Common Corporate Science Standards?

My choice of a title for this blog post is not a play on words, but describes the current effort to write the next generation of science standards.  The next generation of science standards is being developed by Achieve, Inc., a corporate and foundation support-type organization that was established in 1996 by governors and corporate leaders, not educators, to support standards-based reform.  According to the Achieve website, governors and corporate leaders:

formed Achieve as an independent, bipartisan, non-profit education reform organization. To this day, Achieve remains the only education reform organization led by a Board of Directors of governors and business leaders.

Where are the educators?

On their website they write that (Education Week) ranked Achieve in 2006 as one of the most influential organizations in education. Over the past years, Achieve has influenced the standards in nearly every state through it’s development of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics, and English language arts. In some cases the Common Core Standards were imposed on states that applied for Race-to-the-Top funds, a reform program of the U.S. department of Education, that has not yet proven to work.

Problems with the Common Standards

There are a number of problems associated with the Common Core Standards movement. Achieve is an external, corporate driven organization without the accountability to which teachers, administrators and schools are held.  Achieve lacks the oversight that schools and universities are held to through professional and peer reviewed panels that have the authority to make recommendations for change, and in extreme cases, revoke accreditation. Achieve is responsible only to it’s donors, and board.  Many of the donor corporations and foundations are involved in educational reform that over laps with the goals of Achieve. On the surface there appears to be many conflicts of interest in this mix, and one wonders about the transparency of the system leading back to involvement of true educators.

Achieve also has stated that a single set of standards in each content discipline can work for students regardless of where they live. This makes little sense given the diversity of the United States, and the increasing rate of poverty in the country.  What is the connection between the standards being developed and students from poor families?

Standards are opinions of a subset of professors, mostly from the academic disciplines, often appearing on boards and planning and writing teams for the first time. And in some cases participants of the teams ought to be replaced with fresh faces. Are there concepts in science, for example, that every human being must know? Probably.  A set of standards for every student? We really do not have a way to determine what every student should know, and we have to wonder why we are so obsessed with this.   Why, in a nation of 50 states, and 15,000 school districts, do we insist of a single set of standards, all of which are discipline based.

Rationale for Corporate Reform

Achieve is operating on the assumption that American education is lagging the rest of the world, and it needs to be fixed. There is little evidence to make this claim. Reformers nearly always claim that the nation is at risk, and if reforms of their own designs are not put forward, students will not be able to compete with their peers, especially at the global level.  Again, the evidence to support this is not there.

What we have going on now is the corporate reform of public education with a very small group of foundational and corporate leaders leveraging the buy out of public education. Instead of professional teachers, and professional organizations leading reform, they are on the periphery of this reform. The reform is characterized as top down, with charter schools and school choice becoming the rallying cry of this reform effort.

The development of the new generation of science standards is underway at Achieve, and although 20 states, NSTA and AAAS are involved, one of the basic tenants of science is not driving the development—and that is the peer review process.  Furthermore, the research that Achieve reports on its website that it has completed is not research conducted through the peer review process.  To what extent can we accept their “research” findings?

Peer Review

It would have been in the best interests of public education if a more scholarly framework that included peer review would have guided the development of science education standards.

From the beginning there should have been a Request For Proposals (RFP) from an organization such as the National Science Foundation (NSF).   Proposals could have been accepted from any university, research and development organization, or organizations such as Achieve.   As it was, Achieve had already been selected prior to the National Research Council’s project to develop a Framework for Science Education.  The Carnegie Foundation funded this, and is providing additional funds for Achieve to carryout the writing of the science standards.

If an RFP had been announced, the process would have entered the research and development community, and it would have given more groups of researchers and developers an opportunity to participate in the creation of the new generation of science standards.  The organization that would receive funding would be accountable to the funding organization, and to the peer review process.  Furthermore, the recipient of the funds would also engage in science education research, which would be published in peer review journals.

In a democratic society, we must raise questions when one organization has a monopoly on an industry, including educational reform.  Education in the United States is best represented by diverse goals, by learning/education that is rooted in the lived experiences of students, and the by the local control of schooling.  It is not represented very well by the central command and control system that appears to rest with Achieve, Inc.

We have a problem here, and it will take reform to change this.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.