The Conundrum of Adolescence, and the Middle School Science Curriculum

Sixth Article in the Series on The Artistry of Teaching

Does neoliberal education reform consider the nature of adolescence and the advances in our understanding of how humans learn?  Is it necessary for every American human adolescent to learn the same content, in the same order, and at the same time?  Why should every student be held accountable to policies and plans that don’t consider their needs and their interests?

These are some of the questions that many educators ask themselves every day as they open their doors to their students who come from homes where there might be not enough food on the table, their father is un-employed, their mother is fearful that she might be deported, or their neighborhood school was closed during the summer and now they are in a different school.

Five articles were recently published on The Artistry of Teaching.  Teachers know, but apparently policy makers don’t know, that teaching is not tidy. It involves a willingness to try multiple approaches, to collaborate with professional colleagues, and students to work through the realities of teaching and learning.  It requires a deep understanding of the nature of human learning, the needs and aspirations of children and youth, and a recognition that these students are living a life that is real and not-imagined, and school should be  experiential,  providing activities and projects that are meaningful, risky, and collaborative.

Teachers who do this practice a form of artistry.  Furthermore, artistry in teaching is practiced by educators who know how to mingle theory with practice. Teaching isn’t only the application of strategies or techniques, it’s an art form that involves high level thinking, on-the-spot decision-making, and creativity. As we have suggested on this blog, the magnum principium of teaching is inquiry, which is a democratic and humane approach to teaching and learning.

For more than thirty years I worked with teachers and students who wanted to teach at the middle school and high school levels in science, mathematics and other fields, but principally science.

One of the programs that we designed was TEEMS (Teacher Education Experiences in Mathematics and Science).  It is a four semester program for people who have a degree in engineering, mathematics, or science leading to initial teacher certification in Georgia.  Students also graduate from TEEMS with a Master’s Degree in Education.  The program mingled theory with practice, and was based on Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism in which science and mathematics teacher education students were involved in a clinical and reflective program of deep understanding of educational theory and experiential learning in clinical experiences.The TEEMS program started in 1992 and is still the teacher education program to prepare all secondary teachers (English, mathematics, science, and social studies) at Georgia State University.

This is a “slideshare” program based on one of the multimedia presentations designed for the TEEMS interns and that I want to share here.  I’ve included it in this sixth article on the Artistry of Teaching to show that teacher education students need not only backgrounds in science or mathematics, or history, or literature, but they need to embrace the content of the learning sciences.  The Learning Sciences (public library), which is an interdisciplinary field, involving among others cognitive science, educational psychology, anthropology and linguistics, is the kind of knowledge that teachers use to do the art of teaching.

Adolescence and Middle School Curriculum

This particular slide show, which I titled Adolescence and Middle School Science, is a critique of the middle school science curriculum in the context of the nature of adolescence.  There is a lot of content here, and when I used this in my course, the TEEMS interns had already spent a semester in clinical practice.  During the presentation, interns were organized into small cooperative teams, and throughout the slideshare, we would stop and explore the implications of and our knowledge of, the “content of adolescence” and application to science curriculum.

In this slideshare, we looked at the middle school science curriculum in the context of adolescent students.   In grades six through eight, no matter where you travel in the USA, kids are going to take a course each year in earth science, life science, or physical science.  I spent several years (in the 20th Century) teaching earth science at the ninth grade level in Lexington, MA.  The curriculum used then is not very different from the earth science curriculum of the 21st Century.

Is there a problem here?  I think there is.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 2.50.33 PMCurriculum tends to start with the content of science math, English/language arts or social studies, and not content of the lived experiences of students in class.  This is not a new dilemma.  It’s been around for a century.  But there have been educators, starting with people like John Dewey or Maria Montessori who believed that learning should not only be experiential, but that it should engage students in real problems and issues in their own lives.  Content should be in the service of students, not the other way round.

So, in the presentation, we face this conundrum, and suggest some ways that curriculum should be:

  • Structured more in terms of student interests
  • Social concerns
  • Human agenda
  • Human ecology

Science should be for people, and in that light, we suggest these directions:

  • Select those concepts and principles in science relevant to students’ daily life and adaptive needs
  • Do not based curriculum on preparing more scientists
  • Science must be put into the service for people and society
  • Connect students with today’s world
  • Develop life skills that improve the quality of living


Enjoy the presentation.  Teaching certainly isn’t tidy or easy.  But it is an art form practiced by lots of educators.

