A Closer Look at Science Education: University and High School Partnerships

Author:  Tiffany-Rose Sikorski
Date:  June 2005

It's freshman orientation at Boston University. I am one of hundreds of nervous and excited freshman file into BU's Tsai Auditorium to take the dreaded placement exams. I place my hideous ID picture on the corner of the desk and start writing.

In high school, I was better in English than in Math. Not so according to BU's placement exams.

My comp test scores place me in first semester writing, regardless of my 4 on the AP English exam.

Though I suffered through Calculus in high school, and probably by luck earned a 3 on the AP Exam, I place into 3rd semester calculus – multivariate calculus – in college. I panic.

So what is going on in the mind of this student? Clearly, there was a gap between the student's high school graduation requirements, standardized tests, and college placement exams. Evidently, many American students will face this problem upon entering college in the Fall of 2005.

The Great Divide

Most students switch from elementary to middle to high school with more concerns about locker trouble and popularity than about curriculum. It is a different story with the switch from high school to college, however. Only about 2/3 of students who attend college are prepared to do so, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While colleges may require completion of math classes up to or including Calculus, some students may graduate high school with only Algebra I or II. Similarly, state-mandated standardized tests often use different criteria from the placement exams at state colleges and universities.

The result: nearly 1/3 of all students who attend college fail to earn a degree (Fig 1).

What does this mean for science?

Fewer college graduates in the United States means that fewer Americans are able to fill the demands of the U.S. science and technology workforce. Companies will increasingly seek foreign graduates or look towards outsourcing these types of jobs if American students cannot fill the demand.

Perhaps even more alarming, American students are becoming less competitive in science and technology jobs on a global scale. According to the National Science Foundation, most of the growth in engineering and computer science jobs over the past decade has been driven by foreign-born students. Nearly 40% of Ph.D. science and engineering recipients in U.S. universities are foreign-born.

Mending the Seams

In an attempt to improve students' preparation for the 21st century, government policy-makers, professors, teachers, and administrative officials are joining together to connect high school and college curricula.

College and high school networking, however, is by no means a new idea.

"The first wave started in the 1980s and then sort of disappeared when other reform movements took front and center stage," explains Teresa Rainwater, project manager for The National Collaborative for Postsecondary Education Policy. P-16 began to attract attention again in the 1990s with the No Child Left Behind Act.

"The momentum is building, especially in states where the movement has already taken hold," explains Rainwater.

According to Rainwater, there are currently 27 states with P-16 reform movements. Some of the most successful programs are in Maryland, California, Georgia and Indiana, where the reform efforts have been growing since the 1980s.

P-16 movements and their names vary from state to state, but in general they all share the focus on improving teacher education, modifying curricula, and finding better ways to measure the effectiveness of such curricula. In some states, the reform movements are started through Executive Orders by the Governor; in other cases, universities lead the effort. The funding for such programs comes from a variety of sources, but the two biggest supporters are the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Education. In fact, the NSF has funded 72 math and science K-12 programs, all of which are tracked on the NSF website.

Don Langenberg, a physicist and former Chancellor of the University of Maryland, led the L-16 initiative in Maryland. While Maryland's K-16 reform is focused on all subjects, it includes a special NSF funded program called VIP K-16 ("Vertically Integrated Partnerships"), which focuses solely on science education. VIP K-16, like many related projects, promotes an inquiry-based learning.

"Inquiry is a jargon word in teaching for methods that depart substantially from the time-honored concept of pouring information onto students," explains Langenberg. Inquiry learning, as opposed to more traditional methods of memorization, teaches students to think critically, analyze situations, and construct explanations for their observations.

In perhaps his favorite analogy, Langenberg compares teachers to clinical physicians, both of whom need to be aware of breaking discoveries in their fields to better serve the community.

"High school teacher are professionals, and they ought to explore new and better ways to practice their profession," says Langeberg.

Many states are working to improve their education workforce. In Maryland, for example, special teaching licensure programs have been developed to ensure that teachers possess both the knowledge and teaching skills necessary to be effective teachers. So far, programs for chemistry, mathematics and physics have been developed.


At the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), education professionals discussed the role of universities in measuring curriculum success. The theme of the meeting was a call for research-based curricula. Langenberg, a panelist at the meeting, again used his analogy between clinical medicine and teaching. When a drug is invented, explained Langenberg, it is tested extensively in trial groups. If the drug is effective in these tests, it is applied to the population at large. Doctors are then expected to monitor the effects of this drug and use it to treat the appropriate conditions. Similarly, Langenberg argued, math and science curricula should be tested in a few classrooms, and then extended to the general population if successful. Teachers should be required to learn these new curricula, implement them in their classrooms, and evaluate their effectiveness.

Shirley Malcolm, head of the AAAS Directorate for Education and Human Resources, explained that such curriculum evaluation will break the cycle commonly referred to as "reinventing the wheel" in public education.

"The problem is not reinventing the wheel,it's reinventing the flat tire." says Malcolm, referring to the tendency of education reform to repeatedly create unsuccessful science and math curricula.

In addition to calling for research-based curricula, the speakers and panelists promoted joint efforts between higher education and K-12 science and math classes.

"Higher Ed tends to do what they want to do rather than what needs to be done," states Malcolm. Malcolm and Langenberg demand that higher education take some responsibility for the quality of science and math education in high school. After all, says Langenberg, "We are the ones training the science and math teachers."

Hope for the Class of 20??.

So what do we make of all of these movements aimed at improving curricula and teacher quality? If all goes well, all students should be fully prepared to enter college following graduation from high school. College remedial math and science courses would not be necessary, and all students will place the same on high school exit exams as on college entrance ones.

Until then, good luck to the incoming class of 2009.

Further Reading:

A View of Physics from High School. T.K. Rogers. American Physical Society, 2001. What is P-16 Education?: A Primer for Legislatures,A Practical Introduction to the Concept, Language and Policy Issues of an Integrated System of Public Education. Gordon Van der Water and Terese Rainwater. Education Commission of the States. April 2001. Science Inquiry. Maryland VIP K-16 Grant. California Academic Partnership Program. California State University System. National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP). Maryland State Department of Education.

K-16 Systems. State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO).

Forum 2004 Chicago. Collegeboard. Model Innovations: K-16. University of Michigan. P-16: Building a Cohesive Education System from Preschool though Postsecondary. Carl Krueger and Terese Rainwater. Assocation of American Colleges and Universities. Peer Review, Winter 2003.