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13. The Origin of Benchmarks

  1. School-Based Research and Development Teams
  2. The Nature of the Work
  3. Understanding SFAA
  4. Considering Antecedents to Each SFAA Outcome
  5. A Common Set of Benchmarks
  6. Nationwide Review

We believe that users of Benchmarks for Science Literacy want to know how the benchmarks came into being. Who developed them? How did they go about it? What kinds of help did they have? Why is Benchmarks in its present form? How thoroughly was it reviewed? The purpose of this chapter is to answer such questions.

Project 2061's Science for All Americans (SFAA), published in 1989 after study and debate by scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and educators, specified literacy goals in science, mathematics, and technology for all high-school graduates. But setting these adult literacy goals was just the first step toward reforming science education. A needed second step was to create a set of tools for educators to use in designing K–12 curricula that would meet the content standards of SFAA. Chief among those tools, it was thought at the beginning, would be curriculum models that could serve as examples of alternative ways to configure the K–12 experience so as to obtain the desired science-literacy outcomes.

Project staff considered who would be best equipped to take on such a demanding assignment. Scientists and engineers know their subjects but are at a distance from the classroom. Learning and education researchers understand the difficulties children have, but only in a rather narrow range of topics. Classroom teachers, despite their keen sense of what interests children and what they learn under current conditions, often lack a full kindergarten-through-graduation perspective on education as well as needed resources, training, and time to envision radical departures from the current curriculum. We decided that if traditional constraints were removed and adequate time and resources were provided, school teachers and administrators, advised by education specialists and backed by scientists, would be most likely to develop intellectually sound curriculum models and other curriculum-design tools that would prove credible to other teachers.

The Project 2061 teachers would have to be exceptional individuals—leaders in their districts and willing to take risks. They would have to be well versed in the major ideas of science, mathematics, and technology; have a broad educational perspective, encompassing several disciplines and spanning the entire K–12 learning process; and have expertise in designing curricula. This array of qualities was unlikely to be found in even the most exceptional team of teachers in a chosen district but was certainly worth cultivating.

We also decided to have district teams rather than an assembled national group. Members of each district team would then be close enough to discuss issues at length and often. The various teams would also be very different from one another by virtue of locale, demographics, and available resources, so that they might collectively represent the nation. The Project recruited teams of school teachers and administrators from six sites around the country—in rural Georgia; in suburban McFarland, Wisconsin; and in urban Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, and San Francisco.

So that the teams could plan for 13 years of schooling in science, mathematics, and technology, team members were chosen to bring all grades and subjects to the process. Each team had 5 elementary teachers, 5 middle-school teachers, 10 high-school teachers, 1 principal from each level, and 2 curriculum specialists. The teachers had taught the life and physical sciences, social studies, mathematics, technology, and also other disciplines.

Each 25-member team received clerical support, computers and computer training, office space, reference materials, travel funds, and other resources they needed for research and development. The school districts involved agreed to release team members an average of four days per month from their classrooms to work on Project 2061 tasks. Faculty from local universities provided consultation and technical assistance to the teams as requested throughout the year. Consultants from around the country offered their expertise at annual summer conferences, where staff and teams met to advance mutual tasks.

We asked each team to design a curriculum model that could be used by school districts to plan curricula that serve local needs and meet the goals in SFAA. The teams were encouraged to be as imaginative as possible, and not let local barriers limit their vision of what a K–12 curriculum could look like. Instead, they were asked to keep track of obstacles encountered or envisioned and alert the Project 2061 staff to them. Special groups were commissioned to write papers (called Blueprint papers) to consider how all aspects of the American system of schooling would need to respond to support these new models.

To foster continuity of ideas, the teams were asked to discern useful connections within and among the typically separate disciplines (the natural and social sciences, mathematics, technology—and the humanities, for that matter) and to consider all 13 grades when specifying desirable and reasonable progress toward the goals in SFAA.

As it turned out, the work of the teams included many different tasks having to do with curriculum design and the implementation of reform. Two that undergirded all others were to gain a deep understanding of the substance and nature of science literacy and to identify the antecedent ideas that would be needed for students to make conceptual and psychological sense of the ideas in SFAA. During four joint summer conferences and three academic years at their own sites, the teams immersed themselves in this work. One product of that effort is Benchmarks.

SFAA deliberately omits much of the traditional content of science, mathematics, and technology found in today's curricula and textbooks and yet contains material with which most teachers are not altogether familiar. Few teachers have had the opportunity to become familiar with how science really works, study the history of science, explore themes that cut across disciplines, or learn engineering concepts. Moreover, there is little cross-over in the education, training, and experience secondary-school teachers have of science, mathematics, and technology, and the background of most high-school science teachers is limited to the biological, earth and space, or physical sciences. And it is not unusual for elementary teachers to have had very little of any of those subjects in college.