What are your ideas about the relationships among students, their needs and aspirations, and the curriculum? Are we moving in the right direction? What do you think?

Defunding the Common Core: Back to the Future

Charles Grassley, the Republican Senator from Iowa, has begun the process of removing funding from the Federal Budget that would be used by districts to carry out the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core State Standards have raised the ire of not only Republicans and right leaning groups such as the Heartland Institute, but also left leaning bloggers and educators and researchers who question the relationship between high-stakes testing and national standards.  Anthony Cody, over on Living in Dialogue on Education Week has researched and critiqued the use of the Common Core in our schools.  Indeed, the Michigan House of Representatives approved a budget that would prohibit the use of any state funds to implement the Common Core or the Smarter Balanced Assessments which are tied to the Common Core.

I want to focus on Senator Grassley’s initiative to defund the Common Core State Standards, and compare this effort to the defunding of National Science Foundation science projects in the 1970s.  The effort to defund the Common Core is a “back to the future” moment for me, as it feels like I am being sent back to the 1970s when Congress defunded NSF science education programs, resulting in serious reprimands, and fundamental changes in the way NSF developed curriculum.

The underlying reasons for each defunding actions are similar, and it is interesting to note how some things haven’t changed.  Senator Grassley wrote a letter on April 26 to Tom Harkin and Jerry Moran, ranking members of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Senate Appropriations Committee.  The gist of his proposal as stated in his letter to Harkin and Moran is to “restore state decision-making and accountability with respect to state academic content standards.”   In particular, Grassley does not want funds used by the Department of Education to develop, carry out or evaluate content standards, to adopt multi-state (read Common Core Standards and Next Generation Science Standards) standards, or to enforce any provision of the ESEA Flexibility waivers that states are seeking in exchange for more flexibility in carrying out No Child Left Behind.   Harkin, a Democrat responded and said he supports the common core initiative.

What’s behind the effort to defund the Common Core?  And what caused the Congress to defund and cut funding for NSF science education programing in the 1970’s?  We’ll see that emotions, attitudes, and family values form the fundamental angst that led to actions 40 years ago, and now.

Please read on…

Back to the Future

Unlike the Common Core State Standards, most NSF science programs were developed at American universities or educational development centers, and enlisted the work of scientists, science education professors and K-12 science teachers.  For example, the first NSF program, PSSC Physics was developed at MIT in the late 1950’s.  Other universities wrote grants to fund programs in elementary, middle and high school science over the next three decades.  NSF proposals are peer-reviewed, unlike any of the work done to develop the Common Core or the Next Generation Science Standards.   NSF projects were field-tested in schools across the country, and then revised based on the feedback received through test centers.  For a brief history of the NSF, please follow this link.

The Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards have not been field-tested, although they have been available for online review.

The NSF spent about $1.6 billion on science and mathematics education from 1958 – 1978.  Part of this funding was used to develop curriculum project materials (59 projects were developed) in the amount of $189 million or 12% of the full education budget.  Most of this was spent on developing the materials, but $82 million was used to implement the projects.  (Disclaimer: I received an NSF Academic Year Institute Fellowship to attend The Ohio State University in 1966, and was a writer for two NSF curriculum projects at Florida State University (ISCS and ISIS), directed the ISIS NSF Test Center at Georgia State University (GSU), and received grants from the NSF while at GSU).

In contrast, the U.S. Department of Education awarded more than $4 billion in Race to the Top Funds (RTT) to between 2010 -2012, but they mandated that states must adopt the Common Core to be considered for RTT funding.

