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A plan to overhaul science education and science texts in California
Editor's Introduction -- California is an "adoption state." It is one of 22 states, most of them in the South or the West, in which state agencies control the evaluation, selection and adoption of the textbooks that will be used in public schools. In California, the pertinent agency is the California State Board of Education.

California adoptions revolve around documents called frameworks, which are issued by the State Board. There is a framework for mathematics, a framework for health education, a framework for history and social studies, a framework for science, and so on, each prescribing the topics that young people should study as they progress from kindergarten through grade 12. The framework for a given subject stays in force for seven years. It is intended to guide school-district officials as they formulate curricula, to guide publishers as they create the textbooks that they will submit for adoption, and to guide state functionaries as they evaluate the textbooks that the publishers produce.

In November 1989 the State Board approved a new science framework that sought to reshape science instruction in California schools, at all levels, and to ensure that the sciences would be presented to California students as intellectual disciplines -- not as mere catalogues of facts and technical terms. The new framework would govern California's adoption of science texts in 1992. The development of the new framework had gained national attention, and had engendered articles in publications such as The New York Times, the Washington Post and Science, because fundamentalists had opposed the framework-writers' insistence on a valid treatment of biology and of biology's central, unifying principle, the theory of organic evolution. Those articles had missed much, however, because the framework's notable features went far beyond its references to evolution. Here is a two-part report on the framework's history, content and implications. Our author, Lawrence S. Lerner, is one of three professional scientists who served on the framework-writing committee.


California's New Framework Demands New Science Texts

Lawrence S. Lerner

Part 1     from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1990

In the 1960s, after the "Sputnik Scare," there was a flurry of improvement in science education and in the writing of science texts. Superb books such as the Physical Science Study Committee's series in physics and the Biological Science Curriculum Study's series in biology were written by teams of scientists and educators, working with the federal government and leading publishers. These books directly influenced the quality of science education in high schools. In California, such distinguished scientists as Jacob Bronowski served on science-framework committees, and such fine books as the Time-Life biology series were adopted for use in classrooms.

This flowering of good textbooks was met by (and helped to cause) a strong anti-intellectual, anti-scientific reaction that arose in the late 1960s and reached full virulence in the 1970s. Though anti-intellectualism is a recurring theme in American cultural history, this new movement seemed unique: Many of its adherents had had substantial schooling, were economically comfortable, and saw themselves as members of the urban middle class.

Among the first to exploit the political potential of such persons was Ronald Reagan. When he sought the governorship of California in 1966, he cultivated a coalition between the factions that today are called the New Right and the Religious Right. California's superintendent of public instruction at the time, Max Rafferty, shared the positions that Reagan espoused in public, and he may actually have believed in them as well.

When Reagan became governor and turned to rewarding his supporters with political posts, he appointed a number of creationists to the State Board of Education. [See "What Is Creationism?" on page 3 of this issue.] The creationists took up the task of replacing biology with Bible stories in California classrooms, and in 1969 they succeeded in corrupting the science framework that then was in draft. The Board killed two passages about organic evolution and substituted paragraphs of nonsense, fashioned by a creationist engineer, that had nothing to do with science.

There was more. In 1972, as a result of maneuvering by the creationists, the Board adopted a declaration that came to be known as the "antidogmatism policy." It prescribed:

That, on the subject of discussing origins of life and earth in public schools: (1) Dogmatism be changed to conditional statements where speculation is offered as explanation for origins. (2) Science should emphasize "how" and not "ultimate cause" for origins.

That was the whole text. The statement did not define dogmatism, and this omission was important. The term dogmatism was already established in the lexicon of creationism as a code word for anything that seemed to contradict a literal reading of the Bible. People who were familiar with creationists' attacks on science education would know this. People who lacked such familiarity would be left puzzled and anxious -- an effect that could only promote the creationists' program of excluding any consideration of organic evolution or "origins" from science classes.

