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.


Some Questions About the NSTA Position on the New Generation of Science Standards

In the most recent issue of NSTA Reports (National Science Teachers Association), Francis Eberle, NSTA Executive Director wrote an opinion piece entitled First Steps Toward New Science Standards. Although not an official position of the NSTA membership, the article does outline the general attitude of the organization toward the recent effort to develop a Conceptual Framework for New Science Standards, and the forthcoming process to develop a new generation of science standards.

The new conceptual framework was developed by a committee appointed by the National Research Council, which received funding for the project from the Carnegie Foundation. The 16 member committee was comprised of scientists, and educators, but there were no classroom science teachers on this committee. The committee did hold open meetings, and earlier in the summer, one could visit the NRC’s website, and provide feedback on the draft recommendations for the new framework. The feedback process is completed and the NRC will be releasing the final document which will define the framework that will be used to develop a new generation of science standards. The new science standards will be developed by Achieve, a Washington, D.C.-based organization established 15 years ago by the National Governors Association, with the support of large corporate sponsors. The purpose of Achieve is to help states raise academic standards, improve assessments and strengthen accountability. At a 2005 Achieve Summit “participants agreed to a bold action agenda aimed at restoring value to the high school diploma through aligning standards, improved teacher quality, clear identification of goals and measurement of progress, increased accountability for high schools and colleges, and streamlined governance between the K–12 and postsecondary worlds.”

According to the NSTA Executive Director,

The time is right to build on these seminal documents (National Science Education Standards and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released Benchmarks for Science Literacy), incorporate a new body of research into how students learn science, and put science education stakeholders on a united path toward greater student understanding of science. The growing movement toward the adoption of common standards makes this effort in science even more important and timely.

There is a growing movement toward the adoption of common standards, and it is unfortunate that the NSTA does not question this movement toward a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Although the common core standards have been written only for mathematics and reading, the fact they were designed by Achieve, the organization that will develop the new science standards, in all likelihood these new science standards will become part of the common standards movement.

The common standards movement, and now, the the writing of a new generation of science standards rests in part on the opinion that state standards are inferior and inconsistent, and there is the need to increase student achievement, especially science and mathematics, in order to remain competitive in the global economic environment. It’s had to argue with this. However, there is the need to raise questions about this, and to look at the research that has been done to assess the quality of the new common standards. Firstly, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, once again, had provided the initial funding for the development of the common standards in math and reading, and the process was undertaken by the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. 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? These are questions that should be addressed by the NSTA, and by other professional teacher organizations. No questions appear in the NSTA Executive Director’s article.

In a research study entitled Common Core’s Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade (July, 2010) by Sandra Stotsky and Ze’ev Wurman from Pioneer Institute, the authors compared the common core standards with the state standards in California and Massachusetts. The results of the study show that the common core standards are inferior to California and Massachusetts state standards, and that the developers of the common core standards seemed to ignore the work that had already been done. The fact is state departments of education around the country have in one sense been coerced into accepting the common core standards in order to apply for very large Federal grants, and there is the assumption that a national set of standards will be superior to standards developed at the state level.

The results of the Pioneer study call into question the assumptions undergirding developing national standards, especially when they appear to be developed by same organization (Achieve). Here are some conclusions drawn from the Pioneer study that I think warrant our attention.

Conclusion #1. Common Core’s literature and reading standards in grades 9-12 do not prepare students for college and career better than those in California and Massachusetts. Common Core’s high school standards fall well short of those in California and in Massachusetts 2001 and 2010 in specificity of literary and cultural content.

Conclusion #2. Although Common Core’s standards represent a laudable effort to shape a national curriculum, the draft-writers chose to navigate an uncharted path and subject the entire country to a large- scale experimental curriculum rather than build on the strengths that can be documented in Massachusetts or California. Consequently, by grade 8 their mathematics standards are a year or two behind the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s recommendations, leading states, and our international competitors.

Conclusion #3. Our analysis of Common Core’s mathematics and ELA standards, and the evidence we provide, do not support the conclusion drawn by many other reviewers that Common Core’s standards provide a stronger and more challenging framework for the mathematics and English language arts curriculum than (or an equally as challenging framework as) California’s and Massachusetts’ standards have provided.

The new framework for science, and subsequent development of the science standards leaves science teaching outside the process, looking in, and in the end, held responsible for the implementation of standards developed by outsiders. It is true that some teachers might have been involved in the summer feedback meetings, or might have taken the time to complete the online feedback questionnaire for the Science Framework, but in reality, the professionals that are responsible for creating the learning environment for the implementation of the standards have not been at the center of the process—where they rightfully should be.

What do you think about my assessment of the relationship of NSTA and the New science standards?