Science Education from People for People

In a recently published book, Science Education from People to People, (Kindle edition here) the contributing authors have created a book that builds up perspectives on science, scientific literacy, and science education “grounded in the lives of real people and that are oriented toward being for real people (rather than disembodied minds.)”

In this book, the authors want “science education to be for people rather than about how knowledge gets into the heads of people–be it by means of construction, transfer, or internalization.

In my own thinking, this book contributes to our understanding of a humanistic science education.  In the introduction to the book, the editor of the volume, Wolf-Michael Roth, many educators are no longer concerned about the so-called pipeline problem (throughput or filling the pipleline with scientists & engineers), but

want a science education that has a lot to say about the “tremendous experiences” and competence everyday people (including students) have and how science education could assist everyday, ordinary, and just plain folk in and with the problematic situations they face in their ongoing lives.

The educators who contributed to this book are concerned with science education and social justice, and ask how science can be made to be relevant to students, and to members of society, more generally.

The book provides research to support many of the notions described in Glen Aikenhead’s book, Science Education for Everyday Life, and the humanistic perspectives espoused in this weblog.  One of the themes that comes through in Roth’s new book is science education should be for the people.  The lives of students should be a starting point for teaching, and it opposes the general tendancy of doing science education as if the science could be imposed from the outside.  To these science educators, science will be seen relevant by students once they see and understand how their own possbilities of acting and being in the world expand.

In the chart below, you will find a contrast between two paradigms for the way in which curriculum is organized.  The notion of education about (the environment—substitute biology, physics, science) is the way in which we teach science today.  The focus is on the content of science, and strive to organize curriculum around the “abouts.”

An alternative way to do this is to teach for (the environment, e.g. biology, physics, science), and in this approach science teaching is seen in its relation for people.  I think it supports the ideas in the Roth book.

Education about the Environment Education for the Environment
• Reproductive curriculum• Predominately an emphasis on the sciences

• Employment of “traditional” teaching methods (lecture, recall, worksheets)

• Emphasis on cognitive skills

• Operates within the existing hierarchical, subject specific school organization

• Reconstructive curriculum• Predominately an emphasis on social science

• Advocation of student-centered approach with emphasis on inquiry and problem solving.

• Emphasis on awareness, values, and attitudes as well as skills and knowledge. Advocation of practical action in the environment.

• Interdisciplinary approach

Figure 1.  This chart is based on Michel, 1996. Environmental education: A study of how it is influenced and informed by the concepts of environmentalism. Doctoral Dissertation. La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The ideas outlined in Roth’s book are challenging, yet point us toward a science education that is humanistic, and that is for people rather than strictly for science’s sake.  You can link here to see the table of contents of the book, and peruse the content of the research.  The ideas in this work ought to be central to our thinking about 21st century science education.  What do you think?

The Race to the Top: A Humanistic Perspective

There was a very interesting article in the current issue of the journal Science Education by Peter Fensham of Queensland University, Australia entitled The Link Between Policy and Practice in Science Education.  In the article, Fensham argues that the science education research community “has a rather spectacular record of naivete about educational policy and politics, and even about the politics of science education itself.”  He describes how we have been naive about the development of new science curriculum materials (we develop them as if the shear quality of the materials would ensure their adoption), not recognizing the “contested” nature of science in the curriculum, and exaggerating the generalizability of science education research findings.

He also compared the Anglo-American tradition of teaching discrete subjects, the content of which fit nicely into policy that presents the structure of school curriculum into a vertical fashion with an alternative conception of schooling that conceives curriculum as a horizontal structure of stages. These two ways of looking at the way the science curriculum provides alternative lenses to view the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top Fund.

Thinking Vertically

As is presently conceived, the Race to the Top policy advocated by the Department of Education uses the policy of structuring curriculum in a vertical fashion.  I guess in a sense, education becomes a race, but the policy really means that the goal is push American students to top of the achievement ladder.  In my own view, this is really another way of phrasing the concept of No Child Left Behind.  In the vertical conception of science curriculum Fensham says:

This vertical structure readily accommodates long sequences for learning of content  knowledge from the major science disciplines (biological sciences, chemical sciences, earth sciences, and physical sciences) plus some sequenced attention to one or more scienti?c processes. The type of content for learning is set from top to bottom in a logical, developmental fashion for each science discipline. It is natural, within such a vertical structure, that there will be a recurring research interest in scope and sequence of detailed content and in progression in learning.

