Are Next Generation Science Standards a Brick Wall or a Bridge to Learning? After a review of the new standards, one has to wonder.
Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, suggested that brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.
Bridges are there to get us across something such as a river or a canyon. But sometimes we build bridges that take us nowhere?
In this post, I am going to suggest that the authoritarian standards are metaphorically brick walls acting as barriers to learning and teaching. By understanding how authoritarian standards can prevent teachers from helping students learn, opportunities for change will come to light.
And at the same time, especially after reading the Next Generation Science Standards, I have to wonder where the standards are taking us. The NGSS website is not a bridge connecting the content of science with classroom learning. It’s an impersonal document that consists of one list after another of objectives that teachers will have to wade through and be accountable for teaching to a diverse population of students. The standards are more of a barrier than a bridge to learning.
Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning Science
According to research published by Dr. Carolyn S. Wallace, a professor at the Center for Science Education, Indiana State University, science standards are barriers to teaching and learning in science. She makes this claim in her 2011 study, published in the journal Science Education, entitled Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience.
One of the key aspects of her study is her suggestion “that there are two characteristics of the current generation of accountability standards that pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning in science.”
1. The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fits the needs of their students.
2. The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to achieve them.
And then she adds that these two barriers are reinforced by the use of high-stakes testing in the present accountability model of education.
Dr. Wallace’s suggestions are significant in that nearly every state has adopted the Common Core State Standards, bringing America very close to having a national set of common standards and possibly a national curriculum, at least in English language arts and mathematics, with science next in line to be adopted by each state.
And to further support the notion of inflexibility of the standards, Achieve, the developers of the Common Core State Standards, makes the assumption that one set of standards will provide consistency, and the appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live. This is a troublesome assumption in that it is in conflict with findings in the learning sciences about how students learn. Do all students learn in the same way? How do students prior experiences and conceptions of science concepts fit into the way standards are written?
And on the heels of these standards is the development of Common State Assessments, with funding from Race to the Top Assessment (RTTA), with the goal to develop a technology based next-generation assessment system. You can read about all of this here.
Wallace’s research sheds light on how science standards have posed barriers to meaningful science teaching and learning. Dr. Wallace’s research integrates experiential learning theory (her own experience as a data source), and scholarly literature of educational policy, curriculum theory, and science education. Let’s take a look.
Barriers to Learning
As Wallace points out, the research evidence is very clear that student’s worldviews, and prior experiences are crucial to their learning. In science education research, the consensus is that students generate their own meanings for science concepts—such as energy, mass, or heat—within a sociocultural context.
Yet, as Wallace shows, the content of the school science curriculum uses a content (of science) and product (of science) model K-12. Indeed, if you were to look at any list of standards in science (NSES or state standards) the language according to Wallace is “authoritarian” in the sense that the standards as written defines what is to be learned and how it will be “mastered.” This model of curriculum stands in contrast to the “alternative models” suggested in STS or STSE in the discussion above.
The content and product model basically says that there is a body of knowledge that must be learned by all learners. As Wallace shows, its the individuals in charge of curriculum (read standards) that determine the lists of standards to be learned. The lists of science content to be learned exists without a context, and without any knowledge of the students who are required to master this stuff, and teachers who plan and carry out the instruction.
An important point that Wallace highlights is that teachers (and students) are recipients of the standards, rather than having been a part of the process in creating the standards. By and large teachers are nonparticipants in the design and writing of standards. But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, in the first place. That was done by elite groups of scientists and educators.
Wallace integrates research by Apple and Kelly to show that standards are written in technical language rather than in plain language. Standards statements are full of technical words that student’s will be held responsible for learning. But the problem is that standards statements are “decontextualized” into discrete pieces that can be tested by groups far removed from the classroom.
Standards as Bridges
Can we have standards in a democratic society that won’t impede teachers from teaching science, and students from learning science? In the American democracy, things don’t look very promising.
