Report Calls for Improvement in K-8 Science Education

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

A report released yesterday by a committee on science education says K-8 classes are in "urgent need" of improvement, just as schools must for the first time assess students on the subject under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The report by the National Research Council, the main operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, said that the past 15 years of reform have produced few positive results and that science education too often is based on faulty notions of how children learn.

"We are underestimating what young children are capable of as students of science -- the bar is almost always set too low," the report said. "Moreover, the current organization of science curriculum and instruction does not provide the kind of support for science learning that results in deep understanding of scientific ideas and an ability to engage in the practices of science."

The report, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Merck Institute for Science Education, reiterates concerns that have been expressed for years by business leaders and educators who fear the country is in danger of losing its scientific superiority because of a poorly trained workforce. It also cites the continuing achievement gap between white and Asian students and economically disadvantaged black and Latino students.

"Current teaching approaches are insufficient to launch students on a path to participation in a society infused with job opportunities in scientific and technical fields," said Richard A. Duschl, professor of science education at Rutgers University and chairman of a 14-person committee that wrote the report.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools are required to assess student progress in science at the end of the current school year. Students already have been assessed in math and reading, and the goal is for students to be "proficient" in core subjects by 2014, though each state determines what proficient means.

To provide a more comprehensive science education, the committee on science education said that educators should concentrate on core concepts central to the understanding of science rather than the many strands that now exist in school systems around the country.

Science standards that have driven reforms for the past 15 years are too broad, the report said, and science education fails to link concepts within a single year and from grade to grade.

The report also said teachers need better training and that new findings on the learning process should be incorporated into curricula, including the notion that children starting school are much more sophisticated, analytical thinkers than has been assumed in the past.

"I think [the report] should be required reading for anyone who cares about our kids and how they learn science," said Gerald F. Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "There are too many ideas in the [science] standards. That just throws a monkey wrench in the system. If we have some core ideas, we can really invest in the system."

One longtime battle about science education involves method: direct versus self-inquiry and hands-on learning. The report comes down on both sides, saying that one does not work without the other.

"Teaching content alone is not likely to lead to proficiency in science, nor is engaging in inquiry experiences devoid of science content," the report said.

Children proficient in science, the report states, should know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world; generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations; understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.

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