Discussion Question 1: After reading the section on ‘targeting teachers,’

 Discussion Question 1: After reading the section on “targeting teachers,” do you believe such issues are profound and present today? How so?

Discussion Question 2: Compare the BSCS and PSSC curricula provided in module 11. While these examples are merely a glimpse of both projects – do you see characteristics of such projects when you were in school? Lastly, do you believe the 'inquiry-based' approach is more effective than 'drill and grill' learning?

  • Module11.doc

Module 11: The State of Science Education in the American Classroom

Module Description: Module 11 discusses science's role in the American classroom. Like the social studies movement discussed in module 10, sciences, particularly the hard sciences, were transformed in the 1950s due to the Soviet threat of technological superiority. In module 11, we discuss the brief state of science in the United States and how a perceived superior Soviet science system jump-started the scientific revolution in the United States through funding from the National Science Foundation.

Module Goals and Objectives: Given the opportunity, students will be able to:

1. List and explain concerns by Arthur Bestor regarding science education.

2. Identify reasons why teaching public school science was unattractive.

3. Explain how the DeWitt study and report helped shape public support for science curriculum reform.

4. Identify the elements and characteristics of the proposed science curriculum.

Module Notes: The State of Science in America

When Arthur Bestor called for establishing a national commission of 'scientist scholars' in 1952 to evaluate school curricula and, presumably, restore the subject-matter disciplines to their rightful place, little note was taken of his explicit and repeated inclusion of scientists as crucial participants in the process. It appears odd that a proposal designed to safeguard scholars' professional status in the humanities, drafted by a historian and presented at the American Historical Association's annual meeting, would give scientists top billing. Considering the relative prestige accorded the two professions; however, Bestor's actions make more sense. After World War II, scientists garnered considerable positive public notoriety for themselves. With intellectuals suffering under the withering ideological scrutiny of McCarthy and other right-wing zealots, Bestor sought to forge a crucial alliance with the much more critical scientific community to lend greater legitimacy to his proposed educational reforms.

By the 1950s, scientists enjoyed high prestige in somewhat tense ideological times. Moreover, scientists' complaints notwithstanding, the public responded with general gravitation toward scientific topics and issues, leading one academic to wonder aloud why it was that 'scientific work in schools is so much more satisfactory than the humanistic.' A great deal of this attraction can be attributed to the technological wonder science has produced. However, perhaps part of the appeal also lay in the perceived uncontroversial nature of science itself. There was an area of study that could claim access to the natural world's objective truth when the truth about many things was ambiguous at best. Science was untainted by the distortions and subversions to which humanistic studies (philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc.) were susceptible. In a world of competing ideologies, many saw science as merely non-ideological.

Public Perception

Science has always been identified in the public mind with objectivity, the disinterested pursuit of truth at the surface level. However, proving more deeply reveals a much more complicated picture regarding the public perception of science in the years after the war. A picture laid the groundwork for the scientists' involvement in education reform well before the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the event commonly thought to have prompted these efforts. Some saw it as an objective method of inquiry, technological mastery of nature, and the key to Allied victory – all of which, to some extent, had positive connotations. Science was also associated with the social and political activities of various scientists and new social engineering methods, which were viewed with suspicion in the political climate of the time. The conflation of science and technology in the public mind was the most irritating of the scientific community's challenges. The new instrumental technologies scientists developed during the war brought them generous government patronage and national status, which they welcomed. However, the success of these technologies also worked against their efforts in the postwar period to maintain public funding for research that seemed, at times, far removed from the country's day-to-day economic and social needs. This confusion contributed to a social and political environment that scientists believed threatened their work autonomy more profoundly.

Targeting Science Teachers

The new look at science education came as the country settled into an uneasy period of relative quiet. Though nearly a year had passed since the end of the Korean War, and McCarthyism was rapidly fading from view, President Eisenhower urged the country not to become complacent. The Cold War was far from over. Indeed, he noted at a news conference that might persist for another 40 years, a point seized upon by the press in its coverage. The longer the conflict was predicted to last, the more critical education seemed to become, and the more troubled people were by the existing state of the American educational system. In this case, the lack of qualified teachers – especially in the sciences – needed to be addressed.

