What are people saying about the new standards? Do they like what they see? Do they think that the standards’ writers hit a home run, or struck out?
Since the summer of 2011, this blog has studied the literature and research related to standards-based teaching. When the Framework for K-12 Science Education was published in 2011, the stage was set for the process of writing the Next Generation of Science Standards. It seems to me that in order to properly evaluate the new standards we have to consider the context and rationale for developing new science standards.
Context and Rationale for New Science Standards
Why do we need new standards? The fundamental reason that new standards that are now available for public review is embodied in the following statement written by the Carnegie Foundation’s commission or committee who formulated A Framework for K-12 Science Education that is the basis for the new standards.
According to Achieve, Inc., the company that developed the science standards, the U.S. system of science and mathematics education is performing below par, and if left unattended, will leave millions of young Americans unprepared to succeed in a global economy.
The Reasons for the New Standards Achieve identifies on its Next Generation Science Standards Website four reasons for the need for new standards:
- Reduction of the United States’ Competitive Economic Edge
- Lagging Achievement of U.S. students
- Need for Essential Preparation for all Careers in the Modern Workforce
- Scientific and Technical Literacy for an Educated Society
Most of these reasons are based on the pipeline ideology that suggests that science education is in the service of the preparation of future scientists, and for those pursuing careers in science, and science related fields. This rationale served us well in developing science curriculum for some students, but it surely has not been effective with a lot of students. Some science education researchers have reported in refereed journals that the content of science approach has not worked for many students, and a new approach is needed.
America’s competitive edge, which has not changed very much, is strong and viable. To continue to use student test scores is not a valid argument to understand a nation’s competitiveness; it is is too complicated, according to Professor Iris C. Rotberg, and is impacted by other variables such as other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness.
Lagging achievement, based on the international tests, TIMSS and PISA, is misinterpreted each year that “average” scores for a nation are reported. To think that an average score for the U.S. reflects that nation’s diversity is a foolish mistake. And comparisons to other countries, such as with Finland, which always lands at the top of the international testing leader board, is another mistake, unless U.S. politicians want to import the socialist complexity of Finland, and value placed on health care for all, education for all through college, and the freedom as professionals that teachers enjoy in formulating curriculum and evaluating their students.
The world has changed in the past 50 years, especially in the past twenty with the rise of China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Chile and other nations, yet many of the leaders directing the development of these new standards are stuck in the last century in terms of why we teach science (primarily for economic and competitive reasons), and are unable to free themselves of the traditional disciplines of science, and to look at science in the context of communities, societies, and the globe.
Please keep in mind that there many issues that are important when considering the new science standards and the context of education today. We could include: the No Child Left Behind Act, the influence of corporate billionaires, and foundations on education, charter schools, school choice, and high-stakes testing.
What Are People Saying?
To find out what people are saying about the NGSS, you will find reports from several blogs, most of whom are written by public school teachers. In each of these the authors offer critical views of the new standards. The focus of the five critiques that I have included in this post are listed below.
- No Shock or Awe Here
- Topics or Individual Performance Expectations
- Backward-Engineered Science Standards
- Standards are More Rigorous
- Let’s Not Trivialize the NGSS
No Shock or Awe Here
Over on Creating More Questions blog, Mr. L writes about his experience reading and studying the Next Generation Science Standards. For the most part he was neither shocked nor awed with the standards, and indicated that they “covered” the same material that they teach in New York City. He wasn’t concerned that good teachers could deal with the standards, but he was worried that teachers in K-2 will have to reduce the amount of quality time spent teaching rich fiction, since the common core standards and science standards rely more on non-fiction reading.
He made this powerful point in reviewing the standards for K-2 students:
Kindergarteners and first graders are already being forced to do something that our brains were not designed to do, read. So now we’re asking our youngest students to obtain complex information from nonfiction texts while maneuvering through this incredibly difficult task of learning how to read. It’s not that I’m against reading nonfiction, it’s that I don’t think it’s the best way to learn for this particular age-group.
He then followed this statement with a list of fears that will effect teaching and learning in the elementary curriculum.
- I fear the loss of rich, creative fiction in the classroom
- I fear that we may burn out this generation of kids as we ask them to do more than previous generations have been asked to do
- I fear that in an effort to meet new, rigorous standards we will quickly lose sense of what is age-appropriate and right
- I fear that, due to the culture of accountability, teachers will choose to teach in its new cold form, instead of creating thinkers, fostering imaginations, and having fun
Could these be a common set of criticisms of any approach to standardize the curriculum? Why Kindergarten and first-grade children need to held to a specific set of standards is beyond reason. In the big picture of K-12 schooling do we need to teach meteorology, geomorphology, or seven standards on “pushes and pulls.” What is the point here? Why not release the teacher to teach what ever and how ever they want in the area we call science?