Publishers, of course, perceived that the Board would not tolerate discussions of organic evolution in schoolbooks. Evolution disappeared from science texts, scientists disappeared from framework committees, and public-school biology became a meaningless hodgepodge. If textbooks dared hint at evolution, they used euphemisms or false synonyms such as development, a word that has its own meaning and is definitely not a synonym for evolution. If books dared suggest that living things had a past, they used weasel words and subjunctive subterfuges, They said things like "Many scientists believe that animals called dinosaurs may have roamed the earth perhaps millions of years ago."

In time, Reagan left Sacramento for Washington, and Rafferty joined the payroll of an undistinguished state university in Alabama. A period of stagnation followed, and anti-intellectualism continued to reign -- not so much because the Right was strong as because public interest in education was weak. Science frameworks degenerated into catalogues of technical terms and disjointed observations. Textbooks degenerated too, partly because publishers adopted a broad interpretation of the conflict over evolution: Definitions and isolated facts were unlikely to arouse opposition, but discussions of the theoretical context of science -- the context that makes science what it is -- could cause real trouble. In any case, theory was harder to present. Vocabulary lists and catalogues of misconstrued facts were easy to devise and were consistent with the practice of "dumbing down," which was dominating the production of schoolbooks in all subjects.

An Atmosphere of Reform

By the mid-1980s, however, public and professional reactions to the dismal state of education were quite palpable. In 1987, when the Board of Education chose a committee to write a new science framework (for publication in 1990), an atmosphere of reform prevailed. The Board and the superintendent of public instruction, Bill Honig, were receptive to nominations from the scientific community and from science educators, and the final choices were: twelve persons who worked as classroom teachers, as science-education administrators, or as both; three professional scientists (I among them) who worked as professors at state universities; and one educational-software expert.

We convened for the first time in January 1988. From the outset, we were unanimous about our central task: to ensure that the sciences would be presented as disciplines unified by a theoretical structure -- a structure that gives meaning to observations, that suggests further observations which can be used to modify or verify the structure, and that makes predictions possible. During our first few months, we gave much time to considering how we could accomplish this. How could we make sure that textbook-writers, teachers and administrators would grasp our emphasis on structure, as well as the philosophical basis of that emphasis? We eventually settled on three major devices:

The first device (and perhaps the most effective) is the introductory chapter, "The Nature of Science." It is indeed the clearest short exposition of the scientific ideal that I have ever seen. I still am amazed that a committee could produce such a piece, for committees hardly ever write with inspiration.

The second device is seen in chapter 2, "The Major Themes of Science." We felt that the intricate interconnections among the sciences are so important that they must be expressed not only as individual principles that unify single disciplines (e.g., conservation of mass) but also as less obvious themes that recur, in varying forms, in various sciences. The themes that we chose as exemplary were Energy, Evolution, Patterns of Change, Stability, Systems & Interactions, and Scale & Structure.

The third device is embodied in the framework's extensive but tightly organized main section, "The Content of Science." In earlier frameworks, the content sections had been limited mainly to a listing of topics. Consider the following pairs of quotations. In each pair, the first passage is from the Science Framework Addendum of 1984 (which augmented and effectively replaced the framework of 1978), and the second passage is from the framework of 1990:

1984: Included among the protists, living things that are not easily classified as plants or animals, are protozoa, bacteria, fungi, and algae.

1990: Living things are conventionally divided into five kingdoms, but only Fungi, Plants, and Animals are well-unified evolutionary groups. (The one-celled forms are often divided into Monera and Protista, but the distinction is arbitrary.) Within these kingdoms there is a hierarchical arrangement of groups within groups. Classification is founded on evolutionary relationships. The Linnaean system of classification was established before evolution was understood, but in general it can be modified to accommodate new information and theory because it is a simple, workable system.

1984: The model [sic] of plate tectonics explains many features and phenomena found on earth, such as the shapes and locations of the continents, mountain ranges, volcanoes, ocean trenches, and earthquake belts.