The teacher shortage was a chronic problem evident to anyone who kept abreast of current events in the early 1950s. Though not highlighted by the editors of Scientific American in 1951, the National Manpower Council in 1953 had explicitly tied this problem to the crisis in scientific workforce production. Their breakthrough report of that year devoted an entire chapter to evaluating the supply and demand of public school teachers. The report noted that the elementary schools experienced the most pressing shortage. However, as numerous other studies had established, the problem would soon overwhelm secondary schools. Discussions at the National Science Foundation (NSF) noted that between 1950 and 1965, three hundred thousand more secondary school teachers would be required in science subjects alone, translating into a need for up to ten thousand new science teachers per year. Moreover, this came when the absolute number of college graduates was declining.

The various factors affecting supply and demand were challenging to pinpoint, much less control. The low pay rate naturally discouraged many capable individuals from entering the profession. Further contributing to the science teacher shortage was the low public esteem of such a United States position. In comparison, Russia has an enormous advantage in its prestige in science and the importance Russia connects to scientists' and engineers' training. The teacher quality problem could not easily be separated from the issues of numbers. The inability to find certified teachers to fill the growing number of classrooms led to various stop-gap employment practices. Accredited teachers were often pressed into service teaching subjects that were not qualified. Alternatively, worse, individuals with no educational training led classrooms across the country. In 1953, nearly 65,000 teachers worked with emergency certification, a classification that mainly was a waiver of any requirements for the job. However, quality concerns were not limited to those lacking proper professional credentials. The National Manpower Council observed that certification was only a rough and, in many ways, a controversial measure of teacher competence. The common perception was that individuals who chose to attend teacher training programs had considerably less innate ability to start than other college students. This perception was reinforced by a survey of standardized test results from the Selective Service, which revealed that education majors were only half as likely as engineering majors to score well enough to become eligible for draft deferments. Thus, it was generally accepted that the pool of students from which future teachers were drawn was relatively low quality.

According to those occupied with the workforce problem, what made matters worse was the grossly inadequate training these students subsequently received. Teachers' colleges and education programs at more prominent universities rarely provided the necessary resources to ensure their students' top-notch preparation. Most suspect in all of this was the teacher training curriculum itself. By now, thoroughly maligned within the academy and publicly humiliated, professors of education were cited for teaching that lacked 'depth and intellectual rigor' and required courses in educational methods at the expense of those in the traditional subject-matter areas. Just beginning to participate in the debate over public education, members of the scientific community found this last practice of pushing coursework in teaching methods particularly damaging to the future of science. Many believed mastery of subject matter was necessary for good science teaching, perhaps even enough.

One of the more frequently offered solutions to this problem was merely encouraging teacher training programs to 'pay more attention to grounding teachers in the substance of their subject,' a solution more easily suggested than implemented. The various state teacher-certification requirements and general educational bureaucracy, which had so frustrated the Illinois historian Arthur Bestor, appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle to those seeking to emphasize science subject matter in teacher-training programs. The sentiment among scientists was that the professional educational establishment contributed more to the problem of poor science teaching than its solution.

Mustering Public Support

One of the primary obstacles the Eisenhower administration faced in addressing the shortage of scientific personnel was the absence of any systematic organization of schooling at the national level. American education was highly decentralized, both administratively and politically. In this area, the enemy enjoyed a decided advantage. As the National Manpower Council observed, Soviet Russia's current Five-Year Plan calls for specified percentage increases in the number of natural scientists and engineers. In a totalitarian society, such targets can be set, and a monolithic state's power can be employed to fulfill them. This top-down, command-control organization of the Soviet system contrasted sharply with that of the United States, where the decision-making power was unevenly spread among state governments and school boards of some 59,000 school districts, with a great variety of private and religious schools. This organizational structure was apparent to everyone concerned that changing programs regarding the national interest could not be achieved quickly or as efficiently as we might like. In technological competition with the Soviet Union, this fragmented schooling system threatened U.S. military superiority and cried out for centralized coordination and control.

Despite respectful nods to local leaders in education, professional industry, and labor, government officials were convinced that the only viable course of action was to empower some federal agencies to direct reform efforts. Their obvious choice was the National Science Foundation (NSF), which had already begun down this path by funding the summer teacher-training institutes. However, expanding these educational programs would require more than merely the cooperation of NSF; Congress, with its control over the appropriation of funds for the Foundation, would need convincing as well – even more so given its historical reluctance to venture into the quagmire of public-school funding. Although the government's initial attempts to drive for rigorous intellectual training for science teachers found little support among the general public, the administration had more luck on Capitol Hill, where congressional indifference to science education had dissipated quickly over the previous year. Much of this change of heart can be attributed to the NSF-sponsored book Soviet Professional Manpower by Nicholas DeWitt in the summer of 1955. This work provided the first complete, well-documented picture of the Soviet educational system. It was an eye-opening presentation of the specific threat the Russians presented to many in Congress—earlier congressional objections to expanding NSF educational programs centered foremost on the issue of federal control of education. DeWitt's book showed that the Soviet threat was no exaggeration.

