061's staff development includes several of these characteristics. Similar professional learning models, centered around curriculum analysis, are strategies that can be more widely implemented.

Nonetheless, there are serious barriers to implementing improved models of professional learning. First, the cost of all staff development is high. Second, it is difficult to engage already busy teachers in lengthy staff development exercises. It might be even more difficult to engage college and university faculty. Third, while reform emphasizes open-ended processes that promote ongoing learning and growth, politicians and the public often demand closure on the development process, and accountability measures that match a certain timeline. In a similar vein, teachers demand closure on curriculum development. Not surprisingly, many teachers have expressed frustration in the past when curriculum reforms have been designed to serve the broad needs of an entire state or nation, and therefore have left teachers with the overwhelming responsibility of designing or adapting course units and activities. Science and mathematics leaders must be aware of these realities and work to balance their objectives with the needs of teachers, administrators, and policy makers.

Recommendations for Building Support

If reform leaders intend to reach the ambitious goal of changing the way science is taught in schools nationwide-in fact, if they hope to have any impact at all-one of their greatest challenges is to build widespread public support. Gaining public consensus and support is made more difficult by the diversity in our educational and political systems, which respond to many interest groups with a variety of agendas. It is useful to think of the need to build public support in two areas: policymakers' support for initial approval of reforms, and grass-roots support from teachers and parents for long-range classroom implementation. While advocates of reform must recognize the importance of building support among both of these constituencies, they must also recognize that the construction of such support will probably be done site by site or issue by issue rather than with a single, broad-based campaign. Finally, support for reform ideas will be most forthcoming if the public gains a sense of ownership through early and continued participation.

Coalitions on the Top

In order to develop the most effective effort to influence coalitions at higher levels of power, leaders must endeavor to understand the political contexts of different regions, states, and localities. For instance, while the state legislature may take the lead in influencing reform in one state, the state department of education may be the critical contact in another. Reform leaders should rank those who influence policy in terms of their positions, power, and salience across the following categories:

Science education leaders might consider a variety of other tactics to spread their word to policy makers and the public. For example, to gain public and professional input on their Common Core of Learning (Vermont's curriculum framework), the Department of Education sponsored "focus forums"-meetings to discuss what students should know and be able to do. Such forums are an effective way to help parents and the public play a role in the development of new schooling programs and to give them a better understanding of the aims and philosophy of science education reform. Focused dialogues such as these serve to ease public resistance to change.

As science education begins to develop public awareness, it must recognize other policy concerns as well. Interviews with 20 people from a range of constituencies (teachers, department heads, policy makers) highlighted some possible policy problems for reforms such as those proposed by Project 2061 (Kirst, Anhalt, & Marine, 1993). First, the interdisciplinary focus runs counter to many powerful institutional structures such as professional associations, current textbooks, and advanced placement (AP) examinations. Second, current and past efforts at mixed-group instruction have often met fierce opposition from parents of gifted children, a group that tends to form a powerful lobby. Finally, while many interviewees were positive about the benchmarks, the flexibility they allow raises important questions for state policy makers, such as how to evaluate the diverse instructional programs that could arise under such an interdisciplinary approach.

Grass-roots Coalitions

The task of mobilizing grass-roots support is distinct from influencing policy at higher levels. Direct contact with individual teachers is expensive, so reformers should work through organizations, beginning with subject-matter professional groups, teacher unions, and reform networks. But support from teachers will only be forthcoming if they understand the vision of reform and believe it will help solve the problems of the classroom, and if they have the external support to prepare for and implement reform ideas. Teacher support may grow if professional learning and curriculum development continue to be integral parts of reform strategies.

The policy scenarios and recommendations in this chapter are much easier said than done. But change is always a challenge, and recognizing complexity is the first step. The policy environment is ripe for science and mathematics education reform. Many stakeholders agree on the basic premises of systemic reform. The task will be to keep pushing on these fronts, to make some wise (and lucky) strategic choices, and to build on the philosophy and content of Benchmarks and Standards.

References and Bibliography
Chapter 3 Finance


Blueprints Online
Project 2061
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, DC

Copyright © 1998 by American Association for the Advancement of Science