Meeting the Education Challenge
Bruce M. Alberts
President, National Academy of Sciences
Improving K-12 education in order to advance science, technology, and our economy over the long-term is a crucial challenge. Suppose we try to look out 100 years, and ask whether America is going to be a leading country of the world at that time? No one knows, of course, but I believe that it is going to depend more heavily on our ability to support and sustain a high quality of education for most Americans than on anything else we can do.
It is very clear that on the education front we are not doing well. In fact, many of us are convinced that we urgently need a revolution in our schools. Let me give you a few indicators.
The problem is not that the schools have gotten worse. It's that the bar has been raised enormously, as we all know. The kind of education that used to be adequate for adults to function in society—for work on an assembly line, for instance—is no longer adequate for the workplace of today. We are told over and over that only 10 percent of the high school graduates who apply are qualified to be hired by companies like Motorola, even for an entry-level job. This is because they do not have the kind of thinking skills, problem-solving skills, or quantitative skills needed in today's factory. The assembly line, in fact, is a very sophisticated, highly complex place to work these days. Our school systems are not educating people in a way that meets today's societal needs.
Secondly, let's look at the attitude that kids have about school. Lawrence Steinberg and a group of other researchers have carried out a 10-year study of middle-class kids from sixth to tenth grade, examining their feelings about school. If you want to be depressed, read the book Beyond the Classroom, which Steinberg published in 1996 to summarize their study of 20,000 students in
Last but not least, we have seen the discouraging results of the Third International Math and Science Study, the TIMSS report. This is an international comparison of our kids' performance relative to those in other countries. U.S. twelfth graders outperformed only 2 of the 21 participating countries in math and science. The eighth-grade results showed that we were average in science and below average in math among the 41 countries that were tested.
Your first reaction may be that we do poorly because of all of those kids in urban school systems. What about our suburban schools? Don't we have good school systems there? Let's look at the results for the top 10 percent of the kids in the world. For the 300,000 students tested, what fraction of them from various countries were in the top 30,000 in the eighth-grade TIMSS? What you see is that Asian countries, as well as others, are doing much better than we are, even at the top 10 percent level. In math, only 5 percent of our kids were in the world's top 10 percent and in science only 13 percent. So even if we continue our attention to the students whom we think are getting the best education, we are not doing at all well.
All of this is a very poor omen for our future. In fact, I view it as a wakeup call for America. But if we are going to do something serious about education, we must start by recognizing that improving it is a very complex problem. Figure A-1 shows a grid of some of the interacting systems in education. The textbooks support the tests and the tests support the textbooks, while the teachers rely on the textbooks for their curricula. As a chemist, I would say that this is a system in a stable equilibrium, with many components that are self-reinforcing. So we will need a very large input of energy to change it.
I was a working biologist for 30 years, and so, I am used to dealing with very messy problems. What scientists try to do with a messy problem is to find a few focus areas. Likewise, we need to concentrate on several ways to attack the education problem; pursue those consistently over 10 years or so; and show that we can make a difference. Only in this way can we give people the confidence that education is something that intelligent effort can improve.
Let me present, briefly, the five focus areas that I would choose for emphasis. The first focus area is something the Academies are just beginning to try to do something about: the nation's school systems. If you look around America for good schools, you can find lots of them. But if you look around America for good school systems, you will find very few. School systems must become learning organizations that empower teachers, otherwise we will never increase the number
of good schools. We will only have a smattering of truly outstanding schools scattered here and there that are likely to be performing well in spite of the school system in which they function.
The second focus area is the teacher. Teachers must be given continuous professional development throughout their careers. And the professional development that they receive, of course, must constantly improve their teaching. This must become a central, if not the central, focus of school systems. We are very far from achieving such a goal today.
The third focus area is student assessment; the tests that we give to measure performance. Many of them are completely inappropriate. High-stakes exams, by which schools and students are measured and compared, directly drive the kind of teaching that teachers engage in. The kinds of tests that we have today, by and large, drive the wrong kind of teaching, and they do not measure the kind of performance or the thinking skills that society at large wants or needs. Instead, today's tests tend to emphasize rote learning and the regurgitation of facts and vocabulary, which will not drive the economy of tomorrow.
The fourth focus area addresses the central issue of curriculum. Most teachers cannot teach well unless they have excellent teaching tools to work with. The idea that teachers should invent their own curriculum is as nonsensical as the idea that a scientist should invent his or her own science. Instead, we need to take the
best tools and continuously improve them, and then make them available to all teachers.
Finally, who are the people in our school systems? Our nation requires a new generation of talented teachers and administrators. We need to make this possible by creating new pathways for people to break into education careers. In addition, all of us, wherever we are, must support excellent teachers through local partnerships—so that they prosper and stick with it.
