Third graders in California will be taught about the periodic table and sixth graders will learn about Earth's "lithospheric plates" under a new set of standards approved today by the state Board of Education. The standards, which will be used to revise the state curriculum and set guidelines for textbooks, have been sharply attacked by many science education reformers who contend that they focus too much on detailed knowledge and too little on concepts. Because the state accounts for more than 10% of U.S. textbook sales, its policies are likely to influence science teaching in the rest of the country as well.
The unanimous vote by the board came after a flurry of final lobbying and letter-writing by more than a dozen scientific societies (including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes ScienceNOW). Some of these groups offered to help rewrite the final draft to bring it into line with National Science Education Standards issued in 1996 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). "It doesn't match the [national] standards in any way," says NAS President Bruce Alberts. He and others believe that the state standards contain so much factual material that teachers will be forced to skip more in-depth learning activities that would give students a better understanding of the scientific process.
But others praise the California standards as a challenging but realistic set of expectations for students. "I think they're perfect," says Michael Morgan, a chemistry teacher and chair of the science department at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet School in Los Angeles, who helped draft the document. "The average student with a caring teacher can get through this."
Opponents are clinging to one last hope --November's gubernatorial election. "My hope is that the next governor takes care of this" by commissioning a major overhaul of the standards, says Alberts. Such a decision, say political observers, might well set a new standard for controversy.