According to Achieve, the U.S. system of science and mathematics education is performing below par, and if something isn’t done, then millions of students will not be prepared to compete in the global economy. Achieve cites achievement data from PISA and NAEP to make its case that American science and mathematics teaching is in horrible shape, and needs to fixed.
The solution to fix this problem to make the American dream possible for all citizens is to write new science (and mathematics) standards. According to Achieve, quality science teaching is based on content standards “that are rich in content and practice, with aligned curricula, pedagogy, assessment and teacher preparation.
One could argue that quality science teaching is not based on authoritarian content standards, but much richer standards of teaching that form the foundation of professional teaching.
What ever standards are agreed upon, they ought to be based on a set of values that are rooted in democratic thinking, including empathy and responsibility. Professional teachers above all else are empathic in the sense that teachers have the capacity to connect with their students, to feel what others feel, and to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel a kinship with others. Professional teachers are responsible in the sense that they act on empathy, and that they are not only responsible for others (their students, parents, colleagues), but themselves as well.
Dual Forces of Standards and High-Stakes Testing
The dual forces of authoritarian standards and high-stakes testing has taken hold of K-12 education through a top-down, corporate led enterprise. This is very big business, and it is having an effect of thwarting teaching and learning in American schools. A recent study by Pioneer Institute estimated that states will spend at least $15 billion over the next few years to replace their current standards with the common core.
Authoritarian Standards. The movement to impose a common set of standards on U.S. schools began in 2009 at a Chicago meeting held by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and individuals from the states, and Achieve, Inc. This group charged Achieve to develop and write common standards in mathematics and English/language arts. According to research report on the common standards by researchers at the University of Colorado, the development of the common core took a path that undermined one of the tenets of research, and that is openness and transparency. The writing was done in private, and there was only one K-12 educator involved in the process. According to the Colorado study:
The work groups were staffed almost exclusively by employees of Achieve, testing companies (ACT and the College Board), and pro-accountability groups (e.g.,America’s Choice, Student Achievement Partners, the Hoover Institute). Practitioners and subject matter experts complained that they were excluded from the development process.
Funding for the common standards was provided by the U.S. Department of Education, the Gates Foundation, and other foundations. Only one classroom teacher was involved in the review of the common standards, with nearly all reviewers being university professors. There were no school administrators in the review process.
The process used to create the common core was authoritarianism at its best. All of this was done by Governors and high ranking education officials, speaking for administrators and teachers in thousands of schools across the country. They were saying that there was something wrong withour schools, and that they have a solution to fix them: a single set of standards for the teaching of K-12 mathematics and English/language for all students regardless of where they live.
Hence the term we use to describe the first of dual forces at work in U.S. education is the authoritarian standards. Now for the second force, high-stakes testing.
High-stakes testing. High-stakes testing is any assessment process in which reliance is made on test scores to make critical educational decisions about students and schools. As teachers, we believe that assessment can be used in the service of students and their learning. Diagnostic and formative assessment strategies are more effective in helping students understand mathematics, English/language arts and science, than are summative high-stakes tests.
We can trace high-stakes testing to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. NCLB supports standards-based education reform based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act required states to develop assessments in basic skills. States were required to give these assessments to all students at select grade levels in order to receive federal school funding.
High-stakes testing, according to many teachers and researchers has had unintended consequences such as a narrowing of the curriculum, and undo attention to teaching-to-the-test.
Effects of Standards on Achievement
The Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards are theorized to improve learning because the new standards are superior to the existing state standards. Indeed, two groups that studied the state standards did conclude the that Common Core standards were of higher quality. A second improvement to learning is that expectations will be higher than those that currently exist in the Common Core and science. The claim here was that the states set their expectations too low, resulting in “inflated” results. And the third area of improvement in learning is that standardizing might lead to higher quality textbooks and other resources since they would only have to be aligned to one set of content standards.
According to the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, the Common Core State Standards will have little to no effect on student achievement. Author Tom Loveless explains that neither the quality or the rigor of state standards is related to state NAEP scores. Loveless suggests that if there was an effect, we would have seen it since all states had standards in 2003.
Quality. For example in the Brown Center study, it was reported (in a separate 2009 study by Whitehurst), that there was no correlation of NAEP scores with the quality ratings of state standards. Whitehurst studied scores from 2000 to 2007, and found that NAEP scores did not depend upon the “quality of the standards,” and he reported that this was true for both white and black students (The Brown Center Report on American Education, p.9). The correlation coefficients ranged from -0.6 to 0.08.
Higher Expectations. The higher a “cut score” that a state established for difficulty of performance can be used to define the rigor or expectations of standards. One would expect that over time, achievement scores in states that have more rigorous and higher expectations, would trend upwards. The Brown study reported it this way:
States with higher, more rigorous cut points did not have stronger NAEP scores than states with less rigorous cut points.
The researchers found that it did not matter if states raised the bar, or lowered the bar on NAEP scores. The only positive and significant correlations were reported between raising and lowering the bar and 4th grade math and reading. One can not determine causality using simple correlations, but we can say there is some relationship here.
Standardization. When researchers looked at data to find out if standardization would reduce the variation of scores between states, they found that the variation was relatively small compared to looking at the variation within states. The researchers put it this way (The Brown Center Report on American Education, p. 12): The findings are clear.
Most variation on NAEP occurs within states not between them. The variation within states is four to five times larger than the variation between states.
According to the Brown Report, the Common Core will have very little impact on national achievement (Brown Report, p. 12).
Effects. The researchers concluded that we should not expect much from the Common Core. In an interesting discussion of the implications of their findings, Tom Loveless, the author of the report, cautions us to be careful about not being drawn into thinking that standards represent a kind of system of “weights and measures.” Loveless tells us that standards’ reformers use the word—benchmarks—as a synonym for standards. And he says that they use too often. In science education, we’ve had a long history of using the word benchmarks, and Loveless reminds us that there are not real, or measured benchmarks in any content area. Yet, when you read the standards—common core or science—there is the implication we really know–almost in a measured way–what standards should be met at a particular grade level.
Loveless also makes a strong point when he says the entire system of education is “teeming with variation.” To think that creating a set of common core standards will reduce this variation between states or within a state simply will not succeed. As he puts it, the common core (a kind of intended curriculum) sits on top of the implemented and achieved curriculum. The implemented curriculum is what teachers do with their students day-to-day. It is full of variation within a school. Two biology teachers in the same school will get very different results for a lot of different factors. But as far as the state is concerned, the achieved curriculum is all that matters. The state uses high-stakes tests to determine whether schools met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
As the Brown report suggests, we should not depend on the common core or the Next Generation Science Standards having any effect on students’ achievement. The report ends with this statement:
The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.