NSTA’s Uncritical & Authoritarian Position on the Next Generation Science Standards

The National Science Teachers Association released a position statement on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). 

The NSTA statement is  uncritical and authoritarian.  It granted outright compliance with the NGSS, even though there is a groundswell questioning the use of standards, the Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards.  Should we endorse one set of performance goals for all K-12 students in English Language Arts, Mathematics and Science?

Although the position statement includes citations from the literature of science education, of the 17 references, 11 were National Research Council publications.  There were no citations from the major peer-reviewed research publications of the science education community (such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, the journal Science Education, and Journal of Science Teacher Education).  This is not a dismissal of the NRC publications, but I wonder why the peer-reviewed research was ignored in the development of the position statement.

There are many years of research on the efficacy of the standards movement, and one wonders why the authors of the NSTA statement did not consult the research on standards.

In my opinion, the 3,769 word document is a reworked version of the information that you can find on Achieve’s Next Generation Science Standards website.  The NSTA statement is divided into several sections including: Introduction, Conceptual shifts in the NGSS, Implementation of the NGSS, Declarations, Historical Background and References.  But these divisions are merely statements of compliance to the dictates of the Next Generation Science Standards documents found on the Achieve website.

Are the Science Standards brick walls for teachers and students?

Are the Science Standards brick walls for teachers and students?

For example, the introduction tells us that all students should have access to a high-quality science education that teaches the skills needed to get into college or get a job (College and Career Readiness).  This is the refrain that we have used for more than half a century to rationalize why science should be included in the curriculum.

The shortage of “trained” workers for the science and technology fields will reach the hundreds of thousands, maybe the millions in the near future, and we must make sure that we more graduates in STEM related fields if we are meet the shortfall.  At least that is what governments, some corporations and foundations claim.

Yet, there is statistical data that refutes the shortfall claim.  I won’t go into details here, instead you might want to read Robert N. Charette’s article, The STEM Crisis is a Myth. 

As Charette reminds us, the U.S. has had perpetual STEM anxiety, especially starting during the Cold War.  He reminds us, however of this.

What’s perhaps most perplexing about the claim of a STEM worker shortage is that many studies have directly contradicted it, including reports from Duke University, the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Rand Corp. A 2004 Rand study, for example, stated that there was no evidence “that such shortages have existed at least since 1990, nor that they are on the horizon.”

The march to standardize and uniform the curriculum is a dangerous movement in a democratic society, and especially in one that is so diverse in cultures, languages, and geography as America.  How can we really think that one set of statements of science goals can be valid for all learners, all schools, and all teachers?

The common standards movement, of which the NGSS is a part,  rests in part on the opinion that state standards are inferior and inconsistent, and the need to increase student achievement, especially in science and mathematics, to stay competitive in the global economic environment. It’s had to argue with this. However, it is not true.  America is one of the most competitive countries in the world, indeed, number 4 in the world.

The drive to develop the common standards has also been “adopted” by the U.S. Department of Education, and in its Race to the Top Fund ($4.5 billion), states that did not adopt the common standards lost 70 points on the 500 point scale for doing so.

Why do these organizations want to develop a single set of standards, and will they be any better than the standards that exist in the 50 states today?  The fact is state departments of education around the country have in one sense been coerced into accepting the common core standards to apply for very large Federal grants, and the assumption that a national set of standards will be superior to standards developed at the state or local level.

There are very weak arguments, not based on sound research, used to convince us that one set of science standards developed by an elite group of scientists will change the course of science education.

Common Core Knowledge

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 theU.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.

Neoconservative Reform

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, such as, 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 cost 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 on 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.  And during the past six months, some states have bowed out of Core and Next Generation Science Standards adoptions.

Critical Silence

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. The NSTA Position Statement on the NGSS raised no questions, and did not question the authoritarian nature of the standards movement, especially when we are engulfed by the testing mania that has had resulted in unintended consequences.

What is your position on the Next Generation Science Standards?  What are your thoughts about the NSTA position.



About Jack Hassard

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