1990: The history of the Earth is marked by changes in sea level and the uplift and subsidence of land forms, the formation and breakup of continents, and the openings and closings of ocean basins. The principal driving force of these changes is slow convection in Earth's upper mantle. With these changes have come changes in the flora and fauna that reflect different environments in an area over time.

The new passages are longer than the old, but not because they are more detailed. The new framework really gives less space to details. What it emphasizes, continually, is the building of contextual structure. In the first case, the new passage gives less emphasis to the names of kingdoms than to the rationale by which they are organized. In the second, the new passage stresses cause and effect, instead of merely listing phenomena. Throughout the "Content of Science" section, we seek to give close guidance to textbook-writers and classroom teachers, illustrating our intent and suggesting how the subject matter should be approached in practice. Our essential message to textbook-writers is that chaotic collections of factoids will not be accepted. The framework does not just demand new science books -- it demands a new approach to writing such books. This would be clear even if the framework said nothing about the subject of evolution. In fact, however, the framework says important things about that subject.

Evolution is intricately woven into the fabric of science at every level: The universe evolves, the solar system evolves, Earth evolves, Earth's organisms evolve, and there are intimate connections among and within these processes.

We sought, from the beginning, to make those connections clear in the framework. Not surprisingly, most of the criticism of our successive drafts arose from a gross misinterpretation of our purpose. Many persons, ignorant of both the processes and the findings of science, saw our emphasis on evolution as an ad hoc, ideological appendage to an otherwise valid document.

Just as we knew that the framework had to honor the importance of evolution in nature and in scientific thought, we knew that the ambiguities and threats that had intimidated textbook-writers had to be removed. Hence we recommended that the Board of Education replace its anachronistic "antidogmatism policy" with a new, broader statement that would promote and safeguard sound education in science. The Board did so in January 1989.

The new statement, titled Policy on the Teaching of Natural Sciences, explicitly supersedes the old policy, and it makes several points clear: Scientific discussions of the origins of the universe, Earth and life are appropriate to the curriculum. Students do not have to accept everything taught, but they must understand the major strands of scientific thought. Science teachers must limit their teaching to science. They should resist pressure to do otherwise. Religious beliefs involve faith -- they are not matters of science and should not command time in science classes, though they may be considered in social-studies or language-arts classes.

While the Board was considering a draft of the new policy -- a draft that nowhere mentioned evolution -- creationists lobbied hard against it. They showed their usual ignorance of science, raised their usual cry that evolution is "only a theory, not a fact," and demanded that the draft be revised to include a dictionary definition of theory. They presumably expected one reflecting vulgar or homespun, instead of scientific, usage. (Webster's Third has five definitions of theory, and the fifth is the homespun one: "an unproved assumption.") The creationists' demand was accommodated, but in a way that perhaps disappointed them. When the new policy was adopted, it included a definition taken from a scientific dictionary:

Theory, an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning, especially one that has been tested and confirmed as a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena: [example] the theory of evolution . . . .

So the creationists succeeded. They succeeded in making the new policy affirm that evolution has been tested and confirmed as a principle of science, and they unwittingly helped to pave the way for our framework's treatment of biology. That treatment is one of the things that I shall describe in Part 2 of this article.

Part 2     from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1991

I ended Part 1 of this article by telling how creationists tried to gut the State Board of Education's new Policy on the Teaching of Natural Sciences, a document that would directly influence the new science framework which our committee was writing. The creationists demanded that the policy include wording intended to undermine the presentation of organic evolution in California classrooms and California textbooks. The result of their campaign, however, was the addition to the policy of a note that cited evolution as the premier example of a tested, confirmed principle of science. This backfiring of the creationists' efforts furnished our committee with some much-needed comic relief.

Of course, the creationists continued to make noise, and the popular press unwittingly amplified it. Newspaper stories conveyed the impression that the only significant reform in the new framework would be its treatment of evolution. Though the members of our committee were not surprised by this oversimplification, we were disappointed While we contemplated extensive changes in the teaching of science, public discussion of our work was reduced to wrangling over whether evolution was a fact or not -- a matter of no controversy at all among scientists.

