Whose Next Generation of Science Standards?

The Next Generation Science Standards are on the web for all of us to view and critique until January 29th.  According to Achieve, the developers of the standards, they will use the feedback to revise last version of the science standards, to be published in March, 2013.

The new science standards are the scientific and science education community’s latest document spelling out the performances that students must show in the science curriculum.

Science education has a long history of being valued and important in the school curriculum.  Since the beginning of the Cold War, the teaching of science (and mathematics and technology) in America’s schools has been considered crucial to America’s economic, scientific and technological competitiveness.

In a paper published this week in the journal Science EducationStephanie Claussen and Jonathan Osborne use Frenchman Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital to critique the science curriculum.  To Bourdieu, cultural capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange that includes the accumulated cultural knowledge (of science) that confers power and status on those that have it.  Claussen and Osborne critique the science curriculum by suggesting that the science education community has missed the boat in areas emphasized in Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital.  For example, Claussen and Osborne show that science education does not help students understand the “embodied” value of science.

Standards in science or math are typically written and promoted by élite groups or committees of professionals, e.g. mathematic professors, linguists, or scientists.  For Bourdieu, the value of science (its cultural capital) results from its long history, and the implications it has for society.  As he suggests, it becomes entrenched , and those who possess the capital go all out to defend it.  It’s not surprising that it was an élite group of scientists who wrote the science framework upon which the Next Generation Science Standards are based.  But, this is not a new idea.

We’ll look at the standards movement, and raise questions about the Next Generation Science Standards.

Historical Science Standards, 1893 – 1996

Committee of Ten Report: This book outlines the standards for the school curriculum in American schools in 1892.

Committee of Ten Report: This book outlines the standards for the school curriculum in American schools in 1892, including detailed science standards.

The American curriculum was first standardized 1893 by the Committee of Ten, a group composed of 5 university presidents, one professor, two school principals, and a commissioner of education.  All were men, and none were teachers.  This élite group organized nine content conferences (Latin, Greek, English, Physics-Astronomy-Chemistry, Natural history, history-civil government-political economy).  Meeting in different parts of the country, the conferences attendees hammered out the content and wrote summaries published in 1893 as a report of the Committee on Secondary School Studies.

The science standards in the Committee of Ten report includes topics on physics, chemistry, and astronomy, experiments, natural history, nature study for elementary grades, botany for common schools, zoology for high school, and physiology, and geography.  You can read the original report that was published in 1893 here.  I think you will be surprised to read how the science standards written more than 100 years ago are not so different from the ones written in 2013.

Between 1893 and 1960, there were at least many reports outlining new science standards for school science.  Some of these included A Program for Science Teaching (1932), Science in General EducationProgressive Education (1938), Science Education in American Schools (1947), and Rethinking Science Education (1960).  These documents included goals, big ideas or concepts in science teaching, and approaches to improving science teaching.

From 1955 – 1975, the National Science Foundation funded more than 50 elementary and secondary science projects that in sum represented the science standards of the era.  These projects, starting with physics (PSSC Physics), affected the science curriculum in American schools for the next 20 years.  Many of the programs, often in the form of textbooks and laboratory manuals are still published today.  These NSF projects became the default science standards for American science education, and had a powerful effect on the National Science Education Standards published in 1996.  It was known as the Golden Age of Science Education.  The Golden Age came to a screeching halt in the mid-1970s when some members of Congress objected to some of the NSF pr0jects (Man: A Course of Study), throwing a wedge into the curriculum development era.

In the 1980s, the U.S. was at risk educationally, according to the report, Nation at Risk, and as a result a back-to-basics mantra took over, and science education went into a “courses and competency” era.  During this era, basic education was re-established in the sense of making high school graduation requirements across the states more standardized (4 years of English, 3 years of math, 3 years of science, 3 years of social studies, and one-half year of computer science.