In fact, Fensham points out that many of the major reforms in the US, England, Australia, and many other countries in science education, such as Project 2061 of the AAAS, are based on this vertical conception of schooling.  And according to Fensham, this structure

also, of course, builds in a high probability of failure at some point up these long ladders for learning, which only an elite group of students will have the stamina and inclination to keep climbing. It quite naturally promotes what Roberts (2007) has recently called Scienti?c Literacy Vision I, for which meaning is derived by looking inward at the canon of orthodox natural science.

Fensham explores this point further by suggesting that the vertical structure tends to devalue other intentions for science teaching, such as meeting the differental needs and interests of students as they move along through schooling.

Thinking Horizontally: A Humanistic Perspective

Fensham then changes direction, and suggests that the same years of schooling can be examined or looked at as a horizontal structure.  From this perspective, each stage (see below) can have its own specific curriculum emphases or purpose for science teaching.

It is immediately evident that this is more conducive to a science education that is primarily about the needs and interests of the learners and how these change as the learners get older. It also ismore able to accommodate second-chance learning, with students reengaging in a subsequent stage when the curriculum’s emphasis for science is different.

The development of science education through schooling when its policy structure is horizontal. Source: Fensham, Science Education, 93: 6, p.1085
The development of science education through schooling when its policy structure is horizontal. Source: Fensham, Science Education, 93: 6, p.1085

In this perspective, instead of racing to the top, each stage would have its own merits and goals, and the content would be more closely aligned to student’s lived experiences.  Fensham points us to the recent 21st Century science curriculum project in Britain that is based on promoting students’ needs, and fits nicely into the horizontal perspective of curriculum.

The Race to the Top from a humanistic perspective, as I see the horizontal conception, would not be a race at all.  It would instead be a project that would encourage innovation and creativity amongst K-12 teachers, university specialists, curriculum developers, and adminstrators to build and implement (in science) a science program that is based on everyday life.

What do you think about Fensham’s ideas?  Do they fit with the way we should perceive the science curriculum?

The Race to the Top: Hold on, there!

For some reason I have become obsessed with reading about The Race to the Top, and how the present U.S. Department of Education will use these funds to reform education.  As with large scale efforts such as this one, achievement testing has become a central aspect of any program, projects, or effort suggested at the State or Local Education Agency (LEA).

One of the core concepts is that the Department wants to use student achievement test scores and results to evaluate the effectiveness of individual teachers, administrators and schools.  Aside from irking most teachers around the country, the idea is Not supported with scientific research.

Rick Biche, commented on a recent post, and pointed me to a “letter” written by the Board on Testing and Assessment (BOTA) of the National Research Council.  Thank you, Rick.  I’ve spent time reading the letter, and its implications for The Race to the Top administrators, and teachers.  I also followed your link to your website, and I’ve enjoyed exploring it.

Now, the letter in question is this.  It is entitled Letter Report to the U.S. Department of Education on the Race to the Top Fund, and as I said was authored by a committee of the Board on Testing and Assessment.  It’s important to keep in mind that the purpose of BOTA is raise questions about, and provide the guidance for judging, the technical qualities of tests and assessments and intended and unintended consequences of their use.

The letter will not make the top administrators of The Race to the Top Fund happy.

The Race to the Top Fund will require that the States use achievement tests to measure “growth” of students, and use this kind of data to assess teacher performance.  As most of us would agree, tests do play an important role in evaluating programs, innovations, and projects, but as the BOTA report says, an adequate evaluation calls for more than tests alone.  In fact, most evaluations “collect data” throughout the course of a project or, in this case an entire course taught by an individual teacher.  These evaluations would include both qualitative  and quantitative data.  The Race to the Top administrators want to use a single sit-down test as a measure of student academic performance, and within 72 hours, provide the feedback necessary to evaluate the teacher, administrator, or school. They’ve got to be kidding.