I think the connectivity we have through the Internet is wonderful. But we have yet to exploit it adequately as a new tool to make major differences in our schools. The situation that we face in education, with all the gridlock, requires something really new in order to shake up the stable equilibrium we are in.
So let me talk about one use that the Academy is making of the Internet to encourage scientists to be effective in their local schools. Last year, our RISE program, Resources for Involving Scientists in Education, launched a Web site that contains a huge amount of advice from scientists who have been effective in their local schools. It tells other scientists and engineers who want to help how to engage a school district and teachers effectively and, equally importantly, what not to do in the schools. It also offers them resources so that they can become effective partners. The Internet has many more potential functions in education, so many, in fact, that we don't yet know all of the ways that we can use this marvelous communication and information device.
We need to define what we want students to know and do in each subject area before we can think about what the curricula should look like. In science, this is a particularly serious problem. Anybody who has ever looked at the textbooks for middle school or high school will see how tough it is. The scientific community has let the textbook industry and the market drive textbooks to the point where they offer little more than lists of science words. The books are quite uninteresting. So you don't need to wonder why kids don't like science. In fact, most elementary school students love science. But as students move on to middle school, "science" becomes a memorization chore. This system turns most young people off of science, and it completely misrepresents science to them.
This issue is addressed in the National Science Education Standards that the National Research Council (NRC) produced in 1996. In 1989 the state governors met in Charlottesville, Virginia, and called for the first-ever national standards in major academic subjects. In 1991, NRC was assigned the task of producing the science standards. It took us four years; its writing involved hundreds of people, including more than 40 Academy members; and the last draft was sent out for review to 40,000 people. It then took us another year to revise and produce the final document. So this almost certainly is by far the hardest report that we ever prepared. It is 240 pages in length, all available for free on-line at our Web site, which is www.nas.edu.
The Standards are not curricula; they are guidelines for what we want kids to know and understand at the end of fourth grade, eighth grade, and twelfth grade.
Whatever the curriculum, it should have the following features according to the Standards:
- Science should become a core subject in every year of school starting at kindergarten.
- Science should be for all students, not just for those who might seek to be engineers or scientists.
- Most important, science should not be treated as the memorization of science words. It should focus instead on inquiry-based learning—and on the concepts that excite kids about science and allow them to understand the scientific process and use it in their everyday lives.
These are very ambitious, revolutionary goals. I am not sure that most people recognize how revolutionary the Standards are. It will take time to enact this grassroots vision from all across America—from teachers, teacher educators, and scientists. Classrooms should look different. Instead of a teacher sitting in front of the class lecturing or having kids memorize words, the students should be actively involved. Classrooms should be noisy places, where students are involved in problem solving, struggling with a problem before they are told the answer. That is the basic nature of inquiry.
This kind of learning builds both cooperation skills and communication skills, which are both badly needed in the modern world of work. If you want to see what it really looks like, take a look at some curricula that have been developed in accord with the Standards. The best that I know of so far have been developed for elementary school. One set has been produced in a joint project between the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution through the National Science Resources Center. They have produced 24 modules for elementary school—each an eight-week set of materials, not a textbook. Each module is grade appropriate, has been field tested in the schools, and then revised based on teacher input.
Other organizations, such as the Lawrence Hall of Science, have produced similar kinds of teaching materials. The students don't get a textbook; instead, the teacher receives a box of materials for 30 kids. The materials do not cost more than textbooks. i worked in San Francisco for many years before I came to Washington. One of my major successes was helping San Francisco to adopt this kind of curriculum material for all of their elementary schools rather than the typical textbooks. A compilation describing all of the best elementary school science curricula has been put together by the National Science Resources Center. Again, it is available on our World Wide Web site.
When we turn from elementary school to middle school and high school, the textbooks only get worse. A few years ago, the state of California wrote new specifications for textbooks. Despite an elaborate adoption process, San Francisco's sixth graders now have to endure textbooks on the human body that are incredibly dull, confusing, and probably not even scientifically accurate. We
have millions of students across America being subjected to this kind of junk. Something is badly broken.
What can we do about it? We need to give teachers many more options through a thorough exploitation of the Internet. First, we must get all teachers connected—both at school and at home. Then we must provide the necessary resources so that they can use the Internet as their major source of teaching materials. The NRC has had a great deal of experience in providing our reports on-line. As many of you know, our 200 reports a year are uploaded to the Web and can be printed out, or read on-line for free. In our experience, this increases the sale of books rather than decreases it. I would like to see textbook publishers upload their books on the Web, so that we would have a resource that children and teachers could get access to no matter where they are across the world.