It was well known that the primary function of the Soviet schools was indoctrination in communist ideology. Moreover, just as ideology interfered with objective inquiry and sound scholarship in the universities, many believed that indoctrination techniques, combined with the ideologically distorted subject matter in the lower schools, provided academic training in the United States that had little reason to fear. However, as DeWitt argued, in the Soviet march toward industrialization and the need for advanced military technology to compete with the United States, their leaders' bottom line was securing a skilled, trained workforce. Moreover, the free application of ideological bias is limited in the subjects that mattered most for technological success – the hard sciences of mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Thus, contrary to conventional wisdom, Soviet training in these subjects was quite adequate. Laws and solutions to problems remained the same, whether the problem was stated in verbalisms glorifying the Soviet state or contemptuously in words depicting capitalist conditions. While political inference undoubtedly produced some residual effects upon individuals' mental outlooks brought up under Soviet rule, such belief does not affect learning in fields essential for technical development and scientific activity. The Soviet Union was directing its efforts in these same areas of education crucial to national security. Casting an eye to U.S. educational policy, DeWitt noted that 'the Soviet educational system offers much more than our own in teaching science at the secondary-school level.' He described the 'high concentration on science instruction' as the most distinctive feature of Soviet secondary education.'

DeWitt's book, along with word that the Soviets had successfully detonated a deliverable hydrogen bomb in November 1955, effected a profound shift in congressional attitudes toward the education programs of the National Science Foundation. Earlier concerns over federal control of education seemed to evaporate in this now real Soviet challenge. To jump-start the nation's schools, the government printed 20,000 copies of DeWitt's book and sent them to every high school superintendent in the United States.

The Foundation takes control.

By the spring of 1956, the Eisenhower administration had successfully placed the scientific training issue squarely in the public eye. Indeed, it had become a central concern to Eisenhower and his national security advisors as they sought to maintain U.S. technological superiority over the Soviets. While the overall import of the situation may have unstayed those outside Washington, Congress members – at least those holding key committee assignments – were now apparently on board, ready to address the science education gap that had opened, particularly in the nation's high schools. Although the National Science Foundation had only reluctantly entered the picture, a recognized need for its expertise and, more importantly, congressional encouragement provided the confidence necessary for the Foundation to take science education problems and begin implementing its vision for science education reform.

The substantial funding increase Congress bestowed upon the fledgling NSF education division enabled it to systematically attack the glaring educational problems at the high school level. The division immediately increased the number of summer institutes for secondary science teachers from 18 in 1956 to 91 in 1957, thus bringing updated subject-matter training to teachers nationwide. However, Foundation officials had long recognized that enhanced teacher training would not be enough to bring American education into a competitive balance with the Soviet system. To this end, the NSF division established a program to encourage the development of supplementary teaching aids, including primary film and television programs in science instruction.

The appearance of Sputnik in 1957 was the final catalyst to propel the National Science Foundation's movement beyond the need for physics curriculum reform into biology, chemistry, and numerous other hard sciences. For the projects in these disciplines, the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) served as NSF's exemplary. More than that, the public prestige accorded physical scientists and their placement at the head of the National Science Foundation and the federal government's science advisory apparatus to shape subsequent curriculum projects directly. This influence was particularly apparent in the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), which confirmed many respects of MIT's curricular research and development model. The relatively late arrival of BSCS was more a product of NSF indifference than a lack of interest in the nation's biologists. On the contrary, biologists had been kicking around ideas for improving biology education as early as 1952, and a concerted effort to reexamine biology education began in the spring of 1953.

