The Next Generation Science Standards: In the Service of the STEM Imperative or Students?

The second draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) was released this week, and you can check it out and give feedback here.

Millions of dollars are being spent to write the new science standards. And it will cost even more to carry out them in the Nation’s schools. Why new standards at this time?  According to Achieve, the developers of the NGSS there is a problem with science and mathematics education.  They write:

the U.S. system of science and mathematics education is performing far below par and, if left unattended, will leave millions of young Americans unprepared to succeed in a global economy.

Achieve goes on to suggest that because of such a sub par science education, America’s economic competitive edge will be  jeopardized, students won’t be ready as workers in the 21st Century, and the country will simply not have a scientifically literate society.

Stories are told that American businesses are not able to find qualified workers with STEM backgrounds and work experience, and that colleges and universities do not graduate enough STEM graduates to meet the demand for STEM workers. These two metrics are used to explain why American businesses are moving some of their operations and search for engineers  overseas.

Maureen Downey asks on her Get Schooled blog Does a STEM degree guarantee a job?

In a recent study (Where the Engineers Are) carried out at Duke University, light is shed on this issue, and the study contradict claims by Achieve and other groups America suffers from a deficiency in the quantity and quality of STEM workers for America’s businesses.  In their study they report:

Our research shows that companies are not moving abroad because of a deficiency in U.S. education or the quality of U.S. workers. Rather, they are doing what gives them economic and competitive advantage. It is cheaper for them to move certain engineering jobs overseas and to locate their R&D operations closer to growth markets. There are serious deficiencies in engineering graduates from Indian and Chinese schools. Yet the trend is building momentum despite these weaknesses…The calls to graduate more engineers do not focus on any field of engineering or identify any specific need. Graduating more engineers just because India and China graduate more than the United States does is likely to create unemployment and erode engineering salaries.

In order to justify reforms in education, its necessary for the reformers to present an argument that the American public buys into.  Claiming that American science education is inferior to other nations’ science and mathematics education is the present argument of choice.

Historical Reform Arguments

This argument–that U.S. K-12 science education is sub par, inferior, and out-dated–has been used for many decades to rally support for reform of science and mathematics education.  It is important to ask: In whose interest will the reform serve?  Is the reform in the interests of all students?  Or are there others in society that will benefit even more than students and teachers from reform efforts?

Committee of Ten. For example, one of the first major education reform efforts in the U.S. was the 1893 National Education Association’s Committee of Ten which made recommendations and detailed curriculum guidelines for K-12 schooling in America.  Comprised of ten men, who were either college presidents, professors or school principals, the committee organized nine content-oriented curriculum conferences  (Latin, Greek, English, Mathematics, etc.).  To the Committee of Ten, as well as the nearly 90 members of the conferences, all of whom were men, and most college professors, the purpose of schooling should be preparation for college.   Were these recommendations for U.S. students, or more beneficial for America’s colleges and universities?  What do you think? Here is what one of America’s leading educational researchers thinks about this.

In her study entitled An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Levy Institute Research Professor, Bard College sheds light on this question.  Instead of colleges and universities supporting and sponsoring education, Lagemann writes:

it makes more sense to read it as evidence of university aspirations to conquer new markets and, even more, to assume a regulatory role that would make sure university leadership of the full panoply of educational institutions within a particular city, state, or region – or even nationwide

Sputnik. There are other examples.  When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, it shook up the U.S. perception of itself as a leader in science and technology.  Although science curriculum reform was already underway at MIT’s project entitled PSSC Physics, the National Science Foundation expanded the idea of assembling science experts to design, write, and carry out science curriculum for America’s schools.  Physics was first, then chemistry, followed by multiple versions of biology, and a new program for earth science.  New curricula were developed for middle/junior high schools, and finally elementary school science.  The Golden Age of Science Education was born: more than $117 million was spent on over fifty separate course improvement projects during the years 1954-1975.

Nation at Risk. In 1983, a report was issued by the National Commission on Excellence entitled A Nation at Risk. The report’s famous beginning stated that it was as if an  “unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on the U.S. the mediocre educational performance” (according to the authors of the report) that existed in 1983.  The authors viewed it as an act of war.  Continuing with another war metaphor, the authors suggested that the U.S. was “committing an unthinking, unilateral education disarmament.”

