Review of the NRC’s Framework for K-12 Science Education

The Carnegie Corporation of New York, which funded the National Research Council’s project  A Framework for K-12 Science Education, also provided the financial support for the Fordham Foundation’s review of NRC Framework.  Although not a conflict of interest for the Fordham Foundation, it does raise questions about the Carnegie Foundation’s desire to fund an evaluation of its own funded project.  I doubt that Carnegie sent out an RFP to universities and organizations to write a proposal to evaluate the new Framework.

But I think this is a minor distraction, especially after you read the Fordham report and compare it to the NRC’s Framework for K-12 Science Education.

The Report

The Fordham report was a commissioned paper (Review of the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education), written by Dr. Paul Gross, Emeritus Professor of Biology.  The Gross Report was not a juried review, but written by one individual, who appears to have an ax to grind, especially with the science education research community, as well as those who advocate science inquiry, STS, or student-centered ideology.  Indeed, the only good standard is one that is rigorous, and clearly content and discipline oriented.

Gross’s report is the Fordham Foundation’s assessment of the NRC report, A Framework for K-12 Science Education, which you can download free here.

The essence of the Framework is depicted in the chart below.  The Committee that designed the Framework built around three dimensions: scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas.

In general, Dr. Gross, as well as Chester E. Finn, Jr. (President of the Fordham Foundation), are reticent to give the Framework a grade of “A” instead mark the NRC’s thick report a grade of “B”. Here are some points Gross makes in his review of the Framework.

  • Content: The Fordham Report stated that the writers of the Framework did a good job with the content of science “by including all of the content critical to a rigorous K-12 science curriculum—real content.  If you look at the chart above, Dr. Gross is referring to the content outlined in the Disciplinary Core Ideas Dimension of the Framework.  Although stating the content was adequately outlined, Gross said that there was “undue emphasis on engineering and technology.
  • Inquiry: Gross also observes that, to their credit, the authors “wisely dismiss what has long been held indispensable for K-12 science: “inquiry-based education.”  I am not sure where Gross gets this idea that the NRC report dismisses inquiry-based education because inquiry is prominently identified in the NRC report and in fact the authors of the Framework state that in “all inquiry-based approaches to science teaching, our expectation is that students will themselves engage in the practices and not merely learn about them secondhand.”  The Fordham report is totally off-base here.  The Framework does support inquiry-based learning, and indeed devotes an entire Dimension of its report to inquiry in its section on practices.
  • Raising the Bar: The Fordham report also states that the standards are the first step toward raising—and harmonizing—our expectations of what students should know and be able to do.

The Fordham report organizes its assessment or review into two areas, Content and Rigor I, and Content and Rigor II.

Content and Rigor I: How Much?

Firstly, rigor is the measure of depth and level of abstraction to which chosen content is pursued, according to Gross.  The Framework gets a good grade for rigor and limiting the number of science ideas identified in the Framework.    The Framework identifies 44 ideas, which according to Gross is a credible core of science for the Framework.

The evaluator makes the claim that this new framework is better on science content than the NSES…how does he know that?

The evaluator says, the choice of core ideas from the main K-12 science disciplines is thoughtful.

Content and Rigor II: Emphases  

The Fordham evaluation has doubts about the Framework’s emphasis on Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Engineering/Technology Dimensions.  For example, Gross identifies several researchers and their publications by name, and then says:

These were important in a trendy movement of the 1980s and 90s that went by such names as science studies, STS (sci-tech studies), (new) sociology or anthropology of science, cultural studies, cultural constructivism, and postmodern science. (emphasis mine)

For some reason, Gross thinks that science-related social issues  and constructivism are not part of the mainstream of science education, when indeed they are.  Many of the innovative Internet-based projects developed over the past 15 years have involved students in researching issues that have social implications.

Inquiry-Based Learning. Gross also claims that the NRC Framework authors “wisely demote what has long been held the essential condition of K-12 science: ‘Inquiry-based learning.’  The report does NOT demote inquiry, and in fact devotes considerable space to discussions of the Practices of science and engineering, which is another way of talking about inquiry. In fact, inquiry can found in 71 instances in the Framework.  It seems to me that Gross and the Fordham Foundation is trying to make the case that Practices and Crosscutting ideas are accessories, and that the part of the Framework that should be taken seriously is the Disciplinary Core Ideas, or Dimension 3.  This will result is a set of science standards that are only based on 1/3 of the Framework’s recommendations.

Gross cherry picks his resources, and does not include a single research article from a prominent research journal in science education.  If he did, he might have found this article: Inquiry-based science instruction—what is it and does it matter? Results from a research synthesis years 1984 to 2002.  This was published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST), and was the most accessed article in JRST in 2010.  Here is the abstract of the research study:

Various findings across 138 analyzed studies indicate a clear, positive trend favoring inquiry-based instructional practices, particularly instruction that emphasizes student active thinking and drawing conclusions from data. Teaching strategies that actively engage students in the learning process through scientific investigations are more likely to increase conceptual understanding than are strategies that rely on more passive techniques, which are often necessary in the current standardized-assessment laden educational environment.

The Fordham report also questions the justification for elevating Engineering and Technology to the same level as the three science content areas that define K-12 science education.

Crosscutting concepts also give the author of the Fordham report a problem.  Crosscutting concepts (there are seven) are bridges that provide students with a framework to connect knowledge from the various science disciplines. Gross feels that that these concepts are too abstract, and only the very able students will be able to grasp them.


The Fordham report defines “accessories” as the “broader, less science-substantive” issues mentioned in the Framework.  A prominent accessory is equity and diversity.  Gross appears to be concerned that not only might science teachers use different pedagogical styles to help learners, but teachers might also choose different subject matter.  He is concerned that the science education community might stray from the one optimum set of science standards that should be used with all students.

