How Can We Challenge the Standardization of Science and Other Aspects of Education?

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I received an email from Professor Emeritus Charles “Kip” Ault, Lewis & Clark University.   We’ve never met, but we have a connection through each others’ writing.  In 1992, I wrote and published a science education book, Minds on Science (Library Copy) and he used the text in one or more of his graduate classes at Lewis & Clark.  In 2010, I found his and Jeff Dodick’s article published in the research journal, Science Education, entitled Tracking the Footprints Puzzle: The problematic persistence of science-as-process in teaching the nature and culture of science.   Each of us at this time carries the title “emeritus” from our respective universities.

But “older” science educators don’t die, they just keep on a-writing.  And so it is with Dr. Ault and myself.

In Dr. Ault’s case, he has just published a book entitled Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015 (Library Copy).

This is a bellweather book.

The reason I say this that this book represents one of the only critique of the nation’s acceptance of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).   For example, the book might not be a good read for lot of folks at Achieve, Inc. headquarters.  I’m not sure, but it might not be only anyone’s book list at its Washington headquarters.

For me the book is a “hopeful” bellweather, in that I have faith that science educators will start to ask questions about the NGSS, and begin to critique the eagerness to carry out the NGSS.

Recently I wrote about how teaching and learning is standardized my e-book.  In that book I said that:

The conservative world-view is at the root of educational reform, not only in the United States, but in most countries around the world. This world-view has set in motion the reform of education based on a common set of standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability metrics that demoralize not only students and their families, but the educators who families regard as significant others in the lives of their children. This eBook is an exploration of how these reforms of education, which are rooted in authoritarianism, are damaging public education with its canopy of a Common Core, high-stakes, and market based tactics which are nothing but hooey.  Hassard, Jack (2014-12-16). The Mischief of Standardized Teaching and Learning: How Authoritarianism is Damaging Public Education with its Canopy of a Common Core, High-Stakes Tests and Market-Based Hooey (Kindle Locations 18-22). . Kindle Edition.

Kip Ault’s book is written to offer not only a historical context for how standardization has come about, but to enable science educators the basis for a critique of the standards movement.

One of the subheadings in the first chapter of the book is The Holy Grail of Power.  Like many of the writers that I have acknowledged on this blog, Ault sees standardization as an end to a quest for unity and this is the Holy Grail of Power over (science) education.  Four groups are identified by Ault as constituting this holy grail:

  1. State Bureaucrats
  2. Disciplinary Scientists
  3. Corporate Entities
  4. Science Educators

As you read this list, can you conjure up how each group’s power is used to “unify” teaching, and strive for the standardization of teaching and learning.

For the state bureaucrats, Ault says that

the bureaucrat’s ideal curriculum standardizes the nature of science (or the processes of science), independent of context. Legibility trumps diversity; state interests displace personal ones. Test scores signify learning, and policy unfolds based upon interpretations of these scores. Charles Ault, Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

In Ault’s view, the various disciplines of science (paleontology, physics, molecular biology, etc.) represent a disunity in that the sciences do not represent a singular “field” of study.  Why is this important in a critique of the science standards?  In Ault’s view, the NGSS perceives the science discipline to be alike, and so a single set of processes and methods are imbedded in the standards.  This is unfortunate because the various sciences are messy.  It’s not a set of steps or processes that characterize science inquiry.  We have oversimplified the nature of science as clearly explained by Dr. Ault.

Corporate entities have poured millions of dollars into the standardization of standards, and many of these entities are realizing huge profits, especially through testing, and curriculum and textbook publishing.  But I appreciate Ault’s idea that the NGSS standards has influenced researchers and curriculum developers.  He puts it this way:

Institutions seeking funding for projects to advance science education have no choice but to cast their proposals in terms of the NGSS. For-profit and nonprofit providers of professional development, school district trainers, and consulting firms wait in the wings eager to help. Charles Ault, Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

Science educators are also one of the entities that strive for unity among the sciences, and the standards.  He has an interesting take on this and he writes:

Science educators, in the creation of curricula and the training of teachers (elementary through secondary), feel called upon as guardians of the quest for unity among the sciences. Their professional identity—an identity setting them apart from other professors of education, for example—depends upon this cultural norm. Ideas about the nature of science and the culture of science now pertain more to the community of science educators than to that of scientists. These ideas equate in many minds with critical thinking, inquiry skill, and the development of intelligence. Charles Ault, Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

Challenging the science standards movement will be well served by Charles “Kip” Ault’s new book.  I’ll return to his book in future posts.  For now, what questions do you have challenging the NGSS and the Common Core?

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.



Special Delivery: NGSS Adoption Workbooks

Yesterday, I discovered a new organization, the U.S. Education Delivery Institute (EDi). When I saw the name, I first thought it was part of the U.S. Department of Education, or the United States Postal Service. I was wrong on both counts. The EDi, formed in 2010 is another Washington D.C. non-profit founded by Sir Michael Barber, former head of the U.K. Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit.  The U.K. organization designed by P.M. Tony Blair to manage priorities by “delivering” to and monitoring intended targets.  Delivery was abolished in 2010.

