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Rival Scientists to Collaborate on School Science Standards

January 17, 1998|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

California's academic standards commission announced Friday that it will have two rival groups of scientists work together on science guidelines for the state's public schools--including the group led by three Nobel Prize winners that had offered to do the work for free.

The commission's rejection of that group last fall spurred roars of protest--and a national controversy--that led the standards panel to start over.

The commission disclosed Friday that it had voted to ask the heads of both of the philosophically opposed groups to collaborate in writing the guidelines for science instruction from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Since its initial offer to write the standards was rejected, the Nobelists group has bolstered its ranks with the addition of six other winners of science's highest honor--including David Baltimore, the new president of Caltech--and dozens of classroom teachers.

The rival group, based at Cal State San Bernardino, also includes top scientists but is weighted more heavily with educators.

"To have any role in the process at all is just terrific," said Stan Metzenberg, a Cal State Northridge biology professor who assembled the group featuring Nobel laureates, including Glenn Seaborg, a key figure in nuclear physics. "I think this is a real opportunity for the K-12 students in our state to have standards that are written by the best scientists and the best educators."

Bonnie Brunkhorst, a Cal State San Bernardino professor who heads the other group--which initially had gotten the job--was less enthusiastic about the compromise decision of the Commission for the Establishment of Academic Content and Performance Standards.

"We are willing to explore it," she said. "Working together requires two groups working in good faith, and we will work in good faith."

The Nobelists' group had complained that science education was being "dumbed down" in a misguided effort to make it more appealing. It wanted the standards to require students to learn specific concepts, such as how electrical charges bond atoms into molecules or how "the funny little bend" in the water molecule is a fundamental basis for life on Earth.

Brunkhorst's group, in contrast, thought the Nobel laureates' philosophy perpetuated a scientific elitism that risked making the curriculum inaccessible to all but a few students.

That group won out in a November vote of the commission, which rejected Seaborg's team as lacking experience both in the classroom and in writing standards. The commission also seemed suspicious of the offer to work for free.

But the spurned Nobelists appealed on grounds that the commission had failed to follow its own rules.

The commission then agreed that it should have given Seaborg and his colleagues more credit for offering to work without pay. Brunkhorst's group wanted to charge $178,000.

The decision to start over set the stage for Friday's announcement. Technically, the commission rejected both groups' proposals, then decided to hire the heads of each as consultants--allowing them to draw on all the experts.

Scott Hill, the commission's executive director, said he will meet next week with Metzenberg and Brunkhorst to try to craft a process for them to work together. The commission plans to submit the standards it writes to the state Board of Education by Aug. 1.

Once adopted by the board, the standards will form the basis for new tests to assess how well California students are learning.

The controversy has spotlighted a debate over how best to teach intellectually rigorous subjects--not only science, but math as well--to American students who are diverse racially, economically and in intelligence and behavior.

In recent years, scientists and science educators have come to agree that far more Americans need to be "scientifically literate" so that they can, perhaps some day, vote on an issue such as cloning.

Said Brunkhorst: "All students deserve success with understanding."

The difference is over how to achieve that.

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The proposal submitted by Seaborg's group, Associated Scientists, complained that some schools are setting absurdly general goals for lessons, such as that "every student will demonstrate an understanding that systems may undergo change while appearing to stay the same." The Nobelists said that too many educators are satisfied if students know that "big things are made up of small things" without insisting they also learn the details of molecular structure.

That group said that although science should be fun, "hard work is an unavoidable component of the learning process."

But Brunkhorst said such criticisms misrepresent "reform" efforts to put science within reach of most students. Her group, she said, represents the consensus of America's leading scientists and educators. It too has added new members--including the leaders of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society.

Rather than start over writing standards, she said, her group will recommend that California embrace guidelines that such groups have already developed and endorsed.

"I think it is unfortunate that someone, somewhere, has been trying to pick a fight and declare that there is dissension [over educational issues] in the scientific community," she said. "There certainly is a consensus in the national community."

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