In this approach, the Department is trying to use a test as a way to isolate the performance impact of teacher, or administrator.  Here is what the BOTA letter says about this idea:

Prominent testing expert Robert Linn concluded in his workshop paper: “As with any

effort to isolate causal effects from observational data when random assignment is not feasible, there are reasons to question the ability of value-added methods to achieve the goal of determining the value added by a particular teacher, school, or educational program” (Linn, 2008, p. 3). Teachers are not assigned randomly to schools, and students are not assigned randomly to teachers. Without a way to account for important unobservable differences across students, VAM techniques fail to control fully for those differences and are therefore unable to provide objective comparisons between teachers who work with different populations. As a result, value-added scores that are attributed to a teacher or principal may be affected by other factors, such as student motivation and parental support.

The BOTA letter also raises issues about using large scale, high-stakes, summative tests as a way to provide feedback on teaching and learning.  To wit:

Tests that mimic the structure of large-scale, high-stakes, summative tests, which lightly

sample broad domains of content taught over an extended period of time, are unlikely to provide the kind of fine-grained, diagnostic information that teachers need to guide their day-to-day instructional decisions. In addition, an attempt to use such tests to guide instruction encourages a narrow focus on the skills used in a particular test—“teaching to the test”—that can severely restrict instruction. Some topics and types of performance are more difficult to assess with large-scale, high-stakes, summative tests, including the kind of extended reasoning and problem-solving tasks that show that a student is able to apply concepts from a domain in a meaningful way. The use of high-stakes tests already leads to concerns about narrowing the curriculum towards the knowledge and skills that are easy to assess on such tests; it is critical that the choice of assessments for use in instructional improvement systems not reinforce the same kind of narrowing.

And finally, another area that I will comment on that BOTA raised questions about the feasibility and soundness of using “common assessments” to make assessments across states in the same way that NAEP currently does.  As pointed out in the letter, there simply are too many variables that never can be controlled to allow administrators to make comparisons across states, and I would add across school districts, within a state.  And one other point here is that the US Department of Education wants to pursue assessments to incorporate “international benchmarking.”  Hold on, there!

Well, what do you think about this?  Do you think the US Department of Education will listen to to the comments made by the Board of Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council?  I hope they do.  But I am not holding my breathe.  What do you think?

The Race to the Top: Some Thoughts

The U.S. Department of Education received about $100 billion ($100,000,000,000) from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  It’s an enormous amount of money that is going to given to the States.  $4.35 billion of this amount has been earmarked as The Race to the Top fund, and it is that part of Department’s program that I will focus on here.

If the money were distributed equally across the country, it would amount to a little more than $13.33 per citizen.  It would mean that the state of California would get slightly more than 10% of the money, or $489,333,333 (I consulted a website that provided population figures for all the states and multiplied by $13.33).  Wyoming would receive the least coming in at slightly more than $7 million.   But, of course, the money will not be distributed in this way; each state that chooses to go for the money, must submit a proposal (first round this December; second round next Spring), and they must, in the proposal, agree to the critieria that the U.S. Department of Education has established.

Although the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the Race is still not available to the States, the Department published details of the Race Fund in the Federal Register (Notice of Proposed Priorities).  I read it, and have summarized the priorities that will in effect couch how the various States prepare their proposals. By the way, the proposal must be submitted by the Governer of the State, and signed off by the Governor, the State’s chief school officer, and the president of the State board of education.

Of the long list of criteria, only two are absolute musts for a state proposal:

  • States must have been approved by the Education Department for stabilization funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (most already have been)
  • states must not have any laws in place barring the use of student-achievement data for evaluating teachers and principals.

The fundamental aim of the Race to the Top Fund is to ensure that states that receive funds take a systematic approach to educational reform.  Specifically, as stated in the Federal Register (July 29, 2009), to receive funding, the applicant state must meet this priority:

The State’s application must describe how the State and participating LEAs intend to use Race to the Top and other funds to implement comprehensive and coherent policies and practices in the four education reform areas, and how these are designed to increase student achievement, reduce the achievement gap across student subgroups (Priority 1).