Edi has teamed up with Achieve to “deliver” a workbook telling leaders how to adopt and carry out the Next Generation Science Standards.

What’s Being Delivered?

A workbook.  For state leaders in states who intend to adopt the NGSS.  Now, the workbook is really important because of “several shifts in the way that science is taught.”  All of these shifts are covered in the workbook, which is 114 pages long.

But, wait.  According to the workbook, the fundamental change is in how students will demonstrate proficiency!  The authors of the handbook (no names are included, except the president of Achieve, and he didn’t write this) tell us that  students will engage in scientific practices–developing models, designing solutions, constructing arguments.  It’s as if this has never been done before.  There have been many efforts by science educators to improve science teaching. Achieve cleverly criticizes earlier science education standards (NSES), and programs such as AAAS’s Project 2061, and the STS curriculum movement.  In each of these efforts, teachers use inquiry teaching and learning approaches, and in the case of STS, curricula is related to students’ everyday experiences.

The NGSS standards document is sterile.  The standards are written without context.  In fact, to the writers of the NGSS, the context doesn’t matter because they claim that all students should be held responsible for each standard, regardless of where the students live.  But we know this is not right.  Study after study of the relationship between child poverty and academic performance consistently shows an inverse relationship between these two variables.  How can we simply drop new standards on American schools and expect that all students will have the same chance to learn and love science?

New Verbs.  Another big idea is which verbs are used in the new standards.  That’s right, which verbs.  Remember way back when we started writing “behavioral objectives” verbs were used to describe the kind of action that students would have to show on specific objectives.  The verbs have changed in the NGSS.  In fact, the difference in verbs used in the NGSS tells the story!  NGSS doesn’t like verbs such as distinguish, describe, recognize, identify and demonstrate.  But they do like verbs like develop, design, construct, analyze and interpret (see p.5 NGSS Adoption and Implementation Workbook).

A Chapter Book. A seven chapter workbook written for state implementation leaders.  The titles tell it all.  Designate strategic leadership team; define your aspiration, evaluate past and present performance, determine state’s role and approach to implementation, set targets and trajectories, develop stakeholder engagement strategy, establish routines and solve problems.

Exercises.  There are 27 exercises spread among the seven chapters.  Each exercise is guided by three or four objectives that use verbs such as identify, evaluate, develop, determine, understand, use, record.  These are not the kinds of verbs that the NGSS claims are used in the new standards, e.g. design, construct, etc.

Glossary. There is also a glossary of key terms including Aspiration, Element (not from the Periodic Table of the Elements), Guiding Coalition, Metric, Strategic Leadership Team, Target, Trajectory.

Who’s Delivering the NGSS Workbook?

Two organizations have teamed up to deliver this NGSS document, Achieve and the U.S. Education Delivery Institute.  The organizations are richly funded by American corporations that financially support a long list of standards and assessment-based groups.  Figure 1 shows the overlap of corporations that fund Achieve and EDi.  Gates shows up everywhere, and here they are again. The overlap of companies that fund these education organizations is further evidence that so called state standards are driven by national priorities of firms that want to privatize K-12 schooling.


U.S. EDi


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Carnegie Foundation

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

21 Additional Corporations

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Carnegie Corporation

Harold K.L. Castle Foundation

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

What is troubling here is that each organization is beholden to the Gates Foundation whose picture of educational reform is part of an “educational reform cabal (ERC).”  ERC is behind reforms that are anti-union, seek to rid the schools of all those “bad” teachers, use simplistic metrics such as test scores to make serious decisions about students, teachers and schools, support the take over of K-12 public schools with for-profit charters, believes 50% + 1 parents (Parent Trigger Bill) can overturn a school by firing teachers and replacing them with a charter management company, advocates use of vouchers paid for with public funds which can be used to send students to private schools, and so forth.
The new science standards will be of little use unless there is real curriculum development, and money is made available to school districts for teams of science teachers to develop, field-test and carry out new curriculum that support student learning.  In a recent article in The Science Teacher, Rodger W. Bybee points to a major concern about the NGSS.  He suggests that there is a need “for clear and coherent curriculum and instruction that connects the Next Generation Science Standards and assessments.  He writes:
If there is no curriculum for teachers, I predict the standards will be implemented with far less integrity than intended by the Framework and those who developed the Next Generation Science Standards (Bybee 2013).
The new workbook has little to do with science curriculum.  It’s main intent is to make sure that the new standards are implemented in the nation’s schools, and to give their take on how to do this.  It may be all well and good.  But, its top down reform no matter how you look at it.  Teachers aren’t even considered as “targets” of the workbook that Edi is delivering.
There is little transparency in this workbook.  We have no idea who wrote it.
We do know this, however.  The former Georgia Superintendent of Schools (2003 – 2010), Kathy Cox is the Chief Executive Officer of U.S. Education Delivery Institute.  Stephen L. Pruitt, who is Achieve’s Vice President is the leader of the development of the NGSS.  Pruitt was Georgia’s Associate Superintendent of Assessment and Accountability overseeing the NCLB, and was Cox’s Chief of Staff from 2009 2010
In 2005, while Cox was Superintendent of Education, and the state was re-writing the state science standards, she recommended that the word “evolution” be removed from all pages of the science standards documents.  Her reasoning was the word evolution was a buzzword of controversy.  She also appeared to believe that there were several accepted theories for biology, and she didn’t want the public or students to get stuck on the word evolution.  Her strongly held view was overturned after major news organizations reported the story, and key science organizations voiced strong opposition to her fear of the word evolution.

