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Science Curriculum Reform in the United States

Reprinted here with permission from Redesigning the Science Curriculum. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, 1995. Edited by Rodger W. Bybee and Joseph D. McInerney.

Science Curriculum Reform in the United States
by Rodger W. Bybee

Support for reform is unprecedented in the history of American education. By early 1990s, more than 300 reports admonished those within the educational system to reform science education. Depending on the group publishing the report, the recommendations for education programs emphasized issues, such as updated scientific and technologic knowledge, application of contemporary learning theory and teaching strategies, improved approaches to achieve equity, and better preparation of citizens for the workplace.

In this chapter, I present differences between the contemporary reform of science curriculum and the reform that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, I describe several important curriculum frameworks that science educators are using for the design of curriculum. Finally, I address a number of important issues in the reform of science curriculum in the United States.

Different Perspectives on Science Curriculum Reform

From the perspective of science curriculum, significant differences exist between the 1960s and 1990s reforms. The 1960s reform began at the secondary level and progressed to the elementary level. In the 1990s, reports have generally addressed all levels, K-12, but the specific curriculum reform began at the elementary school level and progressed to middle-level education and is now focused on the high school level. The impetus for this sequential reform was initiated in the late 1980s by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for new elementary and middle school programs. Policy-level reports also supported the elementary school to middle school to high school sequence of reform (Bybee et al., 1989, 1990; Champagne, Loucks-Horsley, Kuerbis, & Raizen, 1991). School science programs structured from the top down, literally from 12th grade physics to elementary programs, are quite different from school science programs that are structured from the elementary school to high school.

There is a second difference. In the 1980s and 1990s, there are fewer curriculum projects at the national level. Reform efforts are being initiated through state-level frameworks and many new science curricula are being completed through local development. Such efforts have the advantage of higher levels of implementation and the disadvantage of lower levels of real program reform; namely, the incorporation of new perspectives on science and technology, learning theory, and program design. The latter results from a lack of time and money to develop new materials and, subsequently, in the end, school districts adopt textbooks. Staff development programs to update teachers in science and technology content and innovative strategies are not implemented. If this situation is viewed nationally, the result could well be a low level of reform in both quantity and quality.

A final difference is the influence of national standards and benchmarks. National standards should provide significant impetus for reform as well as goals that should function as coordinators and regulators. I address national standards for science education in some detail later in this chapter, and along with colleagues, in the next chapter.

Frameworks for Science Curriculum

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several frameworks for curriculum significantly influenced state and local reform of school science programs. Those frameworks include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 1989 report Science for All Americans and the subsequent publication in 1993 of Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy; the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) 1989 project "Scope, Sequence, and Coordination;" The National Center for Improving Science Education (NCISE) reports on middle-level education (Bybee et al., 1990a, 1990b, 1990c) and secondary education (Champagne, Loucks-Horsley, Kuerbis, & Raizen, 1991); and the National Science Education Standards Project.

Science for All Americans

In the 1980s, F. James Rutherford established Project 2061 at AAAS. He designed Project 2061 to take a long-term, large-scale view of education reform in the sciences. The reform of science education developed by Project 2061 is based on the goal of scientific literacy. The core of Science for All Americans consists of recommendations by a distinguished group of scientists and educators about what understandings and habits of mind are essential for all citizens in a scientifically literate society. Scientific literacy, which embraces science, mathematics, and technology, is a central goal of science education. Yet, general scientific literacy eludes U. S. society. In preparing its recommendations, Project 2061 staff used the reports of five independent scientific panels. In addition, Project 2061 staff sought the advice of a large and diverse array of consultants and reviewers--scientists, engineers, mathematicians, historians, and educators. The process took more than three years, involved hundreds of individuals, and culminated in publication of Science for All Americans (AAAS, 1989) and the clarification of scientific literacy. Thus, its recommendations are presented in the form of basic learning goals for American students. A premise of Project 2061 is that the schools do not need to teach more, they should teach less so that content can be taught better. So, its recommendations address the basic dimensions of scientific literacy, which are being familiar with the natural world and recognizing its diversity and its unity; understanding concepts and principles of science; being aware of some of the ways in which science, mathematics, and technology depend upon one another; knowing that science, mathematics, and technology are human enterprises and knowing about their strengths and limitations; developing a capacity for scientific ways of thinking; and using scientific knowledge and ways of thinking for individuals and social purposes.

