The beliefs—views, biases, prejudices—expressed in SE>encore are the product of sixty years of experience. My purpose here is to note those beliefs as best I can in relation to the experiences that fostered them. First, there are two fundamental Beliefs.
Belief: Serious educational reform is necessarily painful and lengthy, for experience has amply demonstrated that there simply are no painless, simple, quick fixes to be had.
Belief: American schools were never ideal and they never will be, but they can become much better than they are, making nationwide science literacy an eventual possibility.
But to begin at the beginning.
As a twenty-year-old radar officer on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in the closing year of the war, I was (surprisingly!) put in charge of the training and advancement of a section of enlisted radar personnel. I quickly found out, to my considerable embarrassment, that teaching them the physics of radar had little impact on their ability to perform in combat. More generally, that experience, later supported in other contexts, persuaded me that the connection between knowledge and practice is not as ironclad as is usually claimed.
Belief: In making the case for science education in the schools, it is not sufficient to rely entirely on the notion that scientific knowledge is a necessary precursor to the effective use of science-based technologies.
Near the end of my two years master’s degree program at Stanford University in preparation to become a science teacher, I did my 12 weeks of “practice teaching” at a very upscale high school populated by students whose parents were doctors, lawyers, professors, researchers, and business executives. My mentor teacher was very kind and after two weeks turned the class over to me to follow the course outline provided by him; and he and my Stanford advisor each visited me several times and gave me good suggestions. But I received absolutely no systematic training, such as how to deal with unruly students (there seemed to be none!), how to find and select appropriate teaching materials, how to conduct demonstrations and lab sessions, what to do with poor textbooks, how to create useful quizzes and tests, how to give students feedback and grades, and so forth. I have since found that practice teaching in some places is better than what I received—but not by much.
Belief: The school-based practice component of science teacher education does not prepare future science teachers with the skills they need.
My first years of public high school teaching were in a school in which the students were mostly the children of Greek, Italian, or Mexican immigrants employed in the meat packing, steel, and railroad maintenance industries. In my first year, I was assigned five classes (physics, chemistry, two general science, and algebra) and made advisor to the student government. During that year, I was visited only twice by the department head (a biology teacher) for a few minutes each time, and the only advice I received from him was that I should be careful not to use slang. Later observation in many schools led me to believe that, unfortunately, my experience was not at all rare.
Belief: Few schools have anything close to a significant process for the induction of new science teachers.
My remaining years of high school teaching were in a middle-class suburban school district that expanded from two to seven high schools in a decade thanks to the postwar baby boom. I was one of 11 teachers selected, after a national search, by the newly-appointed principal to create the first of the new high schools. We designed the curriculum, some of us developed non-traditional courses (as I did in chemistry and physics), we worked with the architect in the design of the facilities, and we participated in the selection of each of the next year’s new faculty members. The result was a school that was significantly different than the others in the district, or the state for that matter, and that soon was considered avant-garde and frequently visited by teachers and administrators from other high schools.
Gradually, however, the initial faculty dispersed, attracted to higher-paying positions in and out of public education and to the lure of higher degrees. When I visited the school district many years later, here is what I found: the original two hig schools were pretty much the same as they had always been, and the five “new” ones—including the one that my colleagues and I had created—were alike and quite similar to the original two.
Belief: Educational systems, like other systems, strongly tend to resist change and to restore themselves when distorted, so that changing one part is unlikely to change the whole, and a changed part is likely to revert to the norm.
Belief: Schools are more alike than not, even though schools, school districts, and states continuously argue that autonomy is the road to uniqueness.
During my high school teaching years, I received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to foster interaction between the sciences and the humanities. This involved working with teachers in any of the district high school who volunteered to participate. I collaborated with world history teachers to introduce some history of science and technology into their courses, with social studies teachers to increase the attention paid to the social, economic, and political consequences (positive and negative) of the advances of science and technology, and with science teachers to help them pay more attention to the ties between science and technology and between science and society. The agreement was that the participating teachers would, in turn, share their modified materials and approach with colleagues.
It did not happen. When the grant ended, most of the teachers I had worked with gradually discontinued their cross-discipline efforts and did not lobby their colleagues. Though willing to accept outside largess, the school district itself had no provision for financially supporting my cross-discipline once the Carnegie funds were depleted, and there was no faculty-wide demand for the support of innovations such as mine that were problematic and that added burdens without rewards.