ISIS.  From 1974 – 1977, I was writer and test-center director (in the Atlanta area) for the NSF curriculum project at Florida State University called the Individualized Science Instructional System (ISIS). The goal of the project was to develop and field-test about 100 science mini-courses for grades 9 – 12.  Professor Emeritus George Dawson of Florida State University assembled the entire collection of ISIS materials, including the pre-publication versions, NSF proposal details, and all related research papers ascribed to the ISIS program.  The idea was to develop a large number of  mini-courses that could be used by school districts that they could use to assemble their own curriculum.  Mini-course titles included, Kitchen Chemistry, Let’s Eat, The Physics of Sport, Tomorrows Weather, Salt of the Earth, Cells and Cancer, Birth and Growth, Human Reproduction.  When we field tested Birth and Growth, and Human Reproduction in high school biology classes, a number of parents complained, and insisted that their children not be exposed to these mini-courses.

During the first two years of the ISIS project, more than thirty mini-courses were developed and field tested in centers around the country, including Atlanta.  But in 1977, the ISIS Project Director, Dr. Ernest Burkman of FSU, was informed that the ISIS project funding would be reduced, and that no funds could be used to prepare teachers and districts to carry out ISIS.  Why did this happen?

The MACOS Controversy.  Enter Man: A Course of Study (MACOS), or better known to the education community as “The MACOS Controversy.”  Man: A Course of Study is an elementary science and social studies curriculum project funded by NSF and developed the Educational Development Center (EDC), Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Jerome Bruner took leave from Harvard to lead this fifth grade curriculum which examined the commonalities between human behavior and that of several animal species, and culminated with a series of short films documenting the lives of the Netsilik Eskimo people.

MACOS, between 1963 – 1975 received about $7.1 million to develop, carry out and test  the MACOS curriculum.    MACOS, like ISIS, developed curriculum materials (follow this link to an online archive of MACOS that is free for noncommercial use) that departed from the usual NSF curriculum project which consisted of a text-book, laboratory activities (often integrated in the text), and hands-on teaching materials specific to the project.  ISIS not only developed a curriculum with specialized hands-on materials, but its goal was to produce 100 mini-texts.  MACOS did not have a text-book, instead it created a curriculum that consisted of a variety of media, including films, and required extensive teaching preparation because of the course’s teaching strategies, and potential of the subject.

When MACOS went looking for a publisher, 43 American publishers indicated interest, but none of them was willing to sign a contract that had such implementation requirements.  As a result, the developer, EDC, in collaboration with NSF, agreed to lower the royalty rate to attract publishers.  Curriculum Development Associates of DC signed up, and began publishing the curriculum in 1970.   Forty-seven states and over 1,700 school districts used the MACOS program.  However, MACOS, as we will see, was a controversial curriculum project.

Publishers were aware that the content and pedagogy of the MACOS program was controversial, so it should have been no surprise that conservative politicians would discover MACOS, and go berserk.  Here is a brief overview  the MACOS curriculum written by Peter B. Dow, the director of the project, as cited in Karen Wiley’s 1976 research report The NSF Science Education Controversy: Issues, Events and Decisions.

Summary of the intent of the MACOS Project
Summary of the intent of the MACOS Project

The eventual defunding of MACOS and cutting of funds for other projects, including ISIS, had its origins in Phoenix, Arizona, the home of Congressman John Conlan.  Some parents in Phoenix were upset that their schools were going to implement MACOS, and as a result Conlan’s staff investigated MACOS, which resulted in Conlan moving in Congress that:

No funds authorized shall be available directly or indirectly for further development or implementation of “Man: A Course of Study,” MACOS.  Karen Wiley reported that Conlan raised specific complaints against MACOS, including:

  1. The content of the course is unfit for American children; the course advocates un-American values.
  2. The instructional methods of the course are manipulative.
  3. The implementation activities of the developer (EDC) go beyond the Congressional mandate; they constitute unfair competition with private publishers (recall that 47 publishers turned EDC down); and they exert undue influence on local decision makers (this is an odd one, because local schools make the final decision on the selection of curriculum and texts).

Conlan’s investigation expanded from MACOS to all of NSF’s curriculum development projects.  As Wiley wrote in her research report, the controversy expanded to professional societies and the media.

If you have the time, the video, Through These Eyes looks back at the MACOS project, and explores the social and educational implications of the controversy that was critical of national curriculum projects, especially MACOS which not only suggested that “man” was an animal, but that studying cultures different from our own could be an important teaching tool of discovery and experimentation.  This idea did not bode well with conservatives.


