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2006Research Conference | June 15–16

This conference highlighted the work of invited speakers, independent researchers who have received grant funds from the Institute of Education Sciences, and trainees supported through predoctoral training grants and postdoctoral fellowships. The presentations are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Education or the Institute of Education Sciences.
Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill
400 New Jersey Avenue, N.W.
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Coping with the 'Mile-wide, Mile-Deep' Science Curricula — A Two-Pronged Strategy to Promote Depth of Inquiry and Breadth of Knowledge in Urban Science Education

Junlei Li, Carnegie Mellon University
David Klahr, Carnegie Mellon University
Stephanie Siler, Carnegie Mellon University

Abstract: Efforts to improve science education and raise academic standards in the U.S. have inadvertently imposed the untenable expectation that middle school students should master a mile-wide AND mile-deep science curriculum. This expectation - exacerbated by a system of poorly aligned content standards, accountability assessments, and instructional materials - places a tremendous strain on teacher expertise and time, instructional time and materials, and student engagement. Our 3-year effort to understand and improve science instruction and test performance in low-SES urban schools leads us to conclude that an inquiry-based approach prioritizing depth over breadth across all subject areas cannot significantly improve test scores within the current system of standards, assessment, and curricula. We propose, instead, a two-pronged approach aimed at balancing, rather than choosing between, breadth and depth. One prong would focus on developing engaging and in-depth inquiry experiences in limited topic areas specifically adapted to students' interests and motivations. The other prong would focus on covering the much broader range of required topic areas in an assessment-centered fashion to ensure that students know "just-enough" science to perform proficiently on achievement tests. Far from being the ideal solution, this is a pragmatic coping strategy constrained by the present limitations of science education, achievement tests, and instructional resources. We offer suggestions as to how the broader system can be restructured to better define and promote science literacy without imposing undue burden on teachers and students, particularly those in low-SES urban settings.