Fortunately, the educators, scientists and other qualified persons who really read (and really understood) our successive drafts were unanimous in praising the organization and thrust of the document that We were developing. Among those reviewers were a few hardy ones who sat through one or more of our long, public working sessions. Besides publishers' representatives (who had obvious reasons for attending), there were representatives of such scientific and educational organizations as the California Native Plant Society, the Society of Soil Scientists, the California Academy of Sciences, the San Diego Zoo and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

During the later months of our work, we concentrated on two important tasks: conveying (with proper emphasis) the integrated structure of the sciences, and dealing with the expanding gap between what scientists really do and what is taught as "science" in the classroom. We were concerned about such things as the inordinate emphasis given, especially in the early grades, to the kinematics of the solar system -- to learning what moves around which, and in how much time. Though a student should learn about those things, they are not the focus of modern astronomy. For more than a half-century, astronomers have been giving most of their attention to the structure of the universe, to the physics of astronomical bodies, and to the cosmological implications of astronomical observations.

Similarly, we knew that the revolution that had taken place in geology over the past 40 years was not being treated adequately in earth-science curricula or earth-science textbooks. And needless to say, we were troubled by the disparity between classroom biology and real biology: Classroom biology was largely descriptive and revolved around the seemingly arbitrary sorting of organisms, but the biology done by biologists was highly structured, multilayered and analytical, revolving around organic evolution.

Our concerns were reflected repeatedly in our work and in our final draft of the framework. Here is a typical passage:

There are component levels to the structures of most natural systems -- whether one considers the hierarchy from atoms to molecules to compounds in chemistry, or the hierarchy from organelles to cells to tissues to organs to individuals to populations, species, and so on in biological organisms. What is usually striking about the structure of any natural system is that each level of it hierarchy has what are called emergent properties; that is, the phenomena at one level of the hierarchy cannot always be predicted from knowledge of another level. . . . for example, one could scarcely predict the behavior of a deer simply by knowing the structure of its liver. The behavior of the deer is an emergent property of the level of its structure that interacts with its environment. . . .

Our final draft mandated changes in publishers' editorial practices and in California's approach to evaluating science texts. A chapter called "Instructional Materials Criteria" made clear that publishers would not be rewarded for printing books whose only purpose was to make superficial mention of as many topics as possible; nor would they be rewarded for perpetuating the stylistic degradation that arises from "readability formulas." Upon receiving new science books from publishers, state evaluation panels would give greatest weight to the most important matters: 50% of each book's grade would come from judgments of its scientific content, 25% from judgments of its format and presentation, and 25% from judgments of its pedagogy.

Our chapter about criteria included many explanatory passages to guide publishers, state panels and textbook-evaluation committees in local districts. For example:

[I]nstructional material should present what is currently understood in science, not simply rehash traditionally covered materials. Content should also be presented as what is understood in science, not qualified with modifiers ("many scientists believe") when dealing with robust scientific conclusions. . . . [Defects in existing science textbooks include] failures to integrate obviously related concepts, such as continental drift, changes in the fossil record of continents through time, and the genetic mechanisms that underlie changes in species through evolutionary history. It is as important to correct these kinds of errors as it is to correct the simplest error. . . .

Textbooks should not be encyclopedic. . . . It is dismaying that checklists are often the principal way in which content is assessed . . . . Mentioning or defining a topic does not cover it, and even covering it, regardless of the length at which it is covered, does not ensure meaningful or readable prose. Often, it ensures only an opportunity to insert more definitions and mentions. [Checklists] drive the engine of mediocrity and make dictionaries of textbooks. We urge local selection agencies to eliminate quantitative criteria for the assessment of instructional materials and to focus on qualitative evaluation of the coverage of key issues, fundamental concepts, and integration of ideas.