Science for All Americans covers an array of topics. Many already are common in school curricula (for example, the structure of matter, the basic functions of cells, prevention of disease, communications technology, and different uses of numbers). However, the treatment of such topics differs from traditional approaches in two ways. One difference is that boundaries between traditional subject-matter categories are softened, and connections are emphasized through the use of important conceptual themes, such as systems, evolution, cycles, and energy. Transformations of energy, for example, occur in physical, biological, and technological systems; and evolutionary change appears in stars, organisms, and societies. A second difference is that the amount of detail that students are expected to learn is less than in traditional science, mathematics, and technology courses. Key concepts and thinking skills are emphasized instead of specialized vocabulary and memorized procedures. The ideas not only make sense at a simple level but also provide a lasting foundation for learning more science. Details are treated as a means of enhancing, not guaranteeing, students' understanding of a general idea.

Recommendations in Science for All Americans include topics not common in school curricula. Among those topics are the nature of the scientific enterprise and how science, mathematics, and technology relate to one another and to the social system in general. The report also calls for understanding something of the history of science and technology.

Project 2061 also has released the draft document Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy, Part I: Achieving Science Literacy (1993). Based on Science for All Americans, the benchmarks consist of specific goals and objectives for science curriculum. Many local school districts and some national organizations began using the benchmarks for different models of science curriculum. [check against original]

Scope, Sequence, and Coordination

A second approach to the reform of secondary school science has been suggested by Bill Aldridge (1989). In an analysis of school programs, Aldridge found deficiencies related to the scope, sequence, and coordination of programs. The deficiencies were revealed in a comparison with science programs in other countries, specifically the Commonwealth of Independent States and the People's Republic of China.

The "Project on Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science" is an effort to restructure science teaching primarily at the secondary school level. The project calls for elimination of the tracking of students, recommends that all students study science every year for six years, and advocates the study of science as carefully sequenced, well-coordinated instruction in physics, chemistry, biology, and earth and space science. As opposed to the traditional curriculum in which science is taught in year-long and separate disciplines, referred to as the "layer-cake approach," the NSTA project provides for spacing the study of each of the sciences during several years. Research on the spacing effect indicates that students can learn and retain new material better if they study it in spaced intervals rather than all at once. In this way, students can revisit a concept at successively higher levels of abstraction (see table 1).

The scope, sequence, and coordination reform effort also uses appropriate sequencing of instruction, taking into account how students learn. In science, understanding develops from concrete experiences with a phenomenon before it is given a name or a symbol. Students need experience with a concept in several different contexts before it becomes part of their mental repertoire. With prior hands-on experience, students can come to understand important concepts and processes of science. The practical components of this instruction should begin in the seventh grade with issues and phenomena of concern to students at a personal level and then progress toward a more encompassing scope in the upper grades. As they mature, students are able to generalize from concrete, direct experiences to more abstract and broader theoretical thinking. With a sequenced approach, students should no longer be expected to memorize facts and information. With practical applications, science should make sense and have meaning.

View Table 1. (19k)

The third component of the scope, sequence, and coordination project is the coordination of science concepts and topics. Earth and space science, biology, chemistry, and physics have significant features and processes in common. Coordination among these disciplines leads to awareness of the interdependence of the sciences and how the disciplines form a body of knowledge. Seeing a concept, law, or principle in the context of two or three different subjects helps establish it firmly in the student's mind.

At first, students are introduced more intensively to the descriptive and phenomenological aspects of the sciences. The most abstract and theoretical aspects are emphasized in the later years. Empirical and semi-quantitative treatments are emphasized in the middle years. Computers and technology and practical applications are integrated directly into each course. Most important, students would be taught science in a way they would be able to understand and apply it--whether as scientists or citizens.

