Chapter 14: REFORMING EDUCATION
Project 2061 is concerned more with lasting reform of education than with the immediate improvement of the schoolsalthough such improvement is certainly needed, possible, and under way in many parts of the United States. But, as the nation discovered after Sputnik more than three decades ago, enduring educational reform is not easily achieved.
The possibility of successfully restructuring science education in its entirety depends on the presence of a public demand for reform in science education and on what we as a nation think it takes to achieve reform. This chapter begins by showing that there is in fact a consensus on the need for reform in science, mathematics, and technology education, and then presents the premises that underlie the approach of Project 2061 to reform.
The necessity for strengthening science education in the United States has been widely acknowledged in the numerous education studies conducted in the 1980s (a representative selection of reports is listed in Appendix B). Although the most powerful argument for improving the science education of all students may be its role in liberating the human intellect, much of the public discussion has centered on more concrete, utilitarian, and immediate justifications.
Most of the education reports of the 1980s have been motivated by the confluence of two different growing public concerns. One concern is America's seeming economic decline. Our domestic affluence and international powerboth based substantially on our scientific and technological preeminencehave been weakening in relation to those of other countries, especially Japan. The other concern consists of certain trends in U.S. public education: low test scores, students' avoidance of science and mathematics, a demoralized and weakening teaching staff in many schools, low learning expectations compared to other technologically advanced nations, and being ranked near the bottom in international studies of students' knowledge of science and mathematics. All of the reports and the mass media coverage of the reports have highlighted these educational deficiencies, and the nation has finally become aware that indeed there is a crisis in American education.
Even while being deplored for themselves, the educational failures in the United States have come to be seen collectively as a major contributor to the economic failures. This view, whether entirely justified or not, has been implicit in most of the reports and explicit in others. Although each of the various reports has addressed the issues from a somewhat different perspective, all have been energized by the same set of disturbing economic and educational trends.
Given this background, it is understandable that the reports emphasize, in one way or another, the need to improve the science and technology education of all students, as well as the need for various educational reforms of a more general nature. Taken together, the reports serve to underscore that in our postindustrial society, there is a strong connection between how well a nation can perform and the existence of high-quality, widely distributed education. There is now a clear national consensus in the United States that all elementary and secondary school children need to become better educated in science, mathematics, and technology.
It is more than simply a problem of scale, however. Unlike the situation in most other countries, the system of education in the United States is decentralized politically and economically. Decisions on educational policy and the use of resources for education are made by literally thousands of different entities, including 16,000 separate school districts, 3,300 colleges and universities, 50 states, several agencies of the federal government, and the courts at every level. This state of affairs may have its advantages, but a capacity for rapid change is not one of them. It takes time, first of all, for a strong consensus to build among educators and the public that radical change is needed. Then more time is needed to come to some national meeting of the minds on what the main ingredients of reform should be. Still more time is needed for action plans to be drawn up, ideas tested, and action initiated in tens of thousands of different institutions.
Ultimately, reform is more about people than it is about policies, institutions, and processes. And most peoplenot only educatorstend to change slowly when it comes to attitudes, beliefs, and ways of doing things. Teachers and administrators bring to their jobs the full range of human views about the purposes of education, the nature of young people, and the best ways to foster learning. Their views have been derived from and reinforced by years of experienceas students, teachers, and, often, parents. Sensible professionals do not replace their strongly held views and behavior patterns in response to fiat or the latest vogue; instead, they respond to developing sentiment among respected colleagues, to incentives that reward serious efforts to explore new possibilities, and to the positive feedback that may come from trying out new ideas from time to timeall of which can take years.
Professions may change mostly in response to turnover. Young physicians and engineers, for instance, carry new knowledge, techniques, and attitudes into those professions. Successive generations of teachers and school administrators can serve in the same way, but only if they come bearing different attitudes, knowledge, and skills than the ones they replace. Reforming teachers' education, therefore, is the sine qua non of school reform, but it will necessarily be slow to make its impact felt.
Collaboration Is EssentialMonolithic approaches to educational reform are not the American way, and with good reason: No group or sector is in sole possession of wisdom, inventiveness, resources, and authority, and few educational problems of consequence have only one possible solution. But diversity of effort can lead to little impact on a national scale if those who are striving to change things are all heading in different directions without regard for each other. Lockstep in education is neither possible nor desirable, but a commitment to collaboration is. Operationally, such a commitment means sharing ideas and information with others who are addressing the same or related problems. In the context of the reform of science education, this observation applies to the scientific community itself to the degree it wishes to make significant contributions to the process of reform in education.
Project 2061 constitutes, of course, only one of many efforts to chart new directions in science, mathematics, and technology education and to bring about significant improvements in the current system. Here and there across the nation, individual teachers and schools are striving, often against heavy odds, to change things, and in some school districts and states, vigorous reform is now the order of the day. Moreover, on a national scale, there are projectsmany of them funded by foundations and government agencies and centered in professional associations, universities, and independent organizationsthat are focusing on various aspects of reform. There is a need for these various reform efforts to link up to bring coherence to the movement.
Although creative ideas for reforming education come from many sources, only teachers can provide the insights that emerge from intensive, direct experience in the classroom itself. They bring to the task of reform a knowledge of students, craft, and school culture that others cannot. Moreover, reform cannot be imposed on teachers from the top down or the outside in. If teachers are not convinced of the merit of proposed changes, they are unlikely to implement them energetically. If they do not understand fully what is called for or have not been sufficiently well prepared to introduce new content and ways of teaching, reform measures will founder. In either case, the more teachers share in shaping reform measures and the more help they are given in implementing agreed-upon changes, the greater the probability that they will be able to make those improvements stick.