To deal with this, several steps were taken. Especially during their first joint summer meeting, but also to some extent during the following summers and academic years, team members

The team members had to imagine what progress students could make toward each SFAA goal, a process that came to be called mapping because it required groups to link more sophisticated ideas in later grades to the more primitive ones suitable in the earlier years. Consider, for example, the concept of the structure of matter. What must students be taught first in order to understand the basic ideas about atoms and molecules and their structure and how their arrangements and activities underlie all phenomena? When should students learn that everything is made of invisibly small atoms linked together in many different patterns? What other ideas must they have before they can understand this one?

A partial map for the structure-of-matter literacy goal identified in Chapter 4 of SFAA is shown below. Progression of student understanding is organized around four story lines: properties, common ingredients, invisibly small pieces, and conservation of matter. Each of the story lines can be followed as one looks at the sequence of boxes. Eventually, all four story lines converge upon the idea of atoms and molecules (see page 306).

Other maps highlighted the importance of connections among disciplines. For example, understanding the scientific explanation for the evolution of life, a goal in Chapter 5 of SFAA, depends on some precursor knowledge of the physical sciences, mathematics, some common themes that cut across disciplines, and the nature of scientific inquiry. Four story lines are involved: evidence from existing organisms, fossil evidence, mechanism of selection, and origin of new traits. Also involved are notions of proportion and summary characteristics of a population.

View map (PDF, 56KB)

The cluster of boxes in the invisibly small pieces story line begins with three ideas. One is that water seems to disappear, a phenomenon young children can observe (A). A second idea is that magnifiers often show that things have unexpectedly small parts, which young children can learn from experience (B). Third, there is the idea that small parts can be put together to make all sorts of different things, which children can learn by working with interlocking blocks (C).

All three ideas contribute to understanding the more advanced idea that things are made of huge numbers of invisibly small pieces (D). This story line, along with several others, prepares students to learn a central idea in understanding the structure of matter—that everything is made of invisibly small atoms, linked together in many different patterns (E). At this box, all four story lines converge for the first time.

In the conservation of matter story line, students must first acquire the notion that all materials come from somewhere and go somewhere—and do not just appear or disappear (F). That helps students understand the idea that the amount of matter stays the same (by weight) during changes (G). This idea is supported by the notion of systems (H)—that all systems have inputs and outputs that can be accounted for.

Once these ideas are in place, students can begin to gain an even more sophisticated understanding—that the amount of matter stays the same during changes, not just experimentally by weight, but conceptually and inevitably—because the same collection of atoms is just rearranged (I).

The team members looked to published research findings for help. From the very first summer, the teams were introduced to the research on children's learning in science, mathematics, and technology through the work of several prominent researchers in the field. We began to collect and distribute to the teams research articles on children's ideas about various SFAA topics (see Chapter 15: The Research Base). Where research was lacking, the teams relied on their own experience with students. Indeed, part of the rationale for having school-based teams was to enable team members to probe the understanding of their own students. When experience with a topic was lacking, help was sought from more experienced colleagues.

As a result of their experience in mapping, the team members came to appreciate the value of working in K–12, cross-discipline groups. Secondary-school teachers could provide some background about the science; elementary-school teachers brought insights about the ideas of young children. When someone would assert that a concept was possible for all 5th- or 8th-graders to know, others learned to ask for evidence. All the teams began to think about what would count as evidence of student understanding.

For two years, the teams worked independently to map many SFAA sections, representing their thinking in a variety of forms. Some used commercial graphics packages to display connections among topics; some used Hypertext outlines that displayed only a few connections at once; others used charts or lists of "student statements" that tried to capture how students might express their knowledge. But whatever form they used, the teams were convinced that mapping raised basic questions about sequencing of instruction that they would have to answer in designing their K–12 curriculum models.

By 1991, three major forces had converged to encourage us to write a common set of expectations for students. First, the teams' progress on curriculum models was being held up by the shortage of maps. Their need for the antecedent goals contained in maps or charts (on which their curriculum plans depended) was outpacing their rate of production of maps. The analytical nature of the work was "mind frying" as one team member described it, so groups could spend only a few hours at a time at the task. And district pressures were mounting for teams to share their curriculum models, so that Project 2061 ideas could find their way as soon as possible into classrooms. Second, there was a growing demand for the maps themselves. The teams and staff noted that audiences at Project 2061 presentations were intrigued by the thinking that went into making maps and wanted to use them for their own curriculum-reform efforts. Finally, the teams were finding a need for more polished statements for colleagues at their own sites to use while developing curriculum. The draft maps and charts, while stimulating the thinking of map makers during a session, weren't nearly as helpful to those who had not participated.

