Fordham Report on Next Generation Science Standards Lacks Credibility

On January 29, the Thomas Fordham Institute published a report, “Commentary & Feedback on the Next Generation Science Standards (Commentary).  Nine people wrote the report, none of whom are “experts” in the field of science education.  Yes, most of them have Ph.D’s in science, but they lack the experiential and content knowledge of science education, science curriculum development, and classroom K – 12 science teaching experience.  The lead author of Commentary is Dr. Paul Gross, professor emeritus of life sciences at the University of Virginia.

Amazingly, news and media outlets will quote and not question the Fordham report as if they have the last answer on the Next Generation Science Standards in particular and science education in general.  They do not have the final answer.  In my opinion their answers and comments are flawed.

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A Trilobite

Erik Robelen wrote an article today in Curriculum Matters entitled In Science Draft, Big Problems ‘Abound,’ Think Tank Says.  The Think Tank is the Fordham Institute.  Robelen reviewed the report (70 pages) identifying the criticisms that the Fordham reviewers had about the NGSS. The Fordham group claimed that the authors of the NGSS omitted a lot of what they call “essential content.”  They also insist that the practices of science and engineering dominate the NGSS, and claim that basic science knowledge–the goal of science education (again, according to the Fordham group), becomes secondary.  The goal of science education is to create a curriculum that is steeped primarily in science content, with little regards to practices, inquiry, and connection to other disciplines.

Fordham Science Standards—-Return to the Past

The Fordham review used a set of science standards (called criteria) created by their science experts. They use this list of content goals to judge the worthiness of the NGSS & they used it two years ago when they reported on the state of state science standards.

They also use grades to summarize their opinion of science standards.  When they reported on the state science standards, many states failed, that is they received grades of D and F.  They didn’t grade the NGSS standards, but I am sure they will.

I’ve reviewed their standards and analyzed them using Bloom’s taxonomies, and reported them here.  In my analysis, only 10% of the Fordham standards were above the analysis level; 52% were classified at the lowest level in Bloom. There were no mention of the affective or psychomotor domains.

One of the areas that is completely missing in the lists of science content are standards for science inquiry. What is amusing here is that the Fordham authors criticized the states for “poor integration of scientific inquiry.” If any group showed poor integration of inquiry into the standards, it’s the Fordham group. They do not mention one inquiry science outcome or goal, yet they slam the states for not integrating science inquiry into the content of science.  They need to get their own house in order before they go around the country laying it on the states, and now the NGSS.

Their standards are quite simply a list of content goals with little regard to the process of science & engineering (practices in the NGSS–inquiry in the 1995 NSES) or connections across disciplines.  They are a real embarrassment to science educators in the context of the research and development in science education over the past 20 years.   I gave their standards a grade of D.

Let me explain.  The Fordham wrote their “science standards” using the same format that was used in the earlier part of the last century.  For example, here are a few of the Fordham science standards:

  • Know some of the evidence that electricity and magnetism are closely related (physical science)
  • Trace major events in the history of life on earth, and understand that the diversity of life (including human life) results from biological evolution (life science)
  • Recognize Earth as one planet among its solar system neighbors (earth science)
  • Be able to use Lewis dot structures to predict the shapes and polarities of simple molecules (chemistry)
  • Know the basic structures of chromosomes and genes down to the molecular level (biology)

These are simplistic statements that are juvenile compared to the 1995 National Science Education Standards, and the 2013 Next Generation Science Standards.  Here are some example standard statements from the NGSS:

  • Construct an argument using evidence about the relationship between the change in motion and the change in energy of an object.
  • Collect, analyze, and use data to describe patterns of what plants and animals need to survive.
  • Analyze and interpret data from fossils to describe the types of organisms that lived long ago and the environments in which they lived and compare them with organisms and environments today.
  • Use Earth system models to support explanations of how Earth’s internal and surface processes operate concurrently at different spatial and temporal scales to form landscapes and sea floor features.

The Fordham report is an extensive description of their own content specific and narrow view of what science for children and youth should be.  It was written by people who have little experience in science education, and there is some evidence in their reporting that they have little knowledge of science education research.  Their report is not juried, and there has never been an attempt by Fordham to solicit the opinions of science education researchers or curriculum developers.  It is an in-house report, and that is as far as it should go.

One More Thing

I have written several blog posts that are critical of the standards movement, including the Next Generation Science Standards.  You can link to them here, here, here and here. I am not defending the NGSS, but the criteria that Fordham uses to “analyse” the NGSS is not a valid research tool, and lacks reliability and validity, two criteria that would make their report believable.  As it standards, I can not agree with their ideas, nor should the NGSS consider them in their next stage.  Fordham has been pulling the wool over the eyes of policy makers and the media.  Its time to call them out.

There is much to disagree with in their report.  What are your opinions about the Fordham report on the NGSS?

The Neoconservative Drive for Common Standards in Math and Science

For the past two decades there has been a drive to create a common set of standards in math and science (and English Language Arts).  The enterprise is well-funded, and supported not only by the U.S. Department of Education, but by corporate and philanthropic America to the extent that the initiative is pushing ahead at an urgent speed.

