Scientists pan biology textbooks

Information given lacks depth, they say

June 28, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Scientists may have produced the first full-length record of human DNA, but the accomplishment will be lost on high school students in Maryland and elsewhere if they rely on biology textbooks, a group of science authorities said yesterday.

Ten of the nation's most popular texts got high marks for piling on detail but failing marks for helping students understand biology, according to a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The books were described as "a mile wide and an inch deep."

For example, said Jo Ellen Roseman, a former Johns Hopkins University professor and director of the evaluation, the texts describe DNA and the collection of DNA that each human carries (called the genome). But they "fail to tie ideas together. Since the unconnected details are difficult to remember, students may be left with virtually nothing after a biology course."

The same is true, the AAAS scientists said, of most other topics covered in biology, a course taken by 93 percent of the nation's high school students.

"Few kids will learn much about biology by using these texts," said George D. Nelson, director of a 15-year-old AAAS campaign to reform American mathematics and science education.

Appearing with the AAAS officials as a "voice from the field," Andrea R. Bowden, supervisor of science and math in Baltimore City, said, "We seem to know what we want, but we can't seem to get it between the covers of these books."

But Bowden said paying attention to the AAAS reform efforts has helped Baltimore in its purchase of $17 million in math and science texts since 1998. "The books we have are not perfect, but they're better than we might have had," she said.

Because the specialists evaluated the most widely used texts in American schools, chances are that they are in the majority of classrooms across the nation, the AAAS officials said.

Carroll County high schools use "Biology," published by Prentice Hall. The AAAS evaluators said the book does a "poor" job in 17 of 19 categories judged and only a "fair" job in the other two.

The other nine books received similar grades.

Most Maryland districts, Harford and Anne Arundel among them, use more than one text. The dominant biology textbook in Harford County, according to spokesman Donald Morrison, is "Modern Biology," published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston and another on the AAAS list.

Stephen D. Driesler, executive director of the American Association of Publishers' school division, said science textbooks have been stuffed with details to satisfy the push for academic standards that has now reached 49 of the 50 states.

"No one penalizes a publisher for having too much material in a textbook," Driesler said, "but if they have too little, they're not going to make the sale."

The contents of textbooks are dictated by California, Texas and Florida, states that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on textbooks that are centrally selected, Driesler said.

Roseman said students who do well in American biology are those with good memorization skills. But these are the same students "who leave high school with very little knowledge from their biology courses."

Given the poor quality and high cost of science textbooks - even purchased in bulk, the colorful books usually cost more than $50 each - Maryland educators are turning increasingly to supplementary materials such as trade books, magazines and computer software, said Gary Heath, the Maryland Department of Education's branch chief for arts and sciences.

"But parents still expect their kids to have textbooks, and when they don't have them, they demand to know why," Heath said.

Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and a physicist, said most high school biology texts require students to learn as many new words and terms as they would in mastering a foreign language.

"What we do in biology," he said, "is concentrate on teaching kids the names for things, but if they don't learn how biology works or what a beautiful field biology is, that's silly."

In Carroll County, teachers were holding biology workshops at the same time that the AAAS news conference was being held yesterday.

Bradley Yohe, the science supervisor, predicted that the biology textbook would decline in importance as technology comes to the fore. And the students demand technology, Yohe said.

"American students on weekends play virtual reality games. On Monday morning they're not too excited about a teacher with a textbook or at the chalkboard trying to explain molecular structure in a static way."

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