The question arose whether teams needed to agree on a common set of student expectations to be refined for public use. Analysis of each other's work convinced teams that it was both possible and desirable.

In what form could the thinking of over two years of work (plus the prior three years in developing SFAA) be captured helpfully for others? As the teams, consultants, and staff struggled to agree on a format that would do justice to the substance and thought, several issues arose—such as whether to use maps or lists or essays or some combination to represent the progression of student understanding and which grade levels to use as checkpoints (see Chapter 14: Issues and Language). Suffice it to say that discussions were long and intense. Although arguments were made for both sides of issues, decisions leading to the existing benchmarks were based on the staff's desire to maintain the "less is more" focus of goals while fostering creativity and variety of means. Based on the maps and charts of the six teams, a common set of benchmarks was drafted by spring 1992, reviewed by the teams and consultants, and then revised accordingly. Use of the benchmarks led to further revisions in form and substance.

In the months prior to the summer 1992 meeting, "Science Education Standards" got on the nation's education-reform agenda, and the National Academy of Sciences—through its National Research Council (NRC)—was asked to develop standards for education in science. In spite of different notions as to what standards might mean in the context of science education, all advocates seemed to want, above all, recommendations for "what students should know and be able to do at certain grade levels"—precisely what Project 2061 had been formulating as benchmarks. The national interest in standards presented Project 2061 with a welcome opportunity: By providing the NRC working group with the June 1992 draft of Benchmarks, we were able to contribute to their thinking and help shape national standards.

In early 1993, the draft benchmarks were ready for the scrutiny of groups and individuals knowledgeable and concerned about science education. The Project convened its advisory board, the National Council on Science and Technology Education, in November 1992 to get its recommendations on conducting a thorough and meaningful review. The Council suggested important constituencies whose opinions should be solicited, and suggested questions important for reviewers to consider. The draft version of Benchmarks for Science Literacy was sent out in January and February to thousands of potential reviewers, who were asked to appraise the technical accuracy of the science in the document, the necessity and sufficiency of precursors provided to anticipate later concepts, the appropriateness of grade-level placement, the acceptability of the language, and the overall usefulness of the benchmarks.

The Project was particularly interested in group review, through which Benchmarks would be subject to discussion. Members from each of the Project 2061 teams conducted review sessions in which participants could debate the strengths and weaknesses of the draft. In addition, over 75 volunteer groups from around the country responded to an invitation in the Project newsletter to review the document. Many of these volunteers, as it turned out, were educators who were involved in revamping their district curricula and hence were eager to get ideas for their own schools as well as influence a national project.

Reviews were solicited from scientific and educational organizations, which were encouraged to assemble review teams to debate and discuss the draft. Other reviews came from state curriculum groups, research and development centers, regional educational laboratories, the American Association for the Advancement of Science sections, Project consultants and affiliates from all phases of the Project, publishers, and individual scientists and educators in science, mathematics, and technology. Several states accepted the Project's invitation to set up teams to review the draft document. The Project received over 1,300 responses from groups and individuals throughout the country. Those responses came from 46 states; urban and rural school districts; elementary-, middle-, and high-school teachers; scientists and engineers from diverse disciplines; and groups traditionally underrepresented in mathematics, science, and technology.

Often the reviewers pointed out issues that had been debated during development of the draft—refreshing the debate yet again. Sometimes the reviewers had policy differences with the Project (such as suggestions that we should not include mathematics, the social sciences, or technology). Some of their comments made us realize that certain sections should be rewritten more clearly to help readers understand our intent.

After a rewrite based on all the comments, leaders of the Project teams' review groups and consultants from mathematics, science, social-studies, and technology education convened to discuss still-unresolved issues. The National Council on Science and Technology Education likewise met to discuss the rewrite before publication.

These benchmarks have been written and rewritten, appraised and reappraised, and argued about at length by the Project teams, staff, and consultants. After all of this sustained, hard work, we could yield to the temptation to fold our arms and say, "We did our best; job done." But because we want the document to be as helpful as possible, we expect to update it periodically. Field use of the benchmarks over the next few years and continuing research on how children learn will no doubt tell us more about which benchmarks should be shifted, eliminated, elaborated…or even left alone.

Copyright © 1993,2009 by American Association for the Advancement of Science