In spite of “back to basics” movement of the 1980 – 1990s, a new genre of science curriculum projects emerged from the confluence of Internet and telecommunications technologies, and the desire of some science educators to engage students in environmental and inquiry-based research projects.  Much of this work was done by researchers at TERC and the Concord Consortium in the Boston area, Georgia State University, and the University of Colorado.

In 1989, the AAAS initiated a long-term project to advance literacy in science, math and technology.  It was called Project 2061. Project 2061 provided the foundation for future changes in science education, including the National Science Education Standards, 1995 and the Next Generation Science Standards, 2013.

The National Science Education Standards was the result of work by the AAAS’s Project 2061, and the National Science Teachers Association.  The NSES influenced the development of state science standards.

For the most part, the historical science standards were developed by professional groups such as the National Association for Education, the National Society for the Study of Education, the Progressive Education Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Science Teachers Association.

Contemporary Standards: CCSS and NGSS

The Next Generation Science Standards, 2013.  View them until January 29

The Next Generation Science Standards, 2013. View them until January 29

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) combined with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in mathematics and English language Arts are efforts to nationalize standards.  This triumvirate of standards has changed the face of American education by providing three content or discipline oriented standards that will take center stage in the school curriculum.  Although the developers of the standards claim that they are voluntary, states who do not adopt them will run into difficulty in securing federal money.  At the center of these standards is Achieve, a not-for-profit Washington-based organization that partnered with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to first develop the Common Core State 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 people 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.

A lot of money has been spent on these two projects, and it will take billions of dollars to carry out the three sets of standards into American schools.  But there is more to it.  The standards in these three areas will lead to a range of teaching materials, including texts, online e-books, software, DVDs.  But more significantly is that there are separate projects that have been funded by the U.S. Department of Education to design technology-based assessments correlated to the three sets of standards.  Under the current rules of the American school game, students will be relentlessly tested throughout their careers, benefits a small group of test companies.  And one more thing here.  There is an enormous stream of private and corporate financial support that flowed into not only Achieve, but many organizations, such as Teach for America, that are convincing the American public that to teach the new standards, it only takes five – six weeks of boot camp style training to do this.

The contemporary standards are based on the premise that American education needs to be reformed to make sure that future workers are skilled to compete in a global competitive environment.  The standards documents make it very clear that moving the U.S. into the number one place in economic competitiveness can only be done by more rigorous and unified standards in math, English language arts, and science.  Even though the evidence does not support this assumption, the standards movement, combined with the testing industry have now taken over education in the United States.

Standards as Capital

Standards represent the intellectual capital that society places on various domains of knowledge, including mathematics, literature and science.  We are not arguing against this fundamental concept.  We will argue that the way this capital is translated into the school curriculum has serious problems, and that as a result, we have put the emphasis in science education, for example, in the wrong place.  In Western nations, students simply do not like school science.  In fact, the longer students are in school, the more they dislike science.  But if students are asked if science is important in society, students typically say yes. However, they are not interested in persuing careers in science.  But if students in less developed nations are asked how they feel about science as a career, they are eager to say they would like to pursue careers in science and technology.  This research has been uncovered by  researchers at the University of Oslo, in The Relevance of Science Education (ROSE Project).

Claussen and Osborne ask us to reflect on science in the school curriculum as cultural capital that people can meet.  However, they point out, that many students come to school with sufficient cultural capital (because of their family) making it easier for them to gain more of this cultural capital.  Students who come to school who have very little of this cultural capital will be at a disadvantage.