Overview: The Physical Science Study Committee

University and secondary-school physics teachers formed the Physical Science Study Committee to develop an improved introductory physics course. The goal was to create companion teaching materials for secondary physics schools. Materials intended for direct instruction include a textbook, laboratory apparatus, a laboratory for students, motion picture films, and ten achievement tests. Supporting materials include a four-volume teacher's and resource book and a series of paperback books scholarly science literature for students and adults. To aid teachers in using materials, the committee encouraged the development of instructional programs that enable teachers to study the new course in detail. The committee organized university and secondary school physics teachers' teams for various activities. These teams blended teaching experience at several levels with deep insight into the nature and meaning of physics. The materials developed by these teams were used in classes and subjected to scrutiny by the teachers who used them and the committee's staff observers. The course materials were tried, evaluated, and revised for three years before they were released for general use in the fall of 1960. The committee thought it wise to establish a permanent revision and related development organization. A non-profit corporation, Educational Services Incorporated, was formed. This corporation administers the program of the Physical Science Study Committee.

Overview: The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study

In the years immediately following the launch of Sputnik, the NSF spent millions of dollars developing high school science curricula designed to recapture the U.S. lead in science. The Biological Science Curriculum Study (BSCS) was arguably the most successful of these programs, with its textbooks used in approximately 50 percent of U.S. high school biology classrooms. The BSCS promoted a philosophy of science alongside discussions of modern genetics, evolutionary biology, and forest ecology. The program's approach to learning stressed the nature of the inquiry, with students and teachers urged to ask questions, consider evidence, and draw conclusions based on laboratory observations.

The Biological Sciences Curriculum was intended to completely overhaul the biology curriculum, beginning at the secondary level. The BSCS eventually prepared three sets of sophomore-level textbooks, laboratory materials, teacher guides, and instructional films within a year of its proposal. The materials were identified simply by the color – yellow, blue, and green – with each version focused on a particular aspect of general biology. Yellow took a cellular or evolutionary approach; blue stressed biochemistry and physiology; green emphasized ecology. During the first few years of the project, selected teachers used draft materials in typical tenth-grade classrooms. By the mid-1960s, any interested district could purchase the materials from a commercial publisher.

Imagine that you are a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore. Your teacher provided a 'blue' (biochemistry and physiology) BSCS textbook. Nevertheless, before the teacher starts the first lesson, the teacher announces that you will take a test to gauge your baseline knowledge of scientific concepts. Below are a few examples found on the test:

1. The chief purpose of the science of botany is to:

a. Teach farmers how to produce more food.

b. Develop new drugs and medicines from plants.

c. Provide explanations of how plants grow and reproduce.

d. Tell us what kinds of plants will grow best in various kinds of soils.

2. It has often been said that published scientific research reports are generally accurate and honest.

a. This is true because scientists are very accurate and honest people.

b. This is true because only one answer can be correct in science.

c. This is true because another scientist can check reported results.

d. There is little basis for this claim.

The experimental blue BSCS textbook demonstrates the strengths and limitations of this approach for the high school classroom. The thirty-three-chapter book, issued in three parts for the 1960-1961 school year, was arranged according to scientific concepts rather than practical applications. For example, section seven on genetics contained chapters on the cellular and chemical basis of heredity, chromosomes, patterns of heredity, population genetics, and gene expression. However, they only mentioned plant and animal breeding as part of a historical narrative on the origins of modern genetics. In contrast, the text's authors claimed that they wanted to encourage all students to think like biologists in practice; this translated into heavy-handed descriptions of what biologists think.


The following readings are assigned to module 11. Please read each short article about the Physical Science Study Committee and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study.

1. Biological Sciences Curriculum Study

2. Rebuilding the Science Program: Study of High School Physics Achievement

3. Physical Science Study Committee: A Status Report

BSCS Videos: A brief look into the 50-year history behind BSCS and their involvement in science education and curriculum.

Required Assignment

1. Online Web Discussion – Read each of the questions below.  After doing so, select all questions to focus your discussion.  Please make one thoughtful, original posting (a direct response to your chosen question) and at least one thoughtful response to a classmate's posting. 

Original Student Response is due by Thursday, 28 March, at 11:59 p.m.

Response to a peer(s) due by Monday, 1 April, no later than 7:00 a.m.

Discussion Question 1: After reading the section on 'targeting teachers,' do you believe such issues are profound and present today? How so?

Discussion Question 2: Compare the BSCS and PSSC curricula provided in module 11. While these examples are merely a glimpse of both projects – do you see characteristics of such projects when you were in school? Lastly, do you believe the 'inquiry-based' approach is more effective than 'drill and grill' learning?


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