Common Grading Metric

Gross reviewed the Framework for K-12 Science Education using a Common Grading Metric developed by Fordham which rates the Content and Rigor of the Framework using a 0 -7 scale, and Clarity and Specificity on a 0 – 3 scale.  The Framework scored a 7 on Content and Rigor, and a 1 on Clarity and Specificity, giving it an overall score of 8, which translates into a B+ on the Fordham scale.




4 Reasons We Need New National Science Education Standards

As you know, there are new science standards coming your way, and they are being developed by Achieve, Inc., with funds from the Carnegie Corporation, and other large corporations and foundations.  According to Achieve, 20 states are leading the effort, and about 40 teachers have been selected to write the new standards.  The teachers have been drawn from Arizona, California, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.  The new standards are based on the National Research Council publication, A Framework for K-12 Science Education.

The current standards (National Science Education Standards) were developed late in the 20th Century (1996), and now a new generation of science standards is in the works and will be published in 2012.   The content standards are statements of what a group of experts think students should know about science and are often written in the form of performance (behavioral) objectives.  Here is an example from the NSES:

There are hundreds of these statements in the NSES organized by content areas (Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth Space Science), and grouped by grade level clusters: K-4; Grades 5 -8; Grades 9 -12.   You can read the entire NSES document here.

Why do we need new standards?  The fundamental reason that new standards are coming along is embodied in the following statement written by the Carnegie Foundation’s commission or committee who formulated A Framework for K-12 Science Education.

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

The Reasons for the New Standards

Achieve then identifies four reasons for the need for new standards:

  1. Reduction of the United States’ Competitive Economic Edge
  2. Lagging Achievement of U.S. students
  3. Need for Essential Preparation for all Careers in the Modern Workforce
  4. Scientific and Technical Literacy for an Educated Society

Most of these reasons are based on the pipeline ideology that suggests that science education is in the service of the preparation of future scientists, and for those pursuing careers in science, and science related fields.  This rationale served us well in developing science curriculum for some students, but it surely has not been effective with a lot of students.  Some science education researchers have reported in refereed journals that the content of science approach has not worked for many students, and a new approach is needed.

The world has changed in the past 50 years, especially in the past twenty with the rise of China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Chile and other nations, yet many of the leaders directing the development of these new standards are stuck in the last century in terms of why we teach science (primarily for economic and competitive reasons), and are unable to free themselves of the traditional disciplines of science, and to look at science in the context of communities, societies, and the globe.

Questioning the Rationale 

Most of the reasons that are used to rationalize the science standards can be argued.  Over the next several days, we will explore these reasons, and provide data to show that we might look to other reasons to teach science, and that standards might take on a different form.


New Generation of Science Standards: Part of the Common Standards Movement?

The National Research Council has received funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to develop a framework for a new generation of science standards (K-12) based on the idea of disciplinary and cross-disciplinary core ideas. A committee of experts has already met (January 28-29) to begin the process of developing the conceptual framework. The 16 member committee is comprised of 13 university science and science education professors, a NASA scientist, an official from a state department of education, and the director of a science teaching professional development collaborative.

Much of the rationale for this new NRC project can be found in the 2006 report (follow the link to read the report online) by the NRC entitled “Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8.” One of the goals of the “new standards” committee is to develop a rationale that will focus on a few “core concepts” in each of the major science disciplines, as well as those ideas that cut across disciplines.

In the Carnegie Corporation announcement of the NRC project, the focus of the new framework is as follows:

Given the proliferation of knowledge in the sciences, particularly knowledge that blurs the lines between traditional science disciplines (e.g., chemistry or biology), the identification of core ideas has greater importance for organizing curriculum, teaching and learning. The core ideas in science around which the education framework may be developed include physical sciences, life sciences, earth sciences and applied sciences, as well as cross-cutting ideas such as mathematization*, causal reasoning, evaluating and using evidence, argumentation, and model development. The framework will look at student learning in at least 4th, 8th, and 12th grade.

As stated in documents that I’ve read, the committee will be influenced by three science education efforts over the past thirty years:

The effort will involve first the development of the rationale, and then the actual writing and publication of a new standards. The Carnegie Corporation puts it this way:

As the National Research Council committee works toward completing a final report, design teams from Achieve, Inc.,National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), will begin the process of developing science standards. The National Research Council’s framework will be central to this process.

Underpinning this effort is a set of recommendations for fewer, clearer, higher standards drawn from Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy the June 2009 report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York – Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education.

Although not part of the Common Standards movement of the Council of Chief State School Offices and the National Governors Association, the new generation of science standards will be very tempting to those who wish to have a singular set of standards for America’s 15,000 school districts.

If you examine the 2006 report, Taking Science to School, recommendations are made for new standards, and it seems clear that this new effort by the National Research Council will be based on these statements found in the report:

  • Recommendation 1: Developers of standards, curriculum, and assessment need to revise their frameworks to reflect new models of children’s thinking and take better advantage of children’s capabilities.
  • Recommendation 2: The committee thinks that the next generation of standards and curricula at both the national and state levels should be structured to identify a few core ideas in a discipline and elaborate how these ideas can be grown in a cumulative manner over grades K-8.
  • Recommendation 3: Developers of curricula and standards need to present science as a process of building theories and models using evidence, checking them for internal consistency and coherence, and testing them empirically.

With additional meetings in March and April, the expert committee will develop a K-12 science framework which will then be used to write new science standards under the direction of Achieve. Achieve was “created in 1996 by the nation’s governors and corporate leaders, Achieve is an independent, bipartisan, non-profit education reform organization based in Washington, D.C. that helps states raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments and strengthen accountability.

It will be important to follow the development of the new standards.