Putting materials on-line also allows teachers to choose the best things from many different places and combine the best units on the subject that they want to teach, rather than being confined to the one-size-fits-all textbook, which cannot be the best at everything and doesn't have the space to treat any one topic in depth. The Academy is trying to contribute to this by producing some teaching materials for teachers. Our first experiment was produced by our Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education, and is called Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science. This is a 150-page book that has been written specifically for teachers to help them teach evolution. It has been mailed out for free as well as posted on the Web, so that anybody in the world can use it. If this is successful, we will produce others in this series. We really need to let a thousand flowers bloom. I'm very excited to see many other contributions to education on the Web along these lines. It is a wonderful experience to watch.
For example, there is a group that I discovered called Optimizing National Education (ONE). In California, several expert teachers got together in 1991 and started developing curricula for kindergarten through sixth grade. They have placed thousands of pages on the Web, beautifully drawn and illustrated, and all of it can be printed out for free. Similar efforts are emerging all over the country. There are also experiments in developing asynchronous learning networks, through which high school teachers are teaching courses on the Internet to students all around the country. There is an organization called the Concord Consortium, led by Bob Tinker in Concord, Massachusetts, that is teaching the teachers how to use the Web in this way. As a nation, we are struggling to break out of the old mold—like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon—and we are starting to see the liberation of curriculum from the tyranny of the single textbook.
The role of the Academy is to try to encourage these efforts as much as we can, to convene networks, and to get people to work together. As a nation, too often those working on important education activities compete with each other. Our job is to do what we can to enable them to work together much more effectively.
We also need a strong focus on improving our universities, most which are
pretty hopeless with regard to the science education they provide. If you go to a first-year science course, you generally find lectures. And in my field, you generally find all of biology covered in one year—with little teaching for understanding, and no inquiry-based learning in the lab. Universities must change because they set the example for all of us. Their Biology I courses are supposed to teach teachers what science is all about, but they ignore the scientific process. This is an area where the Academies can play a major role and where we have been working actively. Many universities also require that students take the SAT II exams for science achievement in assessing them for admission. The SAT II exam in biology has been an enormous embarrassment. It has covered the vocabulary of all of biology, and it drives high school teachers to teach not according to our Science Education Standards, but in the very way that we don't want them to teach. The universities must wake up and change the way that they look at performance—they are suffocating the whole system! This is a major part of the educational gridlock that I talked about earlier.
Finally, the Academies must use their position to support and advertise the teaching profession. We need an enormous number of new teachers. We need new pathways to get them in. We need to get large numbers of scientifically trained and talented people prepared to teach in our schools. Right now, we have incredible inertia in this respect. Our schools of education and our credentialing systems prevent gifted and enthusiastic people from going into the teaching field.
Today we have a great opportunity. We have an excess of scientifically trained energetic young people who can't do research—there aren't enough research careers for them. Many are willing to do new things. What the Academies have been doing is distributing career booklets through the Web and by mail. Our Careers in Science and Engineering emphasizes all of the different careers that are possible with a background in science, including precollege teaching. We have a career site on the Web for beginning scientists and engineers that connects them to real people in case they want to exchange information with someone who is a teacher, for example, or an engineer working on solar energy—whatever career they might be interested in.
We discovered from talking to students that the real problem is not the students but their advisors. Professors in science departments strongly discourage students from anything but becoming a researcher or, in many cases, a professor. We can't continue to have a system where students are made to feel that they are failing if they don't become professors. It is counterproductive to the students and counterproductive to science, and it doesn't meet our urgent national needs. One of our latest booklets is Advisor, Teacher, Role Model, Friend, which is aimed at advisors, providing them with resources to help them to think differently.
We need new pathways into teaching, and I am very pleased that Eric Ryan is here, because he has participated in a bold experiment to prove that we can do better. Eric is a 1990 graduate of Berkeley. He taught for six years at Teach for America and is going to be, I hope and expect, a future leader in education in our
country. The program that he is involved with is called Teach for America. It was developed out of a senior thesis written by a Princeton University student named Wendy Kopp. She shopped her ideas for a new teacher training program around and was unable to get government support for it. So, with private funding, she started Teach for America. Each year the young teachers participating in the program reach 100,000 American children.
This program has been met with strong opposition from many in the education establishment. They say it demeans teaching because these teacher trainees get only five weeks of boot camp in the summer to prepare them to go into some of the most difficult schools in America. Admittedly, five weeks is not enough preparation, but it's better to have these people in our schools than to not have them. In fact, 80 percent of principals say that Teach for America teachers are better than their average new teacher despite their abbreviated preparation. Two-thirds of students said that they learned more from their Teach for America teacher than they did from their average teachers. Although the program as originally set up assumed that participants would teach for two years, 50 percent stay in teaching for a longer period. Many of them have become dynamic leaders in school systems and elsewhere. We need to think about the implications of this experience for getting new kinds of people in our schools and infusing our education system with new energy and inventiveness.
With that I'll introduce Eric Ryan, who is a 1990 graduate of Berkeley. He taught for six years at Teach for America and is going to be, I hope and expect, a future leader in education in our country.