Science is a dynamic endeavor, and each day brings new discoveries and raises new questions. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the secondary school science curriculum is constantly evolving. Unlike many countries, the United States does not have a federal system of education. As the Supreme Court stated in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township[i], “The Constitution says nothing of education. It lays no obligation on the states to provide schools and does not undertake to regulate state systems of education if they see fit to maintain them.” Although the “exclusion clause” of the Constitution places education in the hands of the states, the federal government does affect policy by providing or withholding funds to states, districts, and schools that do or don’t conform to federal policies. The development of American science education is varied and diverse, as each state, district, and school has had a say in the way science is taught. Despite this decentralized approach, there are many national trends in American science education, and many initiatives and reforms have had national and international consequence, a few of which are discussed below.
In 1892, the National Education Association organized the Harvard Committee of Ten[ii] to recommend uniform college entrance requirements. The Committee recommended science pre-requisites for college applicants. In addition, it recommended that high school science classes have a significant laboratory component, and that biology precede chemistry and physics. High schools conformed to the committee’s recommendation, giving birth to the traditional laboratory-based science curriculum, with biology preceding the physical sciences. By 1920, general science, biology, chemistry, and physics were established as sequential yearlong courses in most American high schools, and today most still offer science in this “layer-cake” sequence.[iii]
24.3.2 – (1950) National Science Foundation – Federal funding for science education
Prior to World War II, academic research in science and engineering was not considered to be a federal responsibility, and almost all support came from industry and private contributions. In 1950, President Truman signed Public Law 507, creating the National Science Foundation (NSF) as an independent government agency supporting fundamental research and education in science and engineering. Through the years, NSF has provided substantial funding for training science educators and developing science curriculum.Advanced Placement Program – College level science courses
In 1955, the College Board established the Advanced Placement Program (APÒ) to provide students the opportunity to do college-level work while in high school. The College Board defines curriculum and offers yearly tests in more than thirty curricular fields. Students around the world take the standardized examinations, which include multiple choice and free-response components. Most colleges offer applicants credit and/or advanced standing for suitable test scores. The Advanced Placement Program has experienced steady growth since its inception, and is a model of sustained educational reform. Research indicates that that the Advanced Placement Program increases academic expectations[iv], standards, professional development[v], and student involvement at participating high schools[vi]. The College Board offers Advanced Placement Programs in biology, chemistry, physics, and environmental science. In 2006, AP courses were offered in more than 16,000 schools to more than 1.3 million students, many of whom were enrolled in one or more of the science offerings[vii]. Most high schools and colleges calculate weighted grade point averages[viii] in which Advanced Placement classes are graded on a 5-point rather than a 4-point scale. It is very difficult to get into many selective institutions without Advanced Placement credits and the extra grade points they provide, and this has fueled interest in the program.[ix]– Developing science curricula
In October 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. The fear that the United States had become technologically inferior to its Cold War foe awakened a nationwide interest in science and technology education. The 1958 National Defense Education Act provided federal aid for secondary science instruction, and funded college students to pursue degrees in science and engineering. In addition, the NDEA and NSF funded numerous science curriculum development projects, including BSCS (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study), Chem Study (Chemical Education Materials Study), PSSC Physics (Physical Science Study Committee), and ESCP (Earth Science Curriculum Project). These curricula became widely used throughout the United States, creating nationwide (not national or federal) science curricula, and ushering in what some have called the “Golden Age of Science Education”.
24.3.5 – (1969) National Assessment of Educational Progress –America’s Report Card
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was developed by the National Center for Education Statistics to be “the Nation’s Report Card”, and is still the only nationally representative, ongoing assessment of what America’s students know. [x] The NAEP assesses student knowledge in science and seven other areas. The 1996 assessment revealed that less than one-third of students were performing at or above the proficiency level in mathematics and science. Poor performance on the NAEP has been an impetus for many educational reforms.
