In December 1995, the National Research Council released the National Science Education Standards (1996). The development of standards for science education represented nearly five years of work and the involvement of thousands of scientists, community members, educators and parents. The National Science Education Standards document represents a vision - one that is widely shared among science educators. The challenge is to translate that vision into reality in every classroom in the United States. Early childhood educators should carefully review the Standards in order to provide a foundation for developmentally appropriate and fully integrated science experiences and activities in their classrooms.
It may be important, first, to recognize the limits of the Standards' scope. The document is not a federal mandate, so there is no force of law requiring local schools, teachers or communities to pay any attention to these standards. Standards is not a national curriculum, nor is it a set of specifications for a national examination.
Rather, the National Science Education Standards represents a set of criteria for judging quality in: students' scientific knowledge base, teaching excellence, professional development for preservice and inservice teachers, assessment practices (both standardized and teacher-made), and programs and systems that support effective science teaching. The document's greatest strength - moving all of the stakeholders in science education reform, including preprimary and primary level teachers in public and private educational settings, in a common direction - was possible because of the broad-based consensus that marked its development.
The document is divided into six sections. The first one describes how teachers can create learning climates conducive to achieving the standards. Such classrooms capture the wonder and excitement of natural phenomena in our world by incorporating appropriate scientific processes into individual decision-making, cooperative learning experiences and responsive teaching practices. Teachers cannot be expected to do this, however, without adequate preparation and support. The second section addresses the professional development of both preservice and inservice teachers. The third section focuses on assessment practices, including standardized assessments at the national, state and local levels, as well as classroom assessment practices developed by teachers. Progress toward reform in science education can be monitored only with the development of reliable, authentic assessment methods.
The next section focuses on what students should know and be able to do by grades 4, 8 and 12. This section built upon the important work of two major science education reform efforts, "Project 2061" (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1989; AAAS, 1993) and "Scope, Sequence and Coordination" (National Science Teachers Association, 1992).
Were the Standards to stop at this point, teachers would bear an unreasonable responsibility for bringing reform to fruition. Although it acknowledges that teachers are the key to reform, the Standards also recognizes that significant and lasting reform must be systemic. For this reason, two additional sections focusing on program and system standards describe the broader support that must be in place to provide teachers with the necessary tools for success.
What is the message in the Standards for teachers of young children? This article will focus on two areas: Science Teaching Standards, or how we should be teaching and facilitating scientific understanding in young children; and Science Content Standards, or what areas of understanding should be highlighted and made accessible to young children as they construct personal meaning.
How Should We Teach? Science Teaching Standards
Teachers of young children will recognize the picture of science teaching that arises from …