The drive to set up common standards is part of “rightest” movement that Dr. Kristen L. Buras (2009) describes in detail in her book Rightist Multiculturalism: Core Lessons on Neoconservative School Reform.  She hones in on a fundamental question about curriculum, and that is “What knowledge is of most worth?.”  But Dr. Buras has us consider the question from another frame, and that is “Whose knowledge is of most worth?”

As Buras suggests, curriculum development in a democratic society must be:

the result of long-term democratic and substantive discussions, and it must also be grounded in an honest and searching appraisal of the structures of inequalities in this society. A “core” cannot be imposed from the outside and legitimately claim to be based on the “knowledge of all of us.

The word “core” is as it relates to knowledge is used in the two major standards’ reform efforts in the past decade: The Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language Arts, and in the Next Generation Science Standards.  In the NGSS, the content of science is referred to as Disciplinary Core Ideas.  As Michael Apple points out in the Introduction to Buras’ book, “What counts as “core knowledge” has all too often been someone’s core, not everyone’s core (Apple, 2000).

The “core” knowledge outlined in the mathematics, English language arts, and science standards has been spelled out by committees of experts largely from colleges and universities, and with very little initial comments by teachers and curriculum specialists.  The deliberations have primarily involved impersonal online reading sessions and the completion of online multiple choice evaluation surveys.  Face-to-face deliberations have been held, but behind closed doors, with little to no public record. The process to develop and “adopt” the CCSS and NGSS has not been deliberate, and has not been critically assessed by the education community.

Buras’ publication is an analysis of the rise of neoconservatism, and how neoconservatives have focused on the “restoration of a “common” cultural tradition and a disciplined, socially cohesive nation.”  In particular her book is an analysis of E.D. Hirsch’s cultural literacy and core knowledge publications and movement.

Hirsch’s core knowledge lays out what should be taught at every grade level.  Starting in Kindergarten through grade six, a complete curriculum is outlined in terms of what “your student needs to know.”

Hirsch first published his ideas in 1986 on cultural literacy, and just a few years later, the AAAS published its book on science literacy, Science for All Americans. The Hirsch core knowledge work is the exemplar neoconservative approach to school reform.  The AAAS’ work in science curriculum established the guidelines and benchmarks for science learning, K-12.  Unlike Hirsch’s neoconservative approach to cultural literacy, the AAAS science literacy embodied some progressive ideals such as inquiry, and social constructivism.  However, the core ideas in science were still based on the traditional disciplines of science.

The neoconservative reform movement’s goal is to create core knowledge in math, English language arts, and science, and expect that every American student be tested on the same content.  Buras thinks of this as inculcation.  She writes,

We might think here of Hirsch’s promise that the inculcation of common knowledge represents the new civil rights frontier, as formerly culturally illiterate students are given access to “literate” culture and thus the cultural capital needed to ascend the ladder of mobility and ultimately participate as “equals” in the marketplace of America.

In doing so, Core urges us, pushes us, to think about culture and democracy in specific ways—ways that tend to reinforce patterns of cultural disrespect and pressures to assimilate—and to overlook other understandings. We are being schooled to avoid the radical lanes, left and right, of the American civil rights highway, and to join the wider lane of moderation, which, we are told, promises peace and happiness. (Buras, Kristen L. (2009-01-21). Rightist Multiculturalism: Core Lessons on Neoconservative School Reform (Critical Social Thought) (p. 144). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition)

The core knowledge and the common standards movement is a mix of neoconservative and neoliberal advocates, who appeal to populist sensibilities of authoritarian and traditional family and religious orthodoxy.  As Michael Apple and Kristen Buras tell, the neoconservatives defend historically dominant cultural traditions and national cohesion.  Neoconservatives advocate political individualism and free markets.  For education this means, for example, core knowledge claims and standards-based reform.  Neoliberals, according to Apple and Buras, proclaim the free market and privatization (of schools, for example) at the expense of the public sector.  This of course has opened to the doors to school choice, vouchers, and charter schools.  (See Apple, M., Editor’s Introduction to Neoconservative Multiculturalism by Buras, K., 2009.)

The standards movement is a neoconservative and neoliberal imperative that has engulfed nearly all state departments of education, and the U.S. Department of Education.  It’s well-funded, and politically secured with Republican and Democratic talking heads.

There is some glimmer of hope.  Last year, the Chicago teacher’s union went strike and challenged the political apparatus of Chicago.  Educators, including superintendents, in Texas have gone on record as opposing standards-based high-stakes tests.  And most recently, Teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle announced their refusal to administer the standardized test, Measure of Academic Progress (MAP). The Chicago and Seattle cases are grassroots, bottom-up and determined opposition to the top-down and dominant neoconservative take-over of American schooling.

It’s imperative for professional organizations,  university professors and colleges of education to raise questions about educational reform, and join with their K-12 colleagues to oppose and overturn the neoconservative infusion of standard and basic education for a democratic nation.  The National Council of Teachers of English have written a resolution opposing high-stakes tests, and groups of professors of education in Georgia and Chicago have written letters opposing the use of high-stakes tests in the context of standards-based reform.

In science education, we have been relatively silent, especially in raising concerns about the Next Generation Science Standards.