Other priorities will be considered as proposals are evaluated.  But according to the Department’s documents, only the first priority (described above) will be required.  The others which follow will enable the various states to develop proposals unique to their goals for reform.  Here they are:

  • Priority 2: Emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  This should include the offering of rigorous (emphasis mine) course of study in STEM; collaboration among experts in museums, universities, research centers, and other STEM-related partners.
  • Priority 3. Expansion and adaptation of Statewide longitudinal data systems.   The Department asks how the State plans to expand statewide longitudinal data systems to include or integrate data from special education programs, limited English proficiency programs, early childhood programs, human resources, finance, health, postsecondary, and other relevant areas, with the purpose of allowing important questions related to policy or practice to be asked and answered.
  • Priority 4. Coordination and vertical alignment.  In essence, this priority is to ensure that students exiting one level are prepared for success, without remediation, in the next.
  • Priority 5. School-level conditions for reform and innovation.  This priority is designed to encourage flexibility and innovation in selecting staff, implementing new daily schedules, awarding course credit to students on student performance, & providing comprehensive services to high-need students.

You will find a good summary in Education Week of how the Race to the Top will stress the use of test data to determine the effectiveness of any proposal or program at the State and LEA level.   In fact, there is a separate competition for $350 million of the Race Fund money to stimulate a movement to develop “common student assessments.”  As I mentioned in another post, these “common students assessments” will be linked to the development of “common-standards.”  Forty-eight states have signed on to this movement.

Clearly, there is a lot of money available for education.  But as you look closely at the details, it is evident that national tests, based on a set of common academic standards, will be used to establish the bar used to measure any program or project, and will be used to tie student achievement to teacher and school performance.   Trying to link student achievement to teacher effectiveness and salary has always raised a red flag for me.  I wrote about this in an earlier post (Is student achievement the measure of teacher effectiveness) in March, and called into question how student achievement data can be used as the measure of teacher effectiveness. Somehow, is should only be a part of the evaluation process.  Surely, there is more to school learning than achievement test results.

Nevertheless, the Race to the Top is here, and will be implemented.  What are some of your opinions about the Race Fund?  What race are we talking about here?  Is this a reformulation of No Child Left Behind?  Instead of not leaving anyone behind, we’ll all race forward?  What do you think?

From Darwin’s Darkest Hour to the Greatest Show on Earth

One of the Weblogs that I frequently read is Michael Barton’s The Dispersal of Darwin.  You will find all things Darwin on his site.  In a recent post, Michael reviewed a new PBS film about Charles Darwin and his wife Emma entitled Darwin’s Darkest Hour, which you can see on-line.  I saw the film last night on my Mac while I was watching the Angels beat the Yankees. The film was originally broadcast on PBS earlier this month, and you can purchase it as well.

Darwin’s Darkest hour begins when he receives a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace, in which Wallace describes his theory of evolution by natural selection, and in the letter seeks Darwin’s advice, and assistance on having other scientists review his work.  The picture below shows Darwin reading the letter, and it also captures his dread upon realizing that Wallace may have first claim on the theory that Darwin had been working on for 20 years.

Charles Darwin's facial expression as he reads the letter he received from Alfred Russell Wallace, in which Wallace describes his theory of origins.
Charles Darwin's facial expression as he reads the letter he received from Alfred Russell Wallace, in which Wallace describes his theory of origins.

The film explores the intense discussions between Charles and Emma, and what Charles should do with the letter, and how Charles might be able to claim the theory as his, without being unethical.  Michael Barton gives a very powerful review of the film, which you might want to read before and after you view the movie on your computer.

As an aside, if you are a parent or a science teacher you will also enjoy the way in which Darwin worked with and tutored his children in science, and how he involved his children in a hands-on and inquiry method of learning about the natural world.

Charles Darwin involving his children in science.
Charles Darwin involving his children in science.

Of course we know that both Darwin’s and Wallace’s ideas were read together to the Linnean Society; members of the Society recommended that Darwin go ahead and write a book describing his theory.  A year later, On the Origin of Species (a link to the first edition, which you can read on-line) was published.  The picture below shows Darwin, with his wife, and children opening the package that arrived by post.

Charles Darwin and his wife Emma seeing the first published copy of On the Origins of Species.
Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, and children seeing the first published copy of On the Origins of Species.

From Darwin’s Darkest Hour was published one of the most important works in the history of science, and in the view of Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (September, 2009).  In the film, you will see how Darwin struggled with how publishing his book would effect his family, friends, and society.  And of course today, Darwin’s ideas have created enormous controversy, especially for science teachers.  I agree, however, with Richard Dawkins that:

Evolution is a fact.  Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.

So, while you are watching the Angels/Yankees baseball game Saturday or Sunday, you might watch Darwin’s Darkest Hour, and flip through a copy of Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth.