Critical Issue: Implementing Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Standards for Science Education

ISSUE: The intense criticism of America's schools following the publication of A Nation At Risk (1983) has fostered many initiatives to create curriculum, instruction, and assessment standards in all academic areas. For science education, both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council have proposed important new standards. However, since no set of standards will succeed without the understanding and support of classroom teachers, several questions must be answered before implementing science standards:

OVERVIEW: Since 1983, many states have passed legislation requiring standards for curriculum and assessment, while professional and government groups have been calling for national standards in most disciplines. The recently enacted Goals 2000: Educate America Act (1994), establishing eight national education goals to be achieved by the year 2000, attests to the nation's desire to improve its schools.

The state of science education is similar to that of other disciplines. While research shows a clear need for new instructional strategies based on a constructivist model of learning, practice remains rooted in behaviorist theory and rote methods of learning. Regardless of which science standards are implemented, a new vision of science teaching and learning must be based on instruction that emphasizes engaged learning, in which students create meaning from their own experiences.


ACTION OPTIONS: Change requires clear vision, commitment to continuous improvement, and willingness to challenge past practice. The following actions to bring about systemic reform should be part of a strategic plan:

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Identifying standards for curriculum, assessment, and instruction in science education raises many questions, including the following:

Successful change requires careful planning, and the interests of all stakeholders need to be accommodated. Reforms must be carefully explained and demonstrated to parents, so that they will understand and accept changes in methodology and content organization. Teacher acceptance is critical, and experience shows that teachers seldom adopt changes that are implemented from the top down. Policymakers need to realize that systemic reform takes time and resources. Students are the most important stakeholders, and all change must increase the likelihood of their success.

Successful implementation of science standards is impossible without considering the professional development needs of teachers and administrators and ensuring that they have the requisite skills, knowledge, time, and resources to implement the reforms. However, the greatest error would be to go forward with reforms assuming that both teachers and administrators accept the recommended reforms. Before any actions are taken, teachers and administrators need to understand the need for change, the rationale for the recommended changes, and the relationship between the new science standards and the reforms themselves.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Many teachers feel comfortable with existing science courses and content organized in the traditional manner. They believe that the best way to build knowledge is to collect and integrate a set of discrete facts. They also may favor the traditional didactic, authoritarian approach to instruction. Naturally, such teachers do not embrace a learning model that gives students flexibility and allows them to participate in decisionmaking. They accept and practice the methods that they used to acquire their knowledge and understanding of science.

Proponents of the current organization of content in science usually draw heavily on a behaviorist theory of learning. They assume that knowledge grows from simple ideas to complex concepts, with new knowledge building on previous understanding in a predictable manner.

Current schooling practices are built on past learning theories that are far different from those arising from new research. Earlier models assumed that structure and practice using a prescribed method created knowledge and understanding for students. The teacher's primary task was to select the "best" method - i.e., the method that provided success for the greatest number of students. The students were expected to retain facts and knowledge, applying them to new areas of learning. Inability to do so resulted in failure.


Michigan Department of Education Model Content Standards for Curriculum


Midwest Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory
1120 Diehl Road, Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563-1486
(630) 649-6500, fax (630) 649-7600
Internet e-mail:

Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education
The Ohio State University
1929 Kenny Road
Columbus, OH 43210-1079
614-292-7784, Fax 614-292-2066
Internet e-mail:
For materials and resources for the science classroom, search the online catalog of curriculum resources ENC Resource Finder.

Argonne National Energy Laboratory
Division of Educational Programs
9700 Cass Avenue
Argonne, IL 60439

Center for School Change
Joe Nathan, Director
301 19th Avenue S
Minneapolis, MN 55455

National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22230

American Association for the Advancement of Science
1333 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20005

National Science Teachers Association (NSTA)
1742 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20009

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This Critical Issue summary was researched and written by Marvin Christensen, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Date posted: 1995
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