Through These Eyes looks back at the high stakes of this controversial curriculum. Decades later, as American influence continues to affect cultures worldwide, the story of MACOS resonates strongly.  The implications for today’s conservative agenda is relevant.

In the case of the Common Core State Standards, there is great similarity with MACOS.  The Common Core has been adopted by most states (47) and it is in the process of being implemented in many states.  But, long before Sen. Grassley wrote his “Common Core” letter, there was discontent with the Common Core by left and right leaning organizations and people.

MACOS content also raised the shackles of conservatives who thought that the curriculum was too progressive, and in their mind did not reflect the values of American families.  In their text, The Art of Teaching Science, the authors discussed the MACOS controversy, and wrote this:

Indeed, conservatives viewed progressive schools as ‘anti-intellectual playhouses’ and ‘crime breeders,’ run by a ‘liberal establishment.”  The MACOS curriculum was seen as a progressive Trojan horse.   Conlan’s staff investigated complaints and eventually, Conlan took steps to stop appropriations for MACOS “on the grounds of its ‘abhorrent, repugnant, vulgar, morally sick content.”   Nelkin claims that the Council for Basic Education objected to MACOS for its emphasis on cultural relativism, and its lack of emphasis on skills and facts. Even liberal congressmen got on the anti-MACOS bandwagon because of their desire to limit the executive bureaucracies, such as NSF, and for “their resentment of scientists, who often tended to disdain congressional politics; and above all, the concern with secrecy and confidentiality that followed the Watergate affair.”

The MACOS controversy brought the issue of censorship into the public arena. However, to avoid the claim of censorship, which probably would not have been acceptable to many in Congress, Conlan focused on the federal government’s role in implementing MACOS, as well as all other NSF funded curriculum projects. One issue that surfaced was “the marketing issue – the concern that the NSF used taxpayers’ money to interfere with private enterprise.”Along with this was the place that conservative writers such as James Kilpatrick, who attacked NSF science programs as “an ominous echo of the Soviet Union’s promulgation of official scientific theory.” The temper of the times was quite clear: “resentment of the ‘elitism’ of science reinforced concern that NSF was naïvely promulgating the liberal values of the scientific community to a reluctant public.” The result: on April 9, 1975, the Congress terminated funds for MACOS, and further support of science curriculum projects was suspended, and the entire NSF educational program came under review.

At the core of MACOS was The Netsilik Film Series, an anthropology program from the National Film Board that featured a year in the life of an Inuit family, and its relationship with the outside world.  It was the graphic images of the Netsilik people who clashed with the values of some individuals, such as in Phoenix, Arizona.

Peter Dow, Director of MACOS, explored the implications of MACOS in a paper written many years ago.  Dow points out that as Pablo Freire wrote that there is no such thing as a neutral educational process.  For Freire, education either leads the student to conform with the present system, or it becomes “the practice of freedom” which means that teaching will focus on creativity and discovery.  This fundamental concept is at odds with the conservative world view that has been discussed on this blog.  It runs counter to the authoritarian mode of living and education.

Finally, Dow comments made more than 40 years ago are relevant to the present “faux reform” that is being forced on schools today.  He said this about educational reform:

There is clearly a conflict between the pedagogy Freire espouses and curriculum building on a national scale if curriculum decisions continue to be made by state adoption boards to be imposed with no recourse on a powerless population of students and teachers.

Until curriculum decisions rest where they belong, in the hands of the users, curriculum reform movements will continue to be used as instruments of oppression. A liberating education must perforce originate from the aspirations of the participants.

Lastly, curriculum makers must become increasingly sensitive to the social and political implications of curriculum building. In designing curricula, we cannot escape the fact that we make choices and impose values on the constituency of students and teachers we serve. If no schooling is neutral, and we believe in freedom of choice, then we must increase curriculum options and be explicit about the social goals of our curriculum materials. And in our continuing search to understand the central purposes of curriculum, we would do well to have our ears tuned to the increasingly liberated voices of the young, and to keep the writings of Bruner, Erikson, and Freire close at hand. (“Man: A Course of Study” in Retrospect: A Primer for Curriculum in the 70’s, Peter B. Dow Theory into Practice , Vol. 10, No. 3, A Regeneration of the Humanities (Jun., 1971), pp. 168-177)


