The five articles in this set of commentaries reflect the richness and energy of the issues surrounding national standards in math and science as they begin to reach a wider audience and take shape in implementation. The dominant issue discussed and debated in the articles is the shift in emphasis from memorizing procedures (calculations) to problem solving and understanding. The authors themselves make an interesting group in this respect, comprising three university professors of math or science with long-standing interest in educational reform (Deborah Tepper Haimo/math, Judith Roitman/math, John C. Wright/Chemistry), a professor of education and the chair of the standards committee of the standard-setting National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) (Thomas A. Romberg), one of the nations leading scholars on the development of science standards and curricula (Senta Raizen), and a teacher/administrator with hands-on experience implementing the new science objectives (Carol Wright).
A notable common theme across the articles is sympathy with the twin goals of the standards to (1) reach more students and (2) make math and science more interesting and meaningful to teach and learn. Within this broad umbrella, the articles differ in the degree of skepticism about how well the standards achieve the objectives. Most skeptical is Haimo, who sees the potential for major distortion, confusion, and lowering of the quality of mathematics content and instruction. Roitman, the other math professor, gives a more favorable, but still mixed, review, seeing many of the same problems, but also many examples of outstanding improvements. With his long involvement in the development of the math standards, Romberg tends to view the criticisms as refinements, if not quibbles, and sees the reforms as a quantum improvement for students who historically received rudimentary and inferior instruction. But Romberg does concede the force of many of the criticisms in pointing to a new round of revisions of the math standards that emphasize the importance of traditional procedures (calculations), the integration of problem solving with content, and the details of curriculum and instruction.
The commentators on the science standards also see conflicting elements. The Wrights are unqualifiedly enthusiastic about the science standards (calling them brilliant) but are skeptical about the capacity of our current teaching force and social culture to-implement and accept such lofty and ambitious goalsthe education of an entire population capable of independent inquiry and critical reflection. Raizen notes that all of the science standards emphasize learning through applications and problems rather than abstractions, investigating natural phenomena, using computers, and showing connections across fields of science. But the standards have been less than fully successful in delivering a less is more curriculum and making bold departures from traditional curricular organization at a time when the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) study indicates large deficits in the U.S. science curriculum and achievement compared with other countries.
In a conclusion to these articles, I look more deeply into the areas of agreement and disagreement and argue against polarized, philosophical debate over the standards at a time when the greatest need is to learn more about real curricula as they are implemented and the outcomes of different curricula for students.
The research reported in both my introduction and my conclusion was supported by a cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (Cooperative Agreement No. RED-9452971). At U.W.-Madison, the National Institute for Science Education is housed in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and is a collaborative effort of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, the School of Education, the College of Engineering, and the College of Letters and Science. The collaborative effort is also joined by the National Center for Improving Science Education, Washington, D.C. Any opinions, findings, or conclusions are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the supporting agencies.