In this view, the NGSS is the cultural capital of science in very precise terms and at each grade level.  The NGSS is a product of the values and decisions of an elite group of scientists and university professors.  Claussen and Osborne very convincingly argue that the science curriculum is “the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power.” By involving elite groups in the decisions about what knowledge is worth knowing, it enables the “reproduction” of existing structures of power. Or put another way, it enables the elite group to put their values and politics on the school culture in order to preserve their domain of knowledge.  In a way these are abritary decisions.   They write:

In the case of science, the cultural arbitrary is exerted in two ways. First, the dominant scientific élite has ensured that the form of science taught in most schools in most countries is one which is best suited to educating the future scientist (a small minority) and not the needs of the future citizen (the overwhelming majority). This is achieved by the choices that are made about what science has to offer: academic science versus science for citizenship (S. A. Brown, 1977; Young, 1971), the exclusion of any history of science (Haywood, 1927; Matthews, 1994), the underemphasis on applications and implications of science (Solomon & Aikenhead, 1994; Zeidler, Sadler, Simmons, & Howes, 2005), and the omission of any treatment about how science works (Millar & Osborne, 1998)—all choices which do not harm the education of the future scientist. The cumulative effect is to deny the validity of any other cultural perspective on science—in particular one which might have more relevance to women and students from other cultures. Granted such forms of science also alienate those within the dominant élite who have little interest in becoming scientists, but such students have a body of cultural capital that ensures access to alternative forms of institutionalized capital.

The dominant élite for the NGSS was selected by the National Research Council, which received funds from the Carnegie Institute. A committee of 18 professional scientists and educators (16 of whom were college professor of science) was assembled to create a “Foundation” to write new science standards. The committee spent more than a year working with other professionals, two-thirds of whom are not involved in K-12 teaching. A Foundation for K-12 Science Education was published in the summer of 2011 outlining the essentials for a framework gor new science standards.

The framework for the new science standards is built around three dimensions: practices (such as asking questions) , cross-cutting ideas (cause & effect, scale, etc.) & disciplinary core ideas (in earth, life & physical science).

The cultural capital implicit in the NGSS can be viewed from one page on the NGSS’s site. You’ll have to dig, but the capital is all there. You can link to all aspects of the new science standards, including the structure of the standards (a video will show how they are arranged), how to give feedback, a glossary of terms (a new set of acronyms to learn), 11 appendices (articles detailing various components of the standards–look at Figure 1 for the topics), two search tools (one by disciplinary core idea, and other by topics of teaching), and links to download these as PDFs.

In the Next Generation Science Standards website, the authors of the new standards claim that science education is taught as a set of disjointed and isolated facts. This can be debated. Most science teaching is organized around major topics, concepts or ideas. They are typically not taught in a disjointed fashion as the authors of the new standards claim. Look at any science textbook, and you will find that chapters are organized as unified units of content.

Of course it is in the interest of the new reformers to claim that science is taught as isolated facts.

Here is what we need to say. Science is tested as a set of disjointed and isolated facts. Even with the claim that there are fewer ideas in the new standards, they will be used to design tests that in the end will be nothing but question after question of isolated facts.

Claussen and Osbourne explain that Bourdieu conceives of “habitus” as a set of social and cultural practices, values, and dispositions that are characterized by the ways social groups interact with their members; whereas “cultural capital” is the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are transmitted to an individual within their sociocultural context through pedagogic action1 (Bourdieu, 1986), in particular by the family.

Claussen and Osbourne suggest that formal education is important because it can be viewed as an academic market for the distribution of cultural capital. they write:

Those who enter the classroom with sufficient cultural capital of the appropriate, dominant type—capital that fits well with the discourse and values of schools—are well positioned to increase their cultural capital further. In addition, research shows that the habitus of such students enables them to acquire substantial additional capital in informal contexts (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007; Tavernise, 2012). In contrast, students who possess cultural capital of a form that is incongruent with the culture of the school, or who lack it altogether, are at a distinct disadvantage. One of the challenges of education in general, and science education in particular, is how to increase a student’s stock of the dominant cultural capital, regardless of the nature of any prior capital they may, or may not, already have acquired.

The authors, using the concept of cultural capital, argue how school science could better contribute to the remediation of social inequalities.

We’ll explore how the institutionalized form of science, which in its current form will be determined by common assessments built upon common standards.

In what ways do you critique the Next Generation Science Standards?

About Jack Hassard

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