Forum on Education of the American Physical Society
Fall 2007 Newsletter



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The Elements of Science Education Reform

Gerald F. Wheeler, Executive Director, National Science Teachers Association

Fifty years ago our nation rose to the challenge of the Soviet launch of Sputnik. Today, we find ourselves back at the starting gate: Our nation’s student achievement in science is, in a word, unacceptable. While corporate leaders, politicians, and educators have made a collective investment in reform efforts over the last three decades, we have still not seen real increases in our students’ understanding of science.

So what do we have to do differently to achieve successful reform in science education? I believe we must meet four crucial challenges. We must (1) increase the science content knowledge of all teachers of science, (2) develop a shared understanding of and focus on the most important ideas and skills students should learn, (3) raise parents’ awareness of the real needs our children will face in the 21st century, and (4) address these problems at a scale that impacts our whole education system rather than a few districts or classrooms. 

Challenge One: Teachers need to know the science they have to teach.

The overall failure of teacher preparation programs to provide teachers adequate science content knowledge is clear (Allen 2003). Significant numbers of science teachers in the classroom lack degrees or even college coursework in science, especially at the elementary level (NCES 2002; Weiss et al 2001). And with shifts in teaching assignments, teachers with a background in one discipline may be forced to teach another. The bottom line is too many of our nation’s science teachers don’t have a deep enough understanding of the science they teach.

Most studies of the relationship between teacher content knowledge and student achievement are constrained by uncertainty with regard to whether the content teachers learn, say in a college course, matches the particular content they have to teach (Allen 2003). Even so, several studies have suggested that as teachers’ understanding of science increases, so does student achievement (Darling-Hammond 2000; Chaney 1995; Druva and Anderson 1983). And, research aside, it makes sense that teachers need to understand the science they teach. They need to know the most central ideas in a topic or discipline, deal with contingencies that arise as their students explore the real world, present students with phenomena that can make scientific ideas real for students, and help them find models and analogies that help clarify those ideas. Knowing how to teach and understanding how students learn are very important, but that knowledge must be connected to specific science content.

Challenge Two: We need a national focus on the most important ideas and skills.

We’ve got, arguably, good standards in the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) and Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993). These documents have laid out a carefully crafted description of the ideas and skills all students will need to participate actively and thoughtfully in a society that depends on science and technology. But while Standards and Benchmarks have, admirably, focused on conceptual understanding of a set of important ideas, they simply cover too much. One group of researchers has estimated that it would take as much as 22 years of schooling to adequately cover all the content in the Standards (Marzona 1998).

And the state-based standards developed in the wake of the national standards only got bigger! Consequently, science teachers (and professional development providers) have far too many concepts to address and assessment writers have too many domains to assess. The result is that important ideas do not get the treatment they deserve, and students are left with a poorly understood collection of facts and algorithms, soon to be forgotten. Further complicating the problem, each state’s standards are different. A next generation of standards is needed, to provide national focus on a smaller core of the most important ideas.

Of course, national consensus is difficult. But while common wisdom suggests that states will always “do their own thing” when it comes to education, a recent survey conducted by NSTA revealed strong support for nationally shared focus. The survey, conducted in NSTA Express, asked science educators if they thought a uniform set of national science content standards that every state would be required to use would be a good idea. A resounding 71% agreed, while 27% disagreed. And the next generation of standards could respect the rights of states and local communities by centering on the ideas and skills that all states have declared important.

One strategy is to use the NAEP 2009 Framework as a de facto national vision of standards. Because all the states will be focused on doing well on the NAEP assessment, we could probably get general agreement on the 2009 framework. And this framework would give all stakeholders—assessment writers, curriculum producers, and professional developers—a common base to build upon. At the national level, we would have something that we can invest in without bankrupting ourselves. We could invest in assessment items for the 2009 framework and in promising practices (and programs) that support that framework. This could gives us a truly functional set of national science standards without taking on the political battles at the state level.

Challenge Three: Parents need to be aware of their children’s real needs.

Young adults entering into their 21st century careers and lifestyles are going to experience a world very different from their parents. Science and technology will have an increasing impact on politics, the economy, and on our personal lives. The politicians get it, business leaders get it, and, of course, educators get it. The challenge is that parents don’t get it.

A recent report by the Public Agenda (Kadlec, 2007) shows that parents in a two-state survey are aware of the importance of math, science, and technology for our country’s future but remain complacent about the need for their children to take more rigorous courses. Most parents are pleased with the status of science education in their schools, 70% reporting that “things are fine as they are.” There’s no reason to believe that these survey results would be different in a national survey.

In order for reform to succeed—for student achievement in science to increase—we need a culture shift. But what is the most effective way to encourage this shift?  Public-service announcements are expensive and often ineffective. With the exceptions of “got milk,” “use seatbelts,” and “stop smoking” few initiatives show positive results. The vague warning of a strange new high-tech world just doesn’t cut it. The report Rising Above the Gathering Storm by a stellar group of business and academic leaders doesn’t cut it either. In short, America needs another Sputnik. Politicians, business leaders, and educators must find a way to energize parents and make them see the immediate importance of reform.

Challenge Four: We need to impact a nation, not a classroom

If our nation is to make significant advancements in science education reform, we have to change our strategic thinking about reform. The final challenge is to address the scale of problem: addressing the real needs of nearly two million teachers of science. 

Even our most successful professional development programs suffer logistical constraints of time and cost. As a result, they reach only a miniscule proportion of our nation’s science teachers. In the 50 years since Sputnik education reform has focused on events for small groups of science teachers. NSTA is no exception. We have prided ourselves on the quality of programs that brought one- or two-dozen science teachers together for a summer event. While we shouldn’t abandon these smaller efforts, we must realize that they will never reach a scale that will produce a substantial increase in student achievement.

To meet the scale of the problem, we need innovative programs that can act both nationally and locally. At any single school site, many different content needs exist among a small number of teachers (they teach different content, or have different backgrounds). But at a regional or national scale, we can move closer to a critical mass of teachers who need, for example, to learn more about genetics. So we need programs that can meet those common needs for large numbers of teachers in disparate locations. On the other hand, we also need programs that can meet the needs of smaller groups of teachers in a particular school or district. The key is to think strategically about the kinds of partnerships and modes of delivery can best address these different problems.

Improving science education in a significant and scalable way will require innovative ideas and steadfast commitment from all stakeholders. We cannot continue to do the same thing over and over again and hope for different results. But by facing the four challenges mentioned above, we can start to find new ways to improve our students’ understanding of science and prepare them to meet the challenges of the 21st century.


Allen, M.B. 2003. Eight questions on teacher preparation: What does the research say.Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Project 2061. 1993. Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chaney, B. 1995 Student outcomes and the professional preparation of 8th grade teacher in science and mathematics. Unpublished Manuscript. Prepared for NSF grant RED 9255255. Rockville, MD: Westat, Inc.

Darling-Hammond, L. 2000. Teacher quality and student achievement: A review of state policy evidence. Education Policy Analysis Archives 8 (1). Accessed December 21, 2004.

Druva, C.A., and R.D. Anderson. 1983. Science teacher characteristics by teacher behavior and by student outcome: A meta-analysis of research. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 20 (5): 467–479.

Kadlec, A. and Friedman. 2007. Important, but Not for Me. A report from the Public Agenda.

Marzono, R.J. and J.S. Kendall. 1998. Awash in a Sea of Standards. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)

National Research Council. 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 2002:

Weiss, Iris R., Eric R. Banilower, Kelly C. McMahon, and P. Sean Smith. 2001. Report of the 2000 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education.



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