A Perfect Storm. Then, in 2001, the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) set in motion the latest reform, which has spurned what my colleague Steven Sellers Lapham calls A Perfect Storm. As Lapham says so rightly states, public schools in America are under attack from many directions, and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) seems bent on delivering a lethal one-two-three punch: punish the poor (Race to the Top), death by paperwork (NCLB), and absurd metrics (using student test scores to evaluate teachers & schools). Writing standards and imposing high-stakes tests on American students until the cows come in. With the financial infusion by corporate billionaires, & conservative policy groups, such as ALEC and the Thomas Fordham Institute, Lapham’s storm prediction metaphor has morphed into superstorms with devastating consequences.

In the Service of the STEM Imperative

The STEM Initiative

The STEM Initiative

Science education has history of reform that suggests the phrase, “the sky is falling.”  If the science (or mathematics) curriculum is not improved, then America’s economic competitiveness, worker’s ability to compete for jobs, and students qualifications for college are at risk.  These are the underlying rationales used to promote the reform we see in science education specifically, and schooling in general. In a way, this has been an assault on the teaching profession. The hierarchical and authoritarian structure of reform in 2013 has ignored the wisdom of experienced teachers and administrators, and is relying on temporary and substitute the teachers who are only willing to give two years to work in schools where they are least qualified. When we through in charter schools, vouchers, and the wholesale closing of “failing” schools, we’ve created an unstable system of schooling especially for families of less means. What are we thinking?

For a little more than a decade, science, math, engineering and technology have been lumped together using the acronym “STEM,”which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics. It was coined by Judith Ramaley, in 2001 when she was director of the National Science Foundation’s education and human resources division. The term caught on quickly. Most government documents, reports, and RFP’s use the term instead of referring to science or math or engineering.  STEM has taken on a life of its own so that now instead of talking about science or mathematics education, which have their own traditions, we have lost our way in the world of acronyms.  But, the STEM initiative is a powerful one.  Government is willing to invest billions, states think that the STEM curriculum is more important than art or music, and indeed cuts are made to educational programs that are not embraced by STEM, reading, or language arts.  The STEM initiative has become the STEM IMPERATIVE.

The STEM Imperative is so powerful that authoritarian means have been used to make the improvement of science and mathematics education the most pressing, urgent, and vital aspect of schooling, especially if America is to keep its commanding position among other nations.

The STEM initiative has provided the perfect backdrop for the Next Generation of Science Standards.  Science education today, as it is perceived and practiced around the world, is based on goals for science teaching that were established more than a century ago. The NGSS project has not invented new goals, or ideas, but has reinvented the same wheel of science education that has been around for more than a century.

It’s important to note that the standards that are now published in draft form are based on a Framework for K-12 Science Education that was essentially devised by a group of experts, most of them professors of science, not science educators or teachers.  We’ve done this time after time in the history of reform.  Experts, largely from the college ranks, are the ones making decisions about K-12 education, not professional educators who are the practitioners, that understand the nitty-gritty of school teaching.  Science teachers, science supervisors and curriculum directors not only have strong background in the content of science, but more importantly they have a special kind of knowledge that we call pedagogical content knowledge.  They understand students, and how they learn.  They have experiential knowledge of teaching and learning, and I would suggest that college professors of science do not necessarily have this kind of knowledge.

Here is what I mean. The committee that developed the framework for the standards was comprised of 16 university professors, one state department official, and one education collaborative official.  No teachers.  No Principals.  No science, technology or engineering curriculum experts.  It makes no sense to continue to turn over the major policy decisions to university professors, especially if they have little or no experience with educational research or K-12 curriculum development.  Committees of experts tend to be self-serving.  If you bring a group of biologists together to write biology standards, to what extent will they write interdisciplinary standards, or standards that are more application oriented.

Whose interest is served by forming committees with this power? Why do we set up committees that truly lack credible knowledge about education theory and practice. If we want experts doing this in the name of school reform, we need spokespeople from the profession. A professor of atmospheric science who thinks the earth science curriculum of school is nothing more than physical geography lacks fundamental knowledge about the science curriculum (see this Scientific American blog article for more) and lacks the perspective to take part in meaningful reform.

The science curriculum that was designed for aspiring scientists and engineers, with its heavy emphasis on the scientific process and content may have to give way to new forms of science curriculum that advocate ways to engage adolescents in science education. Unfortunately, the Next Generation Science Standards, painted a canvas of predictable shades and hues, but failed to use more inventive strokes that might have given a new landscape.

The STEM imperative is not in the interest of students.

What do you think?  Surely we need to improve teaching and learning in science and math? But are we using reasons to do this that do not serve the interests of students, but serve other groups?

About Jack Hassard

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