Topics or Individual Performance Expectations
When you examine the new standards, they are organized by grade level and content areas (Earth and Space Sciences, Life Sciences, etc.). For each topic, you will find four to seven performance expectations (these are the standards) with reference to Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas and Crosscutting Ideas. Your first impression is that a teacher would organize a unit around each topic which includes several standards. Here is an example from third grade for the topic weather, climate and impacts. The entire set of standards, K through 12, is organized in this fashion. A main topic, followed by four to seven performance expectations written in the very familiar “behavioral objectives” helps shape the organization of the new standards.
Over at the Scientific Teacher, Nick Mitchell had good things to say about the way the standards’ statements are written, they seem to be age appropriate, and adding engineering was a plus. He was concerned about what he called “over-prescriptive performance expectations,” especially the fact that the K-2 standards were specific to each grade. A concern here was schools might have to fall in line with the progression stipulated in the standards. He wondered why this level of specificity was needed.
He also was concerned about the organization of the standards into topics. Most of us would consider the topics (like the one in the graphic for weather, climate, and impacts) as potential units of teaching, or chapters in a text. According to Mitchell, the topics as potential units of teaching fall short of a rich set of performance expectations. As he puts it, wouldn’t you think that the topic would be taught as a whole, rather than as individual standards. The standards’ writers tell us that they were not intended as “units” of teaching, but can be treated individually. Why would the standards’ designers do this?
Finally, Mitchell suggests that “many of the topics still read like laundry lists with too much content to be able to investigate and explore topics in depth.” He goes on to say:
This is readily apparent when you start thinking of the topics as units. After 1st grade there are 4 topics per grade level, basically meaning 4 units a year, which is already one more unit that I currently teach each year. There is evidence of a lot of “tacking on” in many of the topics, with performance expectations that don’t fit with the core ideas of the topic. These need to be cut. If the standards are truly going to focus on core ideas, then only core ideas should make the cut. Otherwise the Next Gen standards will only be one step in the right direction, and not the bounding leap that we need instead!
How could the standards be designed not to look like the latest laundry list that kids should learn in 3rd grade? If you go to this page on the Next Generation Science Standards website, you can select a grade levels, and content areas and search for the performance expectations for your choices. Obviously its simply an opinion whether you agree or disagree with the list of performance expectations that you find for any topic. But realize that it was also an opinion of a group of experts that put these particular objectives on these lists.
Backward-Engineered Science Standards
On Anthony Cody’s blog, Chemtchr, wrote a guest post entitled A Science Teacher’s View: The Backward-Engineered Common Core Science Standards. Chemtchr, who served on her state’s Math and Science Advisory Council, discovered that during the Race to Top application process the real goal of Achieve’s work on the science standards was to establish a set of discreet testable skills.
In her view the outcomes were identified, and standards from earlier years were being selected to create the new standards. She uses the term “reverse engineering” as the idea of starting with a solution, and working backwards from it. Here is part of her post on Anthony Cody’s blog:
The “Next Generation Science Standards” have set out to backwards engineer the whole science curriculum into a coherent, self-validating tool. The goal all along was an instrument to market both teaching and assessment products to a captive education system, not to provide a framework for good teaching of the sciences. In addition to all the historical evidence for this interpretation, we can now examine the document itself.
Here’s the vertically-integrated physics strand I witnessed as it was being formulated. As I foretold last month, this perfectly reasonable standard appears in Achieve’s science standards for grades 9-12:
a. Plan and carry out investigations to show that the algebraic formulation of Newton’s second law of motion accurately predicts the relationship between the net force on macroscopic objects, their mass, and acceleration and the resulting change in motion. [Assessment Boundary: Restricted to one- and two-dimensional motion and does not include rotational motion. Does not apply in the case of subatomic scales or for speeds close to the speed of light. Calculations restricted to macroscopic objects moving at non-relativistic speeds.]
And here are the standard’s bizarre new primary grade antecedents, for grades K-2:
a. Investigate the effect of pushes and pulls of different strengths on the resulting motion of objects. [Assessment Boundary: Simultaneous pushes and pulls to be along a single line; pushes and pulls to be between objects in contact. Students not to be assessed on quantitative relationships.]
For this, the children have lost their double-pan balances. Achieve is touting its opus as being “based on” input from its partners, including the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They claim their standards “are promoting depth over breadth in science education, ensuring greater coherence in learning across grade levels, and helping students understand the cross-cutting nature of crucial concepts, such as energy and matter, that span scientific disciplines.”
In fact, we can readily see that their standards are made out of picked bones. These standards actually don’t span anything much, and connect nothing but assessment boundaries. In this case, less isn’t more. We would be forced to devote all the formative, developmental years to consumption of standards-based learning products and assessments, in absurdist preparation for future standards-based product lines.
