The teaching of biology, the only science subject that most American high school students take, is so unsatisfactory that "nothing short of a massive attack" involving "major financial commitments" could counter it, according to a National Research Council report released yesterday.
In three years of study, the panel composed primarily of science educators found serious deficiencies in every aspect of the teaching of biology in elementary and secondary schools. The report focused on biology, which at least 75 percent of students take in the ninth or 10th grades, because the subject is usually the gateway to further science studies in chemistry and physics.
The Committee on High School Biology Education said current instruction in biology ironically seems "designed to snuff out interest" in science, "failing to relate the science of life to the experience of living." Only 30 percent of high school students go on to take chemistry, and only half that number study physics.
Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence cited in the report, entitled "Fulfilling the Promise," comes from science testing done in 1986 as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That testing found that half the students who had taken no biology scored as well as or better than 40 percent who did. "Clearly, a great many children are learning almost nothing in their biology courses," the panel concluded.
In high school biology, the panel reported that: the curriculum is "much too inclusive, burdened with vocabulary and short on concepts"; instruction does not "present science as a process of discovery" or use laboratories enough; textbooks are "poorly structured and often inaccurate or misleading"; standardized tests inappropriately emphasize the recognition of terminology; and the preparation of teachers is "seriously inadequate."
As for the study of biology in earlier grades, the panel said that studies do not begin early enough in elementary school and do not emphasize natural history as they should. The 13 members also criticized life science courses taught in middle schools for sharing the same defects as high school biology and not tapping student interest with a focus on human biology.
The panel flatly dismissed a reform popular during the 1980s, saying: "Simply mandating an additional year of science for high school graduation will not improve science education."
Instead, the panel chaired by Timothy H. Goldsmith, a biology professor at Yale University, called for "nothing short of a massive attack at a variety of points." Its recommendations:
High school biology should explore "relatively few concepts" through observation and experimentation, but "not as an exercise in following recipes," and extend laboratory periods beyond the standard 45-55 minutes.
Elementary schools should devote more time to science and hire more science specialists. Jane Butler Kahle, a panel member who teaches science education at Miami University in Ohio, said about an hour a day would be preferable to the average of 18 minutes in kindergarten through third grade and 26 minutes in fourth through sixth grades.
Scientists should write more texts for middle and high schools, again paring down content to central concepts and principles.
Every prospective teacher of high school science should do an original research project, while in college, under the direction of a scientist.
Science institutes for teachers should be greatly expanded during the summer months, eventually becoming available for all 37,000 biology teachers.
The panel did not develop an overall estimate of funds needed from various levels of government, the private sector and foundations. A partial estimate for summer institutes, fellowships and mentor teachers totaled $102 million a year.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute of Bethesda paid the $600,000 cost of the study.