Belief: With or without outside funding, innovations in school science have little chance of success unless they are established at the outset as long-term undertakings for which resources will be made available and incentives provided for
Belief: Although many school and university educators favor the idea of cross-discipline studies, at least in principle, it is extremely difficult to establish them in practice.
During my years on the faculty of Harvard University, I served as co-director (along with professor of physics Gerald Holton and professor of education Fletcher Watson) of a national Sputnik-era school science curriculum reform undertaking called Harvard Project Physics, and was also the project’s executive director. Its goal was to produce a high school physics course that took a humanistic approach to the content and that would be designed to attract all high school students, not alone the (mostly male) science majors.
The development of the Project Physic Course extended over a period of six years, made possible by funding from Harvard, private foundations, and federal agencies, and by the involvement from across the nation of scientists, high school physics teachers, historians and philosophers of science, evaluation experts, artists, filmmakers, and physics and education graduate students. It developed an integrated set of materials that included a physics textbook unlike any other, a compendium of demonstrations and laboratory activities, seven volumes of readings, six volume of transparencies for overhead projection, fifty measurement film loops (produced in collaboration with the Film Board of Canada), ten booklets of programmed instruction (pre-computer, alas), three 16mm films, a six-volume teacher handbook, six volumes of test material and 12 half-hour TV programs for teachers on aspects of the course. The teacher handbook, among other things, outlined four different ways to use the course resources, and indicated how teachers could over a period of years shape it to some degree their own preferences.
In the only study of its kind, before or since, schools were randomly selected from a list of all of the high schools in America, and then assigned randomly to Project Physics and traditional groups. The results were positive, showing that the Project Physics students learned “standard” physics as well as students in the traditional courses and in addition gained greater insights on the nature, history, and applications of physics.
The National Science Foundation provided summer institutes to prepare interested teachers to teach Project Physics. High schools across the country began introducing the course, and in those schools enrollments in physics increased, particularly among girls.. It quickly began to outsell all others physics courses.
But then under pressure from textbook publishing companies, Congress put the brakes on NSF summer institutes, and, consequently, the adoption of Project Physics (and other innovative, Sputnik-era courses) quickly slackened. Within 20 years it was out of print, and the physics textbooks in use had become 900 to 1000 page monstrosities with traditional content and organization. Failure?
Belief: Scientists and educators working together with ample time and resources can create science courses than are better than those created those produced by commercial publishers.
Belief: Major innovations in science education have little chance of becoming adopted nationally without the substantial and sustained support of the federal government in the training of teachers to implement them.
One of the advantages of being at Harvard was that the faculty and doctoral students in the Graduate School of Education were invested in carrying out educational research, some of it in connection with our physics education project. Findings were published in journals, and, when pertinent, embedded in Project Physics by influencing its content and design. Later observation indicated that the published research had little or no influence on the traditional physics courses. This is not to say, however, that all of Project Physics had a solid research base.
Belief: In order for educational research findings to influence instruction, they need to be embedded in course designs; for the most part, teachers are not in a position to figure out on their own how to apply research.
Belief: The best location for the training of doctoral students in science education is a university where they can serve as active participants in R & D undertakings, just as science doctoral students serve on university research teams.
By the end of our work we realized that what would have helped greatly was reliable knowledge of common student beliefs about the physical world and about which physical concepts that they typically have trouble grasping. This was reinforced by noting the value of the cognitive research sponsored by NSF and the National Institute of Education in the late 1970s, but not sustained in later years.
Belief: Substantial improvement in the effectiveness of school science depends on the sustained support of a program of cognitive research that focuses on student learning of particular science, mathematics, and technology concepts and skills.
When I went to New York University as director of science and mathematics education, I discovered that future elementary teachers were being taught science and mathematics by the education faculty. I felt that they should be taught by science and mathematics faculty, and so I made the necessary arrangements. It was a mistake, for I quickly came to realize that those courses were taught with majors in mind, particularly not with the needs of future elementary and middle school teachers in mind. I retreated, and courses were developed with in collaboration with interested science and math faculty but taught by education faculty. For those students, learning science in the context of education proved effective, whereas future high school teachers did better learning science in the context of science itself.
Belief: All future teachers of science need acquire a substantial knowledge of science, but institutional arrangements must take into account the differences between future high school science teachers and future K-8 teachers.