National Center for Improving Science Education

Development of local school science programs can be greatly enhanced by frameworks for curriculum, assessment, and staff development, such as those produced by the National Center for Improving Science Education (NCISE) for the elementary school (Bybee, et al., 1989; Loucks-Horsley, 1989; Raizen, 1989), the middle school (Bybee et al., 1990a, 1990b, 1990c; Loucks-Horsley, 1990; Raizen et al., 1990), and for the secondary level (Champagne, Loucks-Horsley, Kuerbis, & Raizen, 1991).

The curriculum and instruction frameworks for middle school and high school extend the center's proposed framework for the elementary years (Bybee et al., 1989). Treatments of the recommended organizing concepts, however, are more complex. The organizing concepts detailed in the technical report for middle schools include cause and effect, change and conservation, diversity and variation, energy and matter, evolution and equilibrium, models and theories, probability and prediction, structure and function, systems and interaction, and time and scale. The concepts need not be independent units of study; they should at least, however, link subjects, topics, and disciplines. Curriculum emphases should include scientific habits of mind, such as willingness to modify explanations, cooperation in answering questions and solving problems, respect for reasons, reliance on data, and skepticism. Students also should develop skills for answering questions and solving problems, making decisions, and taking action. Content in the program should relate to the life and world of the student and provide a context for presenting new knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The focus of curriculum and instruction should be on depth of study, not breadth of topics.

National Science Education Standards Project

In this section, I provide a brief overview of the National Science Education Standards. The next chapter presents more details of the content, teaching, assessment, program, and systems standards.

National Science Education Standards will provide the qualitative criteria and framework for judging science programs (content, teaching, and assessment) and the policies necessary to support them. The standards will define the understanding of science that all students, without regard to background, future aspirations, or prior interest in science, should develop; present criteria for judging science education content and programs at the K-4, 5-8, and 9-12 levels, including learning goals, design features, instructional approaches, and assessment characteristics; include all natural sciences and their interrelationships, as well as the natural science connections with technology, science- and technology-related social challenges, and the history and nature of science; include standards for the preparation and continuing professional development of teachers, including resources needed to enable teachers to meet the learning goals; propose a long-term vision for science education, some elements of which can be incorporated almost immediately in most places, others of which will require substantial changes in the structure, roles, organization, and context of school learning before they can be implemented; provide criteria for judging models, benchmarks, frameworks, curricula, and learning experiences developed under the guidelines of ongoing national projects, or under state frameworks, or local district, school or teacher-designed initiatives; and provide criteria for judging teaching, the provision of opportunities to learn valued science (including such resources as instructional materials, educational technologies, and assessment methods), and science education programs at all levels.

Some Issues in the Reform of Science Education

Writing reports about the reform of education and reforming education are two very different activities. The former requires that a small group agree on a set of ideas and express those ideas clearly and with adequate justification. The latter requires that millions of school personnel in thousands of autonomous school districts change. Changes in science curriculum in schools represent smaller instances of the latter. In order for changes to occur in science education, school personnel must change. And, the most important factors influencing the possibility of changing school personnel are the programs and practices currently in place and supported by the school system.

Scientific and technological literacy is the main purpose of science education in K-12. This purpose is for all students, not just those individuals destined for careers in science and engineering. The curriculum for science education is inadequate to the challenge of achieving scientific and technological literacy by 2000. And many are urging a review of school personnel and science programs. Increasing the scientific and technological literacy of students requires several fundamental changes in science curricula. First, the amount of information presented must be replaced by key conceptual schemes that students learn in some depth. Second, the rigid disciplinary boundaries of earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics should be softened and greater emphasis placed on connections among the sciences and among disciplines generally thought of as outside of school science, such as technology, mathematics, ethics, and social situations (Confrey, 1990; Newmann, 1988).

Achieving the goal of scientific and technological literacy requires more than understanding concepts and processes of science and technology. Indeed, there is some need for citizens to understand science and technology as an integral part of our society. That is, science and technology as enterprises that shape, and are shaped by, human thought and social actions. As mentioned earlier, aspects of this theme are discussed as STS (Bybee, 1987). However, the prevailing approach to STS is to focus on science-related social problems, such as environmental pollution, resource use, and population growth. My argument expands the STS theme to include some understanding of the nature and history of science and technology. There is recent and substantial support for this recommendation, though few curriculum materials. Including the nature and history of science and technology provides opportunities to focus on topics that soften disciplinary boundaries and establish connections between science and other domains such as social studies (Bybee et al., 1992).

