J. Myron Atkin
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center or the National Research Council. The paper has not been reviewed by the National Research Council.
|In retrospect, the events in science education that were set in motion
by the launching of the first Sputnik may have been unique, at least in
one respect. Never before had scientists from the highest echelons of
the academic community had such a controlling influence on the
elementary and secondary school curriculum. Judging from
developments of the last 15 years, however, it seems that they may
not have quite such a dominant position in the foreseeable future. In
this brief statement, I will outline some of the reasons for the degree
of curriculum control exercised by university professors from
research-oriented universities in the decades immediately after
Sputnik, what seems to be happening now, and a general indication
of the directions of change in science education in the decade
immediately ahead. |
First, some of the factors associated with involvement by academics in elementary and secondary education in the years immediately following World War II. Of central importance is the fact that research-level scientists and mathematicians in the countrys most prestigious universities not only voiced dissatisfaction with what they saw in schools (which was far from unprecedented), many of them became deeply and personally committed to changing things. They, and everyone else, had been through a searing and costly war. A significant number of them emerged from their experience intent on doing what they could to prevent another global conflict. They believed deeply that world peace is intimately associated with an educated populace. And so, emboldened by their success in producing war-winning devices like radar and an atomic bomb, they decided to turn their talents to worthwhile peaceful purposes.
Education was something they knew about. Furthermore they now
had extraordinary confidence both in their abilities and their potential
for influencing world events. If they could build a bomb that
shortened the war, they could certainly make significant changes in
the education system. They also had the support and good will of an
admiring and grateful public. All this gave them new and
unprecedented influence in matters of public policy, including
Several factors in this constellation of important elements have changed as the century draws to a close, however. First and most tellingly, the countrys priorities have shifted. University-based scientists no longer have the political influence they had 40 years ago, not even with respect to priorities for their own scientific research. For just one example, the scientific community, speaking collectively, argued that the super-conducting super-collider is of central importance if we are to understand the nature of the universe, and that understanding the universe in its beauty, complexity, and mystery is one of the noblest quests in which humans might engage. When the body politic was asked to provide dollars for the purpose, however, it indicated in forceful terms that its own priorities were elsewhere.
The public during the 1980s and 1990s had become concerned with economic productivity, with environmental deterioration, and with health issues like AIDS, to highlight just a few examples of science-related issues. It would seem that technical expertise should be directed toward problems that are more immediate than fundamental research on the structure of the universe, said the legislators with responsibility for allocating public funds. Basic research may have practical payoffs many years from now, but there is no assurance of such a result nor is that its purpose. Besides such research is expensive, and todays urgent problems need attention. Scientists are respected today more than they probably were before World War II, but the public is less ready than was the case in the 1950s to accept their decisions about what technically rooted issues need to be addressed and how much money should be spent.
In addition, with respect to curriculum, teachers have become more assertive. In the wave of science education reform activities of the 1950s and 60s, it was always assumed that teachers knew best how to convey scientific content to students, but the responsibility for content identification itself lay with the scientists. No longer. Teachers are pointing out that schools are more inclusive than they were then. Teachers must serve a group of students from a wider array of social and economic backgrounds. Higher percentages of the adolescent cohort remain in school until age 18. Engaging students in science and mathematics is more difficult. To reach a diverse student population, they say, it is necessary to select topics that interest them, presumably those that have more direct connections with their lives. Further, teachers are the ones best able to identify relevant content.
There are additional factors that have altered the circumstances and directions of educational change and that have reduced the influence of research-oriented scientists in academia. One particularly prominent influence on curriculum in the 1980s and early 1990s was that the United States was seen as being in a weakened economic position, characterized by enfeebled productivity and a declining presence in world trade. Students should be taught those subjects that relate directly to their being proficient contributors to the economy. Furthermore, educational policy makers began to realize as they did not in the 1950s that no major changes in education are likely to take root unless teachers are involved in the innovations from the start, which probably includes a significant role in content selection. Just as the question of who determines science policy today is less the province of scientists alone than it was 40 years ago, so, too, the matter of who owns science education is more complex and contested. We seem to be in a period when key decisions are made by a more inclusive group of stakeholders: scientists from academia, teachers, parents, scientists from industry, politicians, and others.
Copyright 1997 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.