Science Education in Secondary Schools
The science curriculum in secondary schools is largely determined at the state and local levels by science teachers, science supervisors, administrators, and school boards (Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2000). Research studies supported by the NSF have shown that even with significant autonomy there is considerable uniformity of science programs nationwide, and curriculum and methods of instruction have not changed significantly (Mullis & Jenkins, 1988; Weiss, 1978, 1987; Weiss, Banilower, McMahon, & Smith, 2001).
Typically, the science curriculum presents general or earth science at the ninth grade, biology at the tenth grade, and chemistry and physics at the eleventh and twelfth grades, respectively. In 1978, the largest science enrollment in junior high schools was general science, with approximately 5 million students. Another 2 million students in schools with grades 7–12 or 9–12 were also enrolled in general science. Earth science enrollments were approximately 1.25 million. Enrollments did not change substantially in a decade, although they changed in the late 1980s due to the emergence of middle schools (Bybee et al., 1990). General biology is offered to all students and enrolls approximately 3 million students each year. About 80 percent of graduating seniors have taken high school biology. However, this statistic is misleading and has an important bearing on reform of science education at the secondary level. For 50 percent of high school students who graduate each year, biology is their last experience with any science course. High school chemistry and physics courses are generally perceived as college preparatory, as are the majority of other courses offered in the high school curriculum. As a result, many students lack an understanding of physical science. This observation is supported by results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (U.S. Department of Education, 1996).
The nature of the high school science curriculum can be determined by examining textbooks for the respective disciplines. The similarity among textbooks for a discipline—and even among textbooks for different disciplines—is remarkable. These characteristics include presenting a significant number of facts in simple and condensed form and an emphasis on extensive vocabulary and technical terms. In addition to being encyclopedic, science texts currently in use implicitly suggest a pedagogy of inform, verify, and practice. The NSF materials developed in the 1960s and 1970s espoused goals of understanding conceptual schemes (the structure of disciplines) and using scientific processes (the modes of inquiry); changes in textbooks and, subsequently, teaching evolved in different directions. For example, reviews of the inquiry goal in science teaching found that teachers give little attention to inquiry and associated skills (Costenson & Lawson, 1986).
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