Calif. To Use New Science Standards

By Jennifer Kerr, AP writer
Copyright 1998 Associated Press
October 7, 1998

PALO ALTO, Calif. (AP) — Four children in Lucinda Surber's science class were hovering around a desk, offering theories about what would happen when a vial of hot water dyed red was lowered into a jar of cooler water.

"I think it's going to go up, because heat rises and it will splatter on the top," Anthony Saviano said. Moments later, his prediction came true. "Oh, it's floating on the top," Kiyoshi Kawano said. "Anthony, you were right!"

There wasn't a textbook in sight last month as the 22 students in Surber's fourth-grade class at Barron Park Elementary School used this hands-on approach to learn about the relative density of hot and cold water.

But that approach could go the way of the dinosaurs if the state Board of Education votes this week, as expected, to adopt a new set of standards for the public schools' science curriculum.

The board is scheduled to meet in Sacramento for three days starting Wednesday.

The 36-page science standards proposal, drafted by a committee led by Nobel laureate and physicist Glenn T. Seaborg, emphasizes using textbooks to teach children scientific facts and concepts.

Under their proposal, for instance, third-graders would be introduced to the periodic table of elements. Seaborg and other scientists who favor the plan believe that the hands-on approach to learning is simply watered-down science.

Critics, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society and others, say the new standards focus too much on learning facts by rote, stifle children's natural curiosity and don't provide the conceptual understanding gained through hands-on learning.

"Children will cease being the wonderful scientists they are in their earliest years and will learn to dislike science. Because of having too many facts to learn, children will have much less time to discover, to learn how to satisfy their curiosity in more and more subtle ways," said a critique written by the American Physical Society.

Six scientists including former astronaut Sally Ride, a space science professor at University of California at San Diego, offered last month to rewrite the standards. The board rejected their offer.

Board President Yvonne Larson said the proposed standards are a compromise between two rival groups, one led by Seaborg, the other by such illustrious scientists as Ride and Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Science and a cell biologist at the University of California, San Francisco. The board rejected their offer.

"We had to try to come up with the best thinking of the two groups," she said. "There is a question how many times we can write and rewrite them."

The new science standards are part of a two-year effort by the board, acting on orders of the Legislature, to improve the state's declining public schools.

After the standards are adopted, local school districts must set their own standards that are at least as rigorous as the state's, and administer assessment tests to students in grades 2 through 11 each spring.

Last year, the board approved new standards for mathematics and language arts. The final two pieces — science and history-social science — will be decided this week.

The history-social science standards aren't as controversial as the science proposal but also have come under fire, mostly from minorities and women who want to make sure future textbooks give sufficient attention to their accomplishments.

All of the new standards will be used by book publishers to write new textbooks. And because California, with its 5.5 million public school children, is by far the nation's biggest textbook market, the standards and textbooks are likely to be adopted around the country.

Earlier this year researchers with the Third International Mathematics and Science Study found that American high school students scored below students from 18 other countries in those subjects, outperforming only students from Cyprus and South Africa.

That study found that American math and science curriculum was "a mile wide and an inch deep," said Jan Hustler, a longtime teacher with the Palo Alto Unified School District.

"We're concerned the standards and assessments that follow may cause districts to change what they're doing and move back to a textbook-based program that teaches more subjects in less depth. We feel that turns off students and does not engage them," she said.

The need for scientists is particularly critical here in the Silicon Valley, whose business leaders have lobbied the federal government to increase the number of visas for foreign engineers and scientists because of a shortage of skilled workers.

High-tech manufacturer Hewlett-Packard Co. has given money to the Palo Alto district to develop a science curriculum like Surber's, based on science kits rather than textbooks.

Last year, HP got together with eight school districts in the area and won a $5.6 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to further train teachers in using the kits.

At Barron Park, Surber relies entirely on the kits full of equipment like test-tubes and vials to teach the three major sciences to her class of fourth-graders. She spends a third of the year each on water, the earth science; magnetism and electricity, the physical science; and the habitats of frogs, crabs and snails, the life science.

"I hate to see things drawn down into too many little-bitty facts," said Surber, who has taught for 14 years. "Just a simple concept like this, density, I could spend a couple of weeks on it. It's more than learning facts. It's more exploring a topic."

The kids in her classroom all nod vigorously when asked if they like science. Why?

"I like to explore things," Devin McDaniel said. "I want to be smart," Hyein Sol chimed in. "'Cause it's fun," added Galina Romanovskaya.

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