In yesterday’s blog post, I raised the question: Why do we teach science anyway? Do we teach science to help students become curious and to wonder about the world around them? Do we teach science because various committees and professional societies think that studying science has something special to teach students about the world, and how to solve problems in the world? Do we teach science because our nation’s economic prosperity depends upon innovation and discoveries made in science and to maintain a supply of scientists and engineers?
In that post I identified four arguments, each of which will form the content of this and three subsequent posts in the next week. When we explore the answer to the question–Why do we teach science? –the answer will depend upon the argument we are using to support our answer. The four arguments are as follows:
- The Economic Argument
- The Democratic Argument
- The Skills Argument
- The Cultural Argument
The economic argument is by far the dominate reason why we teach science, especially in the more advanced and prosperous countries. For science research and science education, the work of Vannevar Bush took center stage prior-to and after WWII. He headed the Department of Scientific Research and Development during WWII, and was for a time, head of the Manhattan Project, which developed the Atomic bomb. Bush advanced the role of government in research and development, he was responsible for the creation of the National Science Foundation (1950). He became NSF’s first director. But as importantly as these roles, he wrote a report to the President (Truman) in July 1945 entitled Science, The Endless Frontier. This report was written to answer a set of questions posed by President Roosevelt. Following are the questions Roosevelt proposed:
- What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?
- With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?
- What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?
- Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?
Bush’s report became an important document in shaping America’s conception of science, especially in the role that government should take in advancing scientific research and development. New discoveries, and progress in technological innovation would be key to national security and defense. The report called for support in the form of scholarships in science and engineering enabling a wide scope of students to work towards a Ph.D.
The economic and security reality of science was readily seen in the aftermath of WWII, and as a result science education was seen as taking a new role in the developing a pipeline of science and engineering talent. In 1950, the NSF was created and headed by Bush, and soon after science education researchers began to write and critique the present science curriculum. It was evident the curriculum needed to change, and NSF took the lead in impacting secondary science education by creating at MIT the Physical Science Study Committee which ended up producing one of the most important high school science curriculum projects, the PSSC—a new high school physics course. The PSSC course advanced the knowledge of science in physics by creating a laboratory oriented program—a text, a laboratory manual, and a set of corresponding lab materials were developed for teachers to use to involve students in inquiry learning. The NSF also decided that high school mathematics and science teachers needed advanced training in science, and so they created the Summer Institute concept, and thousands of teachers participated in these 6- or 8-week summer programs.
In 1957 things really changed. The Soviets launched the first satellite (Sputnik I), and this event began a period of reform efforts in science and technology education in America characterized as “crises” and in some cases “hysteria” that America was falling behind in science and technology, and that efforts needed to be taken at a National level to resolve the crisis.
Pipeline ideology emerged after WWII in that the government felt that there was a manpower shortage shortage in science and engineering, and that the school science curriculum was outdated, and that teachers needed more training in science, mathematics and technology. This ideology has characterized the way the Federal Government, and State Departments of Education have approached reform and change in science education over the past 60 years.
The Economic argument for why we teach science is rooted in the nation’s perception of how it compares to other nations in science, technology and engineering. The Sputnik Era naturally focused in on the hysteria that America was way behind in the “Race to Space” and that the Soviet System of science and mathematics education must be superior to science and mathematics in the USA. The Race to Space led to enormous appropriations to the National Science Foundation to develop “new curricula” in science and mathematics, K-12. It also led to proliferation of Summer Institutes for science and math teachers, and Academic Year Institutes for science and math teachers to were paid to leave their teaching position and pursue a full year of coursework in science and mathematics. Thousands of science and mathematics teachers participated in these summer and year-long institutes, all supported by the NSF. Millions of dollars were spent on developing new curricula in science, starting with the PSSC course leading to long line of “alphabet soup” science courses in chemistry, biology, earth science, and elementary science. The courses emphasized a laboratory approach (inquiry-approach) and conceptual approach to science, and there was great excitement within the science and science education communities. Although these programs advocated an inquiry and hands-on approach to teaching, the survey data on the nature of classroom behavior in science classes revealed the lecture/demonstration approach based on traditional science textbooks was the dominant player, even with the infusion of millions of dollars into science education reform.