There is a groundswell to defund efforts to carry out the Common Core State Standards.  The defunding efforts have gained traction in states dominated by Republican legislatures, such as Alabama, Texas and Michigan.  The present effort is a bit of a dilemma for progressives (like myself) in that we see ourselves in agreement with our conservative colleagues.  I‘ve written extensively on this blog that standards actually impede learning, and are like brick walls, preventing real learning from happening.  My concern has more to do with the implication of having single sets of content standards that people actually believe are important to the welfare of schooling.  There is little evidence to support the idea that standards, whether rigorous or not, make any difference in student learning.

Opposition to the standards comes from the left and the right.  If the opposition comes from the left, its typically a resistance to a one-size-fits all conception of curriculum, and a rejection of a single set of standards for all children and youth, and evidence that standards will do little to improve education, especially for children living in poverty.  If the opposition comes from the right, the right to choose comes to the surface.  Folks on the right tend to think that élite scientists or mathematicians are trying to impose an ideology that rejects conservative values. To conservatives, teaching and learning should focus on basic facts (of science, for example), and we should test students every year to make sure that they are getting the facts straight.

Grassley’s letter, and the legislative actions around the country to defund the common core show how dysfunctional our elected officials are in matters of educational reform. Instead of facilitating educational reform, Federal and state government policy has resulted in partisan bickering, and the serious impediment to improving life for students and their teachers.

In the 1970s, the Congress saw fit to dissolve a very creative and thought-provoking curriculum (MACOS).  Abandoning the Common Core might be the right decision, but what are we left to when Congress and state legislatures impose their values on local school districts, who really have the legal right and responsibility to education our children and youth.

What do you think about the movement to defund the Common Core?  Do you think this is a good idea?  Tell us what you think.



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?

One Size Does Not Fit All

On August 4, 2011, Nikhil Goyal, a sophomore at Syosset High School in Long Island, New York wrote and asked me answer some interview questions for a book he was writing about “transforming our 19th Century industrial model of education into a 21st Century model grounded in creativity, imagination, and project-based learning.

I had no idea what the interview questions would be, or indeed who was Nikhil Goyal.  I told Nikhil I would be pleased to answer his questions.

Three days later I received nine interview questions from Nikhil.  After reading them, I thought I was taking a “final exam” in modern American science education.  He asked me these questions.  You can read my answers here.

  • How has the advent of No Child Left Behind affected science education?
  • Currently, there’s a lot of talk of teaching the “building blocks” of engineering to elementary school kids. What are your thoughts on this?
  • How can the traditional high school science curriculum (9th grade: Biology, 10th Grade: Chemistry, 11th Grade: Physics) be reformed?
  • What course/courses should a student take if he/she is not entering a science-related path? And what types of skills are essential?
  • I was reading on your website about possible science assessments. What have you noticed about the success of portfolios in evaluating students?
  • How can we carry out a project based learning style of science on a grand scale?
  • How can we make learning science fun for students?
  • Why is inquiry-based learning fundamental to any science curriculum?
  • In a post, you argue that the inquiry science teaching cannot flourish with common standards. What is an alternative solution?

Nikhil interviewed many educators and policy makers including Howard Gardner, Seth Godin, Dan Pink, Noam Chomsky, Diane Ravitch, and Frank Bruni.

A year later, Nikhil sent a galley of his book One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, and asked for a blurb about the book.  His book has been published, and you can link to it here. That’s what this blog post is all about.

The narrative of this book is rich with anecdotes of Nikhil’s experiences as an American public school student.  These experiences are woven into his analysis of schooling, which is backed up with research and interviews with educational researchers.  (Disclaimer: I was interviewed by Nikhil and one quote from my interview does appear in his book).

Nikhil wants schools to change.  He wants schools to be places that support curiosity, imagination, invention and creativity.  In one chapter of his book, he starts off by saying this:

I don’t want my brain to be stuffed with pointless content. I want to be taught how to create and do things. In conversations on changing the curriculum, the word “rigor” is often brought up. In one definition, rigor mortis is one of the recognizable signs of death. In education, rigor is a buzz word. Very few people know what it means. To some, rigor means more homework and stronger standards. That’s flawed. Rigor is about doing work that matters and has relevance to the world and focusing on depth over breadth. The late education reformer Ted Sizer once offered a threefold slogan for a revolution in teaching: “Less is more.”