In May 1989 our final draft was approved by the Curriculum Commission, an arm of the Board of Education. The Commission did some editing and then, in September, presented the edited version to the Board of Education and to the public. This was followed by negotiations between Bill Honig (the superintendent of public instruction) and Joseph Carrabino (the president of the Board of Education), aimed at securing the Board's unanimous adoption of the new framework. These negotiations led to four changes in our chapter titled "The Nature of Science." Perhaps predictably, all four were related to the subject of organic evolution and to the activities of creationists:

  • Our final draft had said: "Like gravitation and electricity, evolution is a fact, and it is also a theory." That statement was replaced by a longer discussion of the same point.

  • Our draft had explicitly addressed "creation-science" -- the Bible-based pseudoscience by which fundamentalists purport to show that the Book of Genesis is a literal, historical account of the origin of the universe, Earth and living things. (Why had we brought this up at all? Because creationists persistently demand that local school districts include that pseudoscience in science curricula.) We had quoted the National Academy of Science's declaration that "creation-science" is not science and that teaching it in science classes would be destructive to science education. That quotation was replaced by an unattributed but broader statement: "The particular case of 'creation science' has been thoroughly studied by the leading scientific societies and rejected as not qualifying as a scientific explanation."

  • We had cited a decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States had found that "creation-science" was religion, not science. This citation was moved to an appendix, where it joined summaries of three other court decisions related to creationism.

  • Our discussion of the relation between science and religion, and of the need to keep them separate, was expanded.

Though the people who pressed for those changes doubtless intended to weaken the treatment of evolution in the framework and in California schools, the net effect of their efforts was quite the opposite. Indeed, the framework's pivotal statement about evolution remained intact:

The unifying theory of biology is evolution; as Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense without it. It is accepted scientific fact, and has been since the mid-180Os, that organisms are descended with modification from other organisms. . . . Evolution is studied through many independent lines of evidence, including the fossil record; comparative anatomy, development and biochemistry; and genetic structure and change. Evolution explains why similar structures in different organisms are similar and is a highly predictive and (for past events) retrodictive theory. The classification of organisms -- indeed all of comparative biology -- is based on evolution. Curricula must reflect this centrality of evolution in the biological sciences.

All in all, I have the impression that the Religious Right is afflicted not only by its total misunderstanding of science but also by a loss of political clout in educational matters. When the Board of Education convened a public hearing on the new framework, in October 1989, about 90 citizens showed up. More than half of them spoke in favor of the framework, urging that it be adopted. Only 40 objected to its treatment of evolution and urged rejection. In the past the Religious Right had been able to mobilize hordes for such hearings, far outnumbering the persons who had spoken for real science. Anti-intellectualism waxes and wanes in American life, and some historians perceive a cycle whose period is about 30 years. Maybe we are now in the waning part of the cycle.

The framework was adopted by the Board on 9 November 1989. It is an extraordinary and important document, but it also has some real or potential weaknesses. I note three of these:

  • The material dealing with grades 9 through 12 represents a minimal curriculum for students who do not plan to go to college. (Remember: As far as textbooks are concerned, this material is merely advisory: California's state adoption is limited to books for grades K through 8.) The framework cannot be expected to have much influence on college-prep curricula in high schools.

  • The framework is far too weak in quantitative argument; the major section "The Content of Science" has only three chemical formulas and only six equations (one of which is incorrect). Yet quantitative argument is essential to the teaching of science in the middle and upper grades. It makes the difference between teaching science and teaching about science.

  • Because the framework committee lacked scientists in several important disciplines (e.g., meteorology, oceanography, geophysics, molecular biology), the corresponding parts of the framework are not as solid as they might have been. They were written after consultation -- often too hurried -- with outside experts.

Will publishers succeed in incorporating the framework's spirit, as well as its prescriptions, into new textbooks? Will the products submitted for California's next science-book adoption, in 1992, fulfill our hopes? Will teachers, especially in the primary grades, feel comfortable with the subject matter that we have prescribed? We shall soon know.


Lawrence S. Lerner is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. His specialties are condensed-matter physics, the history of science, and science education.

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