America did “win” the space race to the moon, but critics soon began to emerge and to claim that America would be at risk if education in the nation did not improve and change.
In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education released the report, A Nation at Risk. The report began with these two paragraphs that left an indelible image in the minds of politicians and reformers:
Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.
This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.
The “rising tide of mediocrity” was the phrase that called into question the way science (and other subjects) was being taught, and whether teachers had the competency to teach science and mathematics in a way that would result in America’s students and future workers could compete against citizens from other nations.
Jane Butler Kahle, a prominent science education researcher, characterized this period of reform as “courses and competency” and it led to a new set of requirements for students to graduate from high school, and encouraged states to require more science and mathematics courses for all students. Sights were set on moving American students to the head of the class in comparisons with students in other countries. In an influential report, Educating Americans for the 21st Century, the authors stated the basic objective for American education:
to provide all the nation’s youth with a level of education in mathematics, science, and technology, as measured by achievement scores and participation levels, that is not only the highest quality attained anywhere in the world, but also reflects the particular and peculiar needs of our nation.
Here is the first pronouncement that student achievement scores will be used in comparisons with other nations to measure the effectiveness of American science education, but it clearly implies a national view that the needs of our nation must be at the forefront of education.
Student achievement, as measured by bubble tests, is now the fundamental way to measure the effectiveness of schools, systems and individual teachers, and the strength of this argument had its roots in the 1980s and 1990s with this Federal report.
In 1985, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) created Project 2061 (the date when Halley’s Comet returns), a massive science education improvement project focusing on scientific literacy. It’s first publication was an outline of the goals of science education and was published under the title Science for All Americans (Oxford, 1989). As a long term project for improving science, mathematics, and technology education, Project 2061 is still an active player in the current reform efforts in the nation.
Project 2061 led the way, and was the foundation upon which the National Science Education Standards (NSES) were developed in 1996. The Standards in science had a profound impact on school science, and led to the development of some new textbooks, but perhaps more importantly the Standards became the benchmark upon which various states developed their own standards.
The economic viability of the nation has been relentlessly defined by politicans and educators, but especially U.S. governors, and corporate bodies that have used their vast resources to invest in a number of “innovations” including the creation of private charter schools that have been able to get state funding, the establishment of Common Core Standards in Math and Reading (Language Arts). These standards were written by Achieve, an organization established by the National Governors Association. All but two states have adopted the Common Core Standards. The Common Core Standards speak to the economic argument in that these backers and developers of the Standards were concerned that some states did not have “rigorous” content and achievement standards, and that a single set ought to be developed, and all students should be held to this one set.
To get the country out of the Great Recession, the U.S. Government established the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009). This $700 billion program provided about $100 billion for the U.S. Department of Education. Setting aside part of the money, the Secretary of Education, created the Race to the Top Fund, which would enable the states to compete against each other to obtain part of the $4.5 billion Race to the Top Funds. As part of the criteria for submitting a proposal (each state had to present a single proposal) each state had to adopt the Common Core Standards. In the first round, only two states were funded. Six months later, an additional 9 states were funded receiving grants from $200 million to more than $500 million.
The economy, according to the developers of these present reform effort, depends upon the “rigor” and quality of education in our schools. Most of the reform effort supports charter schools, the use of high-risk tests to not only measure student learning, but to measure teacher effectiveness. Using the “value-added” concept, the reformers have put into place assessment techniques that will hold schools and teachers accountable for student learning.
So why do we teach science? The economic argument is a powerful answer to this question. We teach science in the schools to help the nation produce enough scientists and engineers who will work in science and engineering careers, produce innovation, and wealth.