Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE  October 1998 

Education Policy Begins at Home

by David Applegate

Most of my "Political Scene" columns have covered various and sundry federal policies that impact geoscientists. Although my own focus is at the federal level, I am well aware that what goes on in Washington is only one piece of the governmental puzzle. State and local governments have as great, and likely far greater, impacts on geoscientists as the federal government. After all, the states are responsible for implementing many federal policies, for licensure and certification, and for a large share of the environmental and resource regulatory framework. Land-use planning and natural-disaster response take place in local governments. All of these issues affect geoscientists and can benefit from better geoscience input.
    By becoming more involved at the state and local levels, geoscientists can have an active voice in the future role of the geosciences across America. Perhaps the most important issue in this regard is science education policy, the bulk of which is determined beyond the Washington beltway. State departments of education set instructional and learning standards and adopt curricula that the local school districts implement (as they see fit), determining in large part how children are taught science. For a hot-button issue like evolution, the states and school districts decide not only how science will be taught, but whether it is to be taught at all.

The Case of California Standards

The need for a watchful eye on science education policy in the states was driven home recently by events in California when the state released its draft science standards for kindergarten through twelfth grade. The significance of these much-anticipated standards goes far beyond California, because publishers conform their textbooks to meet the needs of the biggest classroom markets -- and there are none bigger than California.
    As the California standards were being developed, hopes were high that they would reflect the voluntary National Science Education Standards, released in 1996 by the National Research Council, and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). These projects emphasize achieving scientific literacy for all students through inquiry-based, hands-on learning that allows students to apply scientific principles and processes to make discoveries. Earth science -- recognized as a distinct category in the national standards -- is particularly well suited to a hands-on approach, tapping kids' natural curiosity about the world around them. The goal is to provide the concepts and knowledge needed to give all future citizens the tools they will need to make informed decisions.
    This "inquiry-centered" approach reflects growing awareness within the science education community that the usual approach of broad coverage and rote memorization is not working. The most sobering data have come from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a comprehensive international comparison of education at five different grade levels. The initial results of the study were for the fourth-grade and eighth-grade levels, where the United States did reasonably well. Then last February, the results were released for twelfth grade. Out of 24 countries tested, the United States placed ahead of only Lithuania, Cyprus, and South Africa! The TIMSS researchers who analyzed the results were especially critical of the U.S. approach to teaching science, which tackles far more topics than do curricula in other countries, leading to a "mile wide and inch deep" understanding.
    Unfortunately, that is precisely the approach of the draft California standards. Although undertaken with the best of intentions, the draft standards -- in the words of Bob Park of the American Physical Society (APS) -- "evolved into a list of facts to be absorbed rather than concepts to be understood." The standards require students of all ages to master large quantities of highly specific factual information, with little emphasis on understanding concepts -- let alone discovering science through doing it. APS is leading the charge to convince the California State Board of Education to authorize a substantial revision of the draft standards. They have lined up a panel of leading scientists to coordinate the revision, including Geological Society of America past-president Eldridge Moores of the University of California at Davis. The presence of Moores reflects the inclusion of earth science in the draft standards -- a step forward for our discipline if the standards are then done right.
    How important are the California standards? The impact on textbooks is only one aspect. Unlike the purely voluntary standards developed by the National Research Council and AAAS, the California standards will be tied to statewide testing, upon which the performance of individual school districts and teachers will be judged. If the standards are overstuffed with facts, then
teachers will be forced to rush through a laundry list of information in order to cover the necessary ground, and comprehension be damned.

Get Involved Close to Home

The current controversy over the California standards is just one example of state policy affecting the geoscience community. Any geoscientist could come up with many others, and that is the point. These issues exist out where people live, and individual efforts to get involved can make all the difference.
    Fortunately, several of AGI's Member Societies are organized at a state level. The American Institute of Professional Geologists, in particular, promotes advocacy in the states, hosting open houses for state legislators in Colorado and (with the Association of American State Geologists) supporting a booth at the National Conference of State Legislators annual meeting. In addition, the affiliated societies of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists are mostly local or regional societies, well positioned to keep an eye on developments in their cities or states. For education issues, both the National Association of Geoscience Teachers and the National Earth Science Teachers Association have roles to play.
    I encourage Geotimes readers to roll up their sleeves and become actively involved in the policy-making taking place in their state capitals and at local school board meetings. Beyond the future of our profession, what is being determined there are society's future attitudes toward the value of knowing and understanding our home planet.

 David Applegate
AGI Director of Government Affairs
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program, at
    The AGI web site contains updates on federal science education policy at html#edpolicy>. The draft California standards are available at

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