In the end, Goyal wants school to create students who are life-long learners.  He wants schooling to be community and apprentice-based, and one in which students become “captains” of their learning.

Goyal wonders:

  1. What if school wasn’t school anymore?
  2. How can we tailor education to every single child?
  3. Why is the testing regime dangerous and inappropriate?
  4. How can creativity be taught?
  5. How can we reinvent the teaching profession?
  6. What if students’ voices were heard and seen as human beings, not numbers in a spreadsheet?

Goyal’s voice is one that should be heard. What students think about their experience in school is important if we are to make changes in way we educate youth.  Teenagers are not experts on learning theory, curriculum development, or the education of teachers.  They are our clients, and we should be open to their ideas and feelings, and to their hopes and desires.

The next step for him is to experiment and engage others–students, teachers, community–in working out schooling based on his ideas.

About Nikhil Goyal

At age 17, Nikhil Goyal is the author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School published in September 2012 by Alternative Education Resource Organization. His pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NBC, GOOD, and Huffington Post. He has also contributed three Letters to the Editors for the New York Times. Nikhil has appeared on Fox and Friends and Fox Business Network: Varney & Co. as well. Nikhil has spoken to thousands at conferences and TEDx events around the world from Qatar to Spain. He has also guest lectured at Baruch College in New York. A senior at Syosset High School, Nikhil lives with his family in Woodbury, New York.

Why a Single Set of Science Standards in a Democracy?

Why are we supporting the notion of a single set of science standards which has been done in mathematics and language reading/language art?  We live in a democracy.  One the of founding principles of education is that elected school board members for the more than 15,000 school districts are charged with making decisions for each local school district.  What are we thinking?

For more than 20 years I collaborated with American teachers and our Soviet partners (we started this collaboration in 1981 when the Soviet Union still existed).  During this time we began working with science teachers and professors in several Soviet cities. Working within the Soviet curriculum we worked with Soviet teachers and taught lessons using inquiry, cooperative learning, and later problem basest learning.  The Soviets had a single curriculum, one set of texts, and a centrally controlled education system.  After Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) the Soviet system began to change. One of my colleagues, Mr. Vadim Zhudov, Director of School 710 in Moscow, told me that local schools would now have control over 25% of curriculum at the local level.

And what are we doing?  We’re creating an an education system that is controlled more and more by the Federal government, and less and less by local schools and teachers.  Why would a democratic country fall into this trap?  Do we want a system of education that is modeled after a central command system?

Ready or Not, the New Science Standards are on the way

The Next Generation of Science Standards are under development by Achieve, Inc. and the draft version will be available very soon.  Achieve will identify content and science and engineering practices that all students should learn from K – 12, regardless of where they live.  The science standards will cover the physical sciences, the life sciences, the earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology and applications of science, but in so doing will create a landscape of factoids to be learned by students, and used to develop assessments to measure student achievement.

Grade Band Endpoints: Factoids of Science

Although we haven’t seen any of the science standards, we can tell what they might look like by examining the document A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. The content of science is detailed in the Framework document, and in the context of the Framework, the standards appear as factoids, which taken as a whole define the field of science that all students should know.  There are examples standards in this document.  Here are few excerpts from a section on Weather and Climate focused on the question: What regulates weather and climate?:

  • By the end of grade 2, students will know that weather is the combination of sunlight, wind, snow or rain, and temperature in a particular time.
  • By the end of grade 5, student will know that weather is the minute-by-minute to day-by-day variation of the atmosphere’s condition on a local scale.
  • By the end of grad3 8, students will know that weather and climate are influenced by interactions involving sunlight, the ocean, the atmosphere, ice, landforms, and living things.
  • By end of grade 12, students will know that global climate is a dynamic balance on many different time scales among energy from the sun falling on Earth; the energy’s reflection, absorption, storage, and redistribution among the atmosphere, ocean, and land systems; and the energy’s radiation into space.

Continue reading “Why a Single Set of Science Standards in a Democracy?”