Although teachers are central to reform, they cannot be held solely responsible for achieving it. They need allies. Teachers alone cannot change the textbooks, install more sensible testing policies than are now in place, create administrative support systems, get the public to understand where reform is headed and why it takes time to get there, and raise the funds needed to pay for reform. Thus, school administrators and education policymakers need to support teachers. Teachers also need academic colleaguesscholars who are experts on relevant subject matter, child development, learning, and the educational potential of modern technologies. And they need the help and support of community leaders, business and labor leaders, and parentsfor in the final analysis, educational reform is a shared responsibility. It is time for teachers to take more responsibility for the reform of education, but that in no way reduces the responsibility of others to do their part too.
Piecemeal reform measures beget piecemeal effects, if any. At the school district level, reform efforts should be inclusive: all grades, all subject domains, all streams. It is less demanding to concentrate on, say, improving third-grade reading, junior high school social studies, and biology for vocational students. But such unrelated changes are not likely to add up to curricula that are any more integrated, coherent, and effective than the fragmented, overburdened ones that now exist. Without a more sweeping approach, change will be constrained by having to fit within the boundaries of class periods, school subjects, sequences, and tracks that themselves may be a large part of the problem.
Nationwide, reform needs to be comprehensive in the sense of addressing all aspects of the system. Reform in science education depends on changing existing curricula from kindergarten through high school. But to make new curricula work, changes must also occur in the preparation of teachers, the content of textbooks and other learning materials, the use of technologies, the nature of testing, and the organization of schools. Furthermore, the changes need to be compatible, lest they cancel each other out.
Comprehensive reform does not imply going off in all directions at once. Rather, it demands that some steps occur before others, that some problems take precedence, and that resources be deployed strategically. Careful systemwide planning should precede action, and no aspect of planning is more crucial than setting priorities. Failure to set priorities can result in only a little change; setting the wrong priorities may leave the students worse off than before reform was undertaken.
When demographic realities, national needs, and democratic values are taken into account, it becomes clear that the nation can no longer ignore the science education of any students. Race, language, sex, or economic circumstances must no longer be permitted to be factors in determining who does and who does not receive a good education in science, mathematics, and technology. To neglect the science education of any (as has happened too often to girls and minority students) is to deprive them of a basic education, handicap them for life, and deprive the nation of talented workers and informed citizensa loss the nation can ill afford.
To reach all students means reforming the education of every strand of the student bodyvocational, general, and college preparatory. For students who expect to go right to work after high school, a narrow focus on trade skills will no longer do; they need to acquire a strong base of scientific knowledge and of reasoning, communication, and learning skills. All college-bound students, quite apart from what they believe their majors will eventually turn out to be, need to enter college with an understanding of science, mathematics, and technology that they can build on and that will make it possible for them to elect a technical field. And undecided students need the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to enable them to move in any direction. The recommendations in this report, therefore, apply equally to all students.
Meeting the science learning needs of all children requires that society as a whole recognize that learning is, in a sense, the chief occupation of childhood. Play is important for its own sake and because it often leads to learning, and work for money can be instructive for children, but neither play nor employment can substitute for systematic study. Parents and citizens in general, therefore, must understand that a substantial portion of the energies of childhood have to be devoted to the task of learning.
Reform requires creating conditions for change. There is no sense in exhorting educators to change what they are doing and then ignoring the obstacles in their path. Not surprisingly, a major barrier to reform is the same barrier that gets in the way of good education in general: the working circumstances of teachers and administrators.
In all too many schools, physical, administrative, and psychological circumstances militate against undertaking major curricular reform efforts. Typically, teachers lack time to think, study, organize materials, confer with colleagues, counsel individual students, and attend professional meetings. What is more, they do not have private offices, computers for word processing and recordkeeping, laboratory assistants, access to expert consultants, or the other kinds of support that professionals in other fields expect. And principals are scarcely better off. The press of such demanding matters as public relations, personnel management, budgets, student attendance, and safety leave principals with little time, energy, or inclination to engage in program matters at alllet alone in major reform activities.
At the same time as barriers to reform are being removed, positive conditions for change must be established. They need to emphasize creating an environment for teachers and administrators that encourages experimentation, focus on long-term gains rather than on such immediate goals as raising test scores, and recognize and reward innovation.
The need for positive conditions for reform goes well beyond the schools. What schools can accomplish for many children is very limited as long as a quarter of the students are raised in poverty, drug use and violence go unabated, racism persists, and commercial television remains vapid or worse while educational television stays chronically undernourished. It is an admirable notion that better education is necessary for and can lead to a better America. But only if some of today's worst social problems are ameliorated will the schools be able to take the sweeping reform steps that will enable them to have extensive positive effects on society. The reforming of education and the reforming of society need to go hand in hand.
To help ensure that reform does happen, continuing community support for education is essential. Such support is not easy to sustain in the face of changing demographics and changing social priorities. Therefore, informed and determined political leadership at every level and in every sectorgovernment, business, labor, and educationis crucial for achieving reform. Without such leadership, community support for educational reform will fade away long before lasting results can be achieved.
Copyright © 1989, 1990 by American Association for the Advancement of Science