The substantial body of research on learning should be the basis for making instruction more effective. This research suggests that students learn by constructing their own meaning from experiences (Driver & Oldham, 1986; Sachse, 1989; Watson & Konicek, 1990). A constructivist approach requires very different science curricula and methods of science instruction.

Not unrelated to the implications of research or learning theory is the age-old theme that science teaching should consist of experiences that exemplify the spirit, character, and nature of science and technology. Students should begin study with questions about the natural world (science) and problems about how human beings adapt to their environments (technology). They should be actively involved in the process of inquiry and problem solving. They should have opportunities to present their explanations for phenomena and solutions to problems and to compare their explanations and solutions to those concepts of science and technology. They should have a chance to apply their understandings in new situations. In short, the inquiry-oriented laboratories are infrequent experiences for students, but they should be a central part of their experience in science education. Extensive use of inquiry is consistent with my other recommendations, and it has widespread support (Costenson & Lawson, 1986).

During the 1990s, the issue of equity must be addressed in science programs and by school personnel. For the past several decades, science educators at all levels have discussed the importance of changing science programs to enhance opportunities for historically underrepresented groups. Calls for scientific and technological literacy assume the inclusion of all Americans. Other justifications--even if they are not needed for this position--include the supply of future scientists and engineers, changing demographics, and prerequisites for work. Research results, curricula recommendations, and practical suggestions are available to those developing science curricula (Atwater, 1986, 1989; Gardner, Mason, & Matyas, 1989; Linn & Hyde, 1989; Malcom, 1990; Oakes & The Rand Corporation, 1990).

The science curriculum in middle schools is a special concern. Numerous reports and commissions address the need for educational reform for elementary and high school science education, but few have specifically recognized the emergence of middle schools in the 1980s. Notable exceptions include the Carnegie Corporation (1989) report Turning Points: Preparing Youth for the 21st Century, the California State Department of Education (1987) report Caught in the Middle, the Maine Department of Educational and Cultural Services (1988) report Schools in the Middle, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (1985) report An Agenda for Excellence at the Middle Level. The movement toward implementing middle schools, and phasing out junior high schools, is a significant trend in American education. Yet, thus far, the middle school reform has not thoroughly addressed the particular issues of subject-matter disciplines--in this case, science and technology. The contemporary reform must not allow the science education of early adolescents to be overlooked or assumed to be part of either the elementary school or secondary school curriculum.

Improving curriculum and instruction will be a hollow gesture without concomitant changes in assessment at all levels, from the local classroom to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In general, the changes in assessment practices must reflect the changes described earlier for curriculum and instruction. Incongruities, such as teaching fewer concepts in greater depth but testing for numerous facts in fine detail, will undermine the reform of science education. New forms of assessment are available and being recommended by researchers, policymakers, and practitioners (Frederiksen & Collins, 1989; Murnane & Raizen, 1988; Roueche, Sorensen, & Roueche, 1988; Shavelson, Carey, & Webb, 1990).

Reform of science education must be viewed as part of the general reform of education. Approaching the improvement of science education by changing textbooks, buying new computers, or adding a new course simply will not work. Fortunately, widespread educational reform, which includes science education, is under way. Science educators must view reform, holistically and systemically as the reconstruction of science education for K-12 and include all courses and students, a staff development program, reform of science teacher preparation, and support from school administrators. This comprehensive or systemic recommendation is based on the research on implementation (Fullan, 1982; Hall, 1989) and research literature on school change and restructuring (Kloosterman, Matkin, & Ault, 1988; Roberts & Chastko, 1990; Tobin & Espinet, 1980; Yeany & Padilla, 1986).


Looking toward 2000 leaves science educators viewing a system already in the process of reform. Though distinctly different from earlier reforms, this reform holds great promise of improving the goals of scientific and technological literacy for all citizens.

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