National education expert
urges science literacy
by Bret Bradigan
During a career dedicated to promoting the concept of science
literacy, Dr. James Rutherford has experienced the full spectrum
of education - from 10 years of teaching high school physics
through a series of high-level policy posts.
He has witnessed, and influenced, the three great shifts in America's
education system; the post-World War II Cold War uncertainty;
the Sputnik-launched space race, and the mid-'80s world of warnings
of competitive decline after the release of "Nation at Risk."
"What we've learned," he told a packed house, which
included many local teachers and principals, at the Rotary Club's
meeting Friday at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, "is that
you do not transform American education in a hurry. What we've
learned is that simple solutions never work."
Rutherford, the education director of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, was introduced by Bob Chesley,
a Rotarian and fellow science teacher, now retired from Thacher
School, who has served on several advisory panels with Rutherford.
"We first met 37 years ago," said Chesley, before listing
Rutherford's lengthy list of credentials. Educated at University
of California at Berkeley, and Stanford and Harvard, he was a
professor at New York University, served as president of the
National Science Teachers Foundation, before serving in two federal
agencies, including the position of undersecretary of education
in the Department of Education during the Carter administration.
Rutherford headed Project 2061 for the AAAS, which, starting
in 1985, has sought a long-view approach to guide science curriculum
well into the 21st century. AAAS is also publisher of Science
magazine, and publisher of "Science for All Americans,"
which sets goals for what all high school graduates should know
about science, mathematics and technology.
Rutherford outlined some of the structure behind the American
education system. "We invented, in a practical sense, democracy,
and we're not there yet," he said. An example is the land-grant
university system, in which states set aside land for education,
using the proceeds from its sale, or money from its lease, to
fund higher education. "That absolutely changed the idea
of higher education in America, and hence, the world."
Science education came under intense scrutiny after World War
II's devastation taught the world the destructive, as well as
the creative, aspects of science and technology, he said. "Science
and technology are reshaping how we think and how we behave,"
he said. "There is no neutral technology."
That America's education system itself is under fire in an age
of declining test scores and rising voucher-led revolts, is nothing
new, he said, pointing to the release in the 1940s of "Why
Johnny Can't Read," as well as the Cold War fear that America
was not producing enough scientists and engineers to match the
This criticism has not led to meaningful reforms, he said, because
the issues are deeper and more intractable than critics, many
of them politicians, would have their audience, many of them
voters, believe. "Schools have to have support, rather more
than idle criticism," he said. Education "helps people
deal with the issues ahead."
Rutherford doesn't deny that reform is necessary in a changing
world, but "the best we can do is work in our own separate
ways, and gradually work to make a stronger system - the nature
of a system is that you can't change just one part."
One priority, however, "is that teacher education has to
change, and that's the job of the university system. I used to
say, with no success at all, we need to spend eight years to
create a teacher."
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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