The Next Generation Science Standards is currently online for review by Achieve, Inc., based on the NRC’s document A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Are the new standards provide an alternative to the current status of state science standards, the NSES, and the Common Core State Standards? After reading them, and a few reviews, it is not likely that the new standards will lead to the reform that the writers assume.
One solution or alternative to the current drive to hold teachers and students hostage to a set of authoritarian standards is to impose a democratic approach in which teachers can negotiate ways to interprete the standards based on the needs of their own student. She points us to the New Zealand National Curriculum. According to Wallace:
The new national curriculum in New Zealand is one example of a standards framework, which links reasoning skills with content objectives and leaves the nature of achievement performances open-ended.
Wallace suggests that standards need to allow for more democratic participation, flexibility, and plurality for teachers. Teachers need to be the professionals who determine what makes for successful learning performance—in the context of local communities and cultures.
Her second democratic principle would firmly enable teachers to do more inquiry-based activities. This is especially important in that in this case, teachers would have options to engage student in “open-ended reasoning processes and performances. Done in a context of engaging students in local inquiry would help students “exercise their own thinking skills with the goals of fostering intellectual independence and developing a science identify.”
One of the barriers that standards reform presents is the way in which students are assessed using high-stakes tests. Instead of tests that are context-based, these tests measure discrete knowledge and facts primarily though multiple choice tests. Wallace alludes to research by Songer and colleagues on assessments being developed within the context of learning progressions. Until we either ban high-stakes tests, or change them so that teachers are ones that are involved in their development, we will have made very little progress.
New Roles for Teachers
To clear away standards as barriers to learning, policy makers have to change the way standards are used to hold teachers back. Instead of using high-stakes tests to effectively create a narrow curriculum based on teaching to the test, teachers should be prepared to design their own curriculum (based on the standards, if you wish), and assess their own students using diagnostic and formative assessment systems. If the state wants to participate in low-stakes tests such as NAEP, PISA, or TIMSS, so be it. Not all students need to participate, and in the end bureaucrats will have tons of data to explore.
In Finland, teaching is an esteemed profession. According to Pasi Sahlberg, director of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, many American policy makers have looked to Finland as a model for educational reform. As Sahlberg points out, however, many of these policy makers really don’t want to hear what educators such as Sahlberg have to say. Sahlberg points out that Finland has a lot to offer the U.S., but to simply take one or two aspects of their approach to education, and transport it to the U.S. simply won’t work.
But knowing what underscores Finland’s educational system, helps us see how we are miles apart. For one thing, all schools in Finland receive equal allocation of funding, all children in have access to childcare, health care, and pre-school, and education is a human right, from preschool to university.
In this context, here is how teachers and the profession of teaching is contextualized:
In Finland, there is a strong sense of trust in schools and teachers to carry out these responsibilities. There is no external inspection of schools or standardized testing of all pupils in Finland. For our national analysis of educational performance, we rely on testing only a small sample of students. The United States really cannot leave curriculum design and student assessment in the hands of schools and teachers unless there is similar public confidence in schools and teachers. To get there, a more coherent national system of teacher education is one major step.
Finland is home to such a coherent national system of teacher education. And unlike in the United States, teaching is one of the top career choices among young Finns. Teachers in Finland are highly regarded professionals — akin to medical doctors and lawyers. There are eight universities educating teachers in Finland, and all their programs have the same high academic standards. Furthermore, a research-based master’s degree is the minimum requirement to teach in Finland.
Teaching in Finland is, in fact, such a desired profession that the University of Helsinki, where I teach part-time, received 2,300 applicants this spring for 120 spots in its primary school teacher education program. In this teacher education program and the seven others, teachers are prepared to design their own curricula, assess their own pupils’ progress, and continuously improve their own teaching and their school. Until the United States has improved its teacher education, its teachers cannot enjoy similar prestige, public confidence and autonomy.
Do you think that we can confront the barrier that standards present to us? What are some ways that we can make standards more realistic in a democratic society?
Wallace, C. (2012). Authoritarian science curriculum standards as barriers to teaching and learning: An interpretation of personal experience Science Education, 96 (2), 291-310 DOI: 10.1002/sce.20470