Finally, Chemtchr speaks out against the “partners” in the science and common core standards identifying they are many of the largest and most powerful corporations including Pearson Education (which stands to make billions out of all of this), the Gates Foundations and others.
Standards are More Rigorous
Over on Eric Brunsell’s blog on edutopia, there was an interesting interview with Emily Miller, a member of the NGSS writing team, and a bilingual/English as a Second Language teacher in the Madison (WI) Metropolitan School District. This interview gives you insight into the thinking of one of the writing team members. As indicated in Dr. Brunsell’s interview, the opinions expressed by Emily Miller are her own, and not those of Achieve. You can read the full interview here, but here is one question asked by Dr. Brunsell, and Emily Miller’s response. I selected the following interview question because it provides a more general outlook of the new standards from one of the writers.
Eric: What do you see as the biggest changes that will need to be made in our teaching as we look towards implementing NGSS?
Emily: I can more easily speak to this from my perspective as an elementary school teacher. First of all, the standards are a lot more rigorous, not only because the standard itself includes a scientific practice and cross-cutting theme, but also because the expectations for content are more rigorous. There are fewer core ideas but the level of understanding for each core concept has been intensified. The idea of “a mile wide and an inch deep” was sometimes (maybe erroneously) associated with the last science standards, but no one could say that about this document! I think the fewer but more intense expectations will really push the envelope of what is expected of elementary school teachers in terms of their own content knowledge. I’m wondering if some schools who take these standards very seriously will see the need for science specialists, in the same way they have reading specialists in some schools. Also, the standards include the teaching of some scientific practices like modeling and data analysis in conjunction with the scientific concepts. This will require the teacher to not only have a deeper understanding of the concepts themselves, but teachers will have to learn how to teach these practices. Finally, I think the cross-cutting themes will be challenging for teachers to teach. They will have to see how the cross-cutting themes of, say, “energy” or “systems” relate to many different scientific disciplines. I think teachers will be stretched, and in order to teach to the standards, they will be asking for more professional development. I am hoping that these new standards will give rise to better and more comprehensive assessments. In this way, teachers and schools will be more accountable for what the students are learning in science.
This is a valuable source of information as we examine the new science standards. Here we have an Achieve writer saying that teachers will be stretched by these standards, and will require professional development. Will it be available, and to what extent will teachers be empowered to interpret the new standards?
Let’s Not Trivialize the NGSS
Dr. Arthur H. Carmins, director of the Center for Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J. wrote an article on Education Week entitled New Science Standards: Bound for Glory, or Running Behind? Dr. Carmins suggests that improvement in science learning is dependent upon establishing new targets, but progress must continue at the rate of progress that American students have shown over the last few decades. According to Dr. Carmins, the new Framework established that the value of science and engineering (and teaching them) is in improving human lives. As such he feels that the goal of the Framework and new standards ought not be new accountability measures, but what knowledge and skills science educators want to nurture in students so they can make a difference in the world.
Dr. Carmins also makes positive comments about the way standards are presented and written. He points out that the Frameworks three dimensions (practices, crosscutting concepts, and core disciplinary ideas) are integrated into the “learning-outcome expectations.” He likes the way the expectations are written in that to him the standards clarify not only what students should know, but how to use this knowledge. Although this is not a new idea—performance expectations are based on the theory of behavioral and outcomes-based education—his points are well taken.
He suggests that the Framework and the NGSS should be used as a jumping off point for research and experimentation. He cautions that science educators should tread carefully here, and try out “multiple approaches” and use misteps for improvement in curricula.
Carmins is concerned that we might end up trivializing the NGSS and believe that to many of us will focus on the effects of high-stakes testing.
This is a very good explanation of what call “raising the bar.” Presumably the new standards are more rigorous, and the writers have set the bar higher. Will this make any difference? Why are making it more difficult for students to succeed in science? I know that Dr. Carmins is since when he warns us not to trivialize the new standards. But…
Yet, it is difficult to ignore the consequences of high-stakes testing in the context of standards-based reform. The real goal of the NGSS developers to have all states in the U.S. adopt the new standards, and then through the effort of Achieve’s Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). With hundreds of millions of dollars from from the U.S. Department of Education, PARCC is developing technology-based high-stakes (and low stakes) assessments based on the learning expectations of the Common Core’s mathematics and English/language arts standards.
Solving problems, working alongside team members, inquiry, and innovation are important for a future that is only known to us through limited projections and prediction. Of course scientific and technology literacy will be important. And we need to help youth become prepared for future careers. But is a laundry list of performance expectations organized into traditional content topics the right choice?
People are talking about the new science standards, and what they say depends a lot on their stake in the whole enterprise. It’s always valuable to ask “in whose interests” does a particular view or position accommodate.
What do you think about the Next Generation Science Standards? What have you heard colleagues saying about the NGSS.
Tags: Framework for K-12 Science Education, Next Generation Science Standards, science education, science teachers, science teaching