24.3.6 – (1983) Nation at Risk Report – The call for standards-based reform
In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education published an alarming report entitled A Nation at Risk, stating that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” [xi] The Nation at Risk Report emphasized the need for educational standards and standards-based assessments, both of which were instituted in succeeding reforms. In addition, it recommended that American high schools require three years of science for graduation, and that the federal government support curriculum improvement and research on teaching, learning, and the management of schools.[xii]
24.3.7 – (1990) Project 2061 – Science for All Americans – Science Literacy and STS, the world’s largest scientific society, issued a call for a long-term science education reform in its landmark report, Project 2061 - Science for All Americans[xiii]. The report focused on the need for “science literacy” and said that a “scientifically literate person is one who understands key concepts and principles of science, [and] uses scientific knowledge and reasoning for individual and social purposes.” Project 2061 emphasized the need to organize science around conceptual, transdisciplinary themes that would allow learners to link science concepts with mathematics, history, economics, language, literature, political science and the arts. Project 2061 encouraged an emphasis on conceptual themes to provide understanding across traditional curricular boundaries. In addition, it published Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy[xiv] with specific goals and objectives for science curriculum. Project 2061 has been widely cited in subsequent curricular reforms.
24.3.8 – (1990) Scope, Sequence, and Coordination (SS&C) – Integrated Science
The National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) Scope, Sequence, and Coordination Report (SS&C)[xv] recommended that all secondary students study every science, every year for six years, in courses integrating physics, chemistry, biology, and earth and space science. SS&C’s recommendation was based in part on an international model, and called for an integrated approach to science that was radically different from the traditional “layer-cake” curriculum in which each science was taught in separate, yearlong, courses. In the years following the SS&C report, numerous schools instituted “integrated science” curricula with the expectation that students would learn concepts across curricular lines in a coordinated program, starting with descriptive and phenomenological aspects of science, and moving through empirical and quantitative treatments to the abstract and theoretical concepts. Unfortunately, very few curricular resources were developed to support integrated science, and few teachers were prepared to teach across curricular lines. The introduction of state standards, with yearly assessments based upon the traditional “layer-cake” sequence, contributed to the demise of integrated science in many parts of the country.
24.3.9 – (1995) Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) – Evaluating Science Education in an International Context
Every four years since 1995, the National Center for Education Statistics has conducted an assessment to see how American students perform in an international context. The TIMMS[xvi] study documents a gradual decline in performance and interest in mathematics and science, as American students get older, paralleling a drop in standardized science scores. Among the 20 countries assessed in advanced mathematics and physics in 1999, none scored significantly lower than the United States in mathematics, and only one scored significantly lower in physics. The TIMMS is the largest and most comprehensive study ever undertaken of mathematics and science education. The study focuses on children who are in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade. The 1999 TIMMS charged that American science courses were unfocused and shallow (“a mile wide and an inch deep”), providing arguments for later reforms.National Science Education Standards Project – National Standards
The National Research Council developed the National Science Education Standards[xvii] to provide the qualitative criteria and framework for judging the content, instruction, and assessment of science education in schools across the nation. The standards define the understanding that all students should develop, and present criteria for judging science education content at specific grade levels. Note that these standards are national, not federal. They are “national” in the sense that they are offered by a national organization, but they are not “federal” since education is the prerogative of the states. The standards offer many recommendations, including greater emphasis on pedagogical content knowledge, student understanding, inquiry, and integration.
24.3.11 – (1998) California Science Content Standards – What students should know
In 1998, the California State Board of Education adopted science content standards for 6th (earth science), 7th (life science), and 8th (physical science) grade, as well as for high school biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics[xviii]. The standards define specific concepts students should master, and provide the benchmark for district and state assessments. Other states followed California’s example by defining the science facts and concepts their students should know after each grade or subject.
In 2001, the United States Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)[xix], emphasizing: “… increased accountability for states, school districts, and schools; greater choice for parents and students, particularly those attending low-performing schools; more flexibility for states and local educational agencies (LEAs) in the use of federal education dollars; and a stronger emphasis on reading...” NCLB is based upon the belief that “what gets measured gets done”. States are required to test student and school performance according to their established state standards if they are to receive full federal funding. Today, anyone can look online to examine the test scores of specific schools and districts. States and districts must provide data on student achievement by subgroup, inform parents and the community of the scores of each school, and disseminate report cards on school and district performance. NCLB fueled a variety of state and local initiatives in standards-based reform, and performance based education.