While at NYU, I initiated and directed Project City Science, an effort to greatly improve science education in the city’s middle schools. It was funded by a large five-year grant from the U.S. Office of Education, and involved NYU education and science faculty members, NYU education doctoral students, faculty from other universities in New York City, teachers and science supervisors in three of the city’s districts, and staff from the American Museum of Natural History. The advisory board was made up of representatives from education, science, business, and labor.
As it turned out, it took us a good two years just to learn how to work together, with lots of ups and downs along the way. Then gradually we began to get positive results, particularly in establishing mutual trust—the university participants were becoming more realistic about the needs of teachers of science to 7th and 8th graders in urban schools, and the school participants were coming to see that the university faculty and graduate students could provide valuable help on a continuing basis. Change was on the way.
After six years at NYU, in the forth year of Project City Science, I accepted the position of assistant director of the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. At about the same time, the U.S. Office of Education decided not to continue grant program under which the project was funded, and because the city school system was struggling financially it was unable to pick up the slack. All of this led to the discontinuation of a promising school-university partnership.
Belief: Five years is not long enough to establish large-scale innovations, and should not be undertaken unless there is reason to believe that continuity of leadership and financial support are likely providing that rigorous assessment shows substantial progress is being made.
At a presidential nominee, Senate approval was required. At the senate confirmation hearing, I was sponsored by Senator Jacob Javits, Republican of New York, and Senator Ted Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, each of whom was familiar with my work in his state. Nevertheless, brisk questions pressed me to indicate what I would to quickly turn science education around nationwide. Then, in my years in office giving testimony in both houses of Congress, the questions were of two sorts: inquiries about the status of this or that particular program within the NSF science education directorate, and why positive results seemed so slow in coming. There was little Congressional interest in a long-term strategy..
Belief: Even those who support the reform of school science expect that it can be achieved simply and quickly.
When the U.S. Department of Education was created (replacing the former Office of Education in the Department of Health and Human Services), I was nominated and confirmed as the Assistant Secretary for Educational Reform and Improvement. The intention was to take the lead in supporting educational research of various kinds and in supporting national, state, and local efforts to apply research findings. In particular, this new office was charged with collaborating with the NSF in using research to improve science education nationally. But before much could be accomplished, Ronald Reagan was elected and his administration tried (but failed) to eliminate the U. S. Department of Education, but suceeded in eliminating all of the NSF education programs (except for graduate fellowships, which were protected for two years by law) on the ground that the federal government has no business in K-12 public education, science or any other. Then gradually, Congress restoring NSF science education programs.
Belief: Although in American final responsibility for education rests with the individual states, the federal role in education has become essential and will not go away. The only question is just what the role should be.
Established in1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest federation of scientific and engineering societies with nearly 300 affiliate organizations. In addition, AAAS counts more than 140,000 scientist, engineers, science educators, policy makers, and interested citizens as individual members, making it the largest general scientific organization in the world. Its goals are to further the work of scientists, foster scientific freedom and responsibility, improve the effectiveness of science in the promotion of human welfare, advance education in science, and foster the public understanding of science. It is no wonder that I jumped at the chance, in 1981, to accept the newly-created position of chief education officer at AAAS.
During my first few years at AAAS, we managed to create a variety of new programsdesigned to improve the quality of science education nationwide. Some of these worked and are still functioning well, and some failed and disappeared. But my dissatisfaction with our approach grew, for it seemed that, mirroring the reform efforts of the previous half-century, we taking a scattershot approach to reform.
One of the great advantages of our disaggregated system of education is that allows different individuals and institutions to pursue creative, non-traditional approaches to instruction. We had no desire to lose that, yet something was needed, we believed, to foster change more coherently. What was missing was a national strategy based on a shared belief on what, specifically, the learning out come of K-12 science education should be. That was the thinking that led to Project 2061 and to Science for All Americans and its offspring.
Well, Project 2061 is a quarter-century old and still a vigorous national reform undertaking under the leadership of my successors, first George Nelson and now Jo Ellen Roseman. I think that there is widespread agreement that project 2061 has been extremely influential so far—but will it achieve its long-term goal of providing the conceptual base for nationwide science literacy? Only time can answer that, so I leave off here on the assumption that this is quite enough information about me and the biases that I bring to Science Education encore.
Below: My first science students. On the aircraft carrier USS Hancock, I was a radar officer (far right) whose duties included the advancement of the members of my team, shown here in the Combat Information Center in March 1945.