24.3.13 – (2005) – Rising Above the Gathering Storm – The need for scientists
In response to soaring trade deficits and the export of numerous high-tech jobs to rapidly developing nations, the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine commissioned the Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future report[xx], which noted: “... Without basic scientific literacy, adults cannot participate effectively in a world increasingly shaped by science and technology. Without a flourishing scientific and engineering community, young people are not motivated to dream of what can be, and they will have no motivation to become the next generation of scientists and engineers who can address persistent national problems, including national and homeland security… For the first time in generations, the nation’s children could face poorer prospects than their parents and grandparents did. We owe our current prosperity, security, and good health to the investments of past generations, and we are obliged to renew those commitments in education, research, and innovation policies to ensure that the American people continue to benefit from the remarkable opportunities provided by the rapid development of the global economy and its not inconsiderable underpinning in science and technology… Because other nations have, and probably will continue to have, the competitive advantage of a low wage structure, the United States must compete by optimizing its knowledge-based resources, particularly in science and technology, and by sustaining the most fertile environment for new and revitalized industries and the well-paying jobs they bring. We have already seen that capital, factories, and laboratories readily move wherever they are thought to have the greatest promise of return to investors.” Similar writings by the Education Testing Service (America’s Perfect Storm)[xxi] and Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat)[xxii] show that America must give greater emphasis to developing and retaining scientists, engineers, and science and technology educators.
[i] U.S. Supreme Court. (1947). Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Tp., Argued Nov. 20, 1946. Decided Feb. 10, 1947.
[ii] Sheppard, K. and Robbins, D. (2002). Lessons from the Committee of Ten. The Physics Teacher, 40(7), 426-431.
[iii] Vázquez, J. (2006). High School Biology Today: What the Committee of Ten Did Not Anticipate. CBE Life Science Education 5(1): 29-33.
[iv] Herr, N. (1990). Advanced Science Instruction in American High Schools: A Comparative Analysis of the Perceived Influence of Advanced Placement and Honors Programs on the Quality of Science Education. (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1990). Dissertation Abstracts International, 51, 07A.
[v] Herr, N (1991). The influence of program format on the professional development of science teachers: A within-subjects analysis of the perceptions of teachers who have taught AP and honors science to comparable student populations. Science Education 75 (6). 619-621.
[vi] Herr, N. (1992). A comparative analysis of the perceived influence of Advanced Placement and honors programs upon science instruction. Journal of Research in Science Education. 29 (5), 521-532.
[vii] College Board. (2007). Advanced Placement Program. Retrieved May 22, 2007 from http://apcentral.collegeboard.com.
[viii] Herr, N. (1991). Perspectives and policies regarding Advanced Placement and honors coursework. College and University. 62 (2). 47-54.
[ix] Herr, N. (1992). Administrative policies regarding Advanced Placement and honors coursework. National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin. May 1992, 80-87.
[x] National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). The Nation’s Report Card. retrieved May 22, 2007 from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard.
[xi] United States and National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk: The imperative for educational reform: A report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Excellence in Education.
[xii] Wong, K., Gutrhrie, J., Harris, D. (eds.). (2003). A Nation at Risk: A Twenty-Year Re-appraisal. A Symposium of the Peabody Journal of Education.
[xiii] Rutherford, F. (1990). Project 2061: Science for all Americans. American Association for the Advancement of Science. New York: Oxford University Press.
[xiv] AAAS. (1993). Benchmarks of Science Literacy. American Association for the Advancement of Science. New York: Oxford University Press.
[xv] National Science Teacher’s Association. (1990). A national curriculum and development policy for high school science education. Reston, VA: NSTA.
[xvi] National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. retrieved May 22 from http://nces.ed.gov/timss.
[xvii] National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
[xviii] California State Board of Education. (1998). California Science Content Standards. Sacramento, CA.
[xix] No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. (2002). Public Law 107-110. signed January 8, 2002.
[xx] Committee on Prospering in the 21st Century. (2005). Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.
[xxi] Educational Testing Service. (2007). A report from ETS's Policy Information Center, America's Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation's Future. Princeton: ETS.
[xxii] Friedman, T.L. (2005) The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.