What’s next?

The last version of the new science standards has not been published, but according to Achieve, the NGSS will be published this year.  Schools will begin implementation in 2014.
In the meantime, look for a special delivery of the Next Generation Science Standards: Adoption and Implementation Workbook.

Do you think that we are on the right track here?  Do you think there is a problem with organizations such as Achieve and EDi receiving their funding from the same group of corporations?

Boxed In: How the NGSS Impedes Science Teaching

The major journals of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) have published articles featuring and explaining to science teachers the nature of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  The journals include The Science Teacher, Science Scope and Science and Children.  For the past several issues, each journal has published articles that deal with different aspects of the NGSS, including what students should know about earth science, life science, and physical science, when they should know it, and why these standards will “help all learners in the nation develop the science and engineering understanding they need to live successful, informed, and productive lives, and that will help them create a sustainable planet for future generations.” (Krajcik 2013, p. ).

These are laudable goals, but the roll out of the NGSS later this year won’t necessarily change or lead to more “productive” lives or help students understand sustainable living or “deep ecology.”  The standards do include some environmental and ecology content, but the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that is at the heart of deep ecology simply is not part of the NGSS.  In a search of the NGSS draft document, the word ecology does not appear, sustainability was found in only six instances, while 61 instances of the term environmental were found, but most often in the context of environmental impacts or economics.  Concepts such as interdependence do occur, but only in relationship to connecting science, engineering and technology.  No connection to the biosphere.  Then, when the standards that do relate to sustainability are examined, students learn that sustainability is for humans and the biodiversity that supports them.  In a deep ecology context, sustainability would refer to all species of living things, and their importance would not be hierarchical.

The rationale for science described in the NGSS is not related to conception or philosophy of a sustainable planet, but is instead science in the service of the economic growth of the nation, job training, and economic competitiveness in a global society.  The science standards were designed by scientists and engineers, and so there is a heavy emphasis on scientific process and content instead of thinking about science curriculum that would be in the service of children and adolescents.

Boxed In

In another article in this month’s The Science Teacher, there is a chart that shows the architecture of the Next Generation Science Standards.  Think of the chart as a box–a science standards box. Its full of the multiple standard attributes including performance expectations, kind of on-deck behaviors ready to be morphed into assessments. The box is teeming with science & engineering practices, comments about disciplinary core ideas,and cross cutting content, and connections to the nature of science. Symbolically, the box is dense, perhaps so much that one has wonder what is really important. Is this atomistic breakdown of science what will help American education progressives lead schools into a more humanistic world? I don’t know.

Figure 1 shows the same box that appeared in The Science Teacher, but without the explanations of each part of the science box.  Notice that there are four sub-boxes, one shaded white (the performance expectations), blue (practices or process of science and engineering), orange (content) and green (connections).

Every set of performance expectations in the NGSS is presented using this box-like structure.  The NGSS is 105 pages long on the online pdf draft of the standards.  As you scroll through the standards, hundreds of performance expectations are grouped into the content or disciplinary core ideas.  The standards will be released this year, and will unfortunately, adopted by most states.

Figure 1. Science Standards Box including performance expectations, processes, content and connections


Let’s take a look at an example of an NGSS Box that appeared in NSTA’s March 2013 edition of The Science Teacher. The NGSS conceptual design is an oversized rectangular box in two dimensions. The box has all the elements that pertain to a grouping of content for 3rd graders in physical science.  At first glance theses NGSS boxes make you feel overwhelmed and boxed in.  Take a look.  First, the standards writers designed the whole shebang by writing the performance expectations in such as way that they can easily be converted to assessments.  In this case, this is what every 3rd grader is expected to master for this standard.  Below the expectations/assessment box, are 3 foundation boxes which include core disciplinary ideas (orange-earth, life, or physical science), cross cutting concepts (green), and scientific and engineering practices (blue). At the bottom, you will find a connection box which informs science teachers how this standard might be related to the common core, or to state standards.  You also find other items tagged on to this complicated scenario including connections to the nature of science, connections to engineering, codes and all of that.

NSTA ngss chart
Figure 2. What inside the NGSS Box: Source, NSTA journal, The Science Teacher, March 2013


What’s Next?

In research I’ve reported on here, the standards should be viewed as authoritarian documents that teachers had little to no part in policy decisions.  Indeed, in separate research studies reported here, the standards are impediments or barriers to learning not bridges to help children and youth understand their connection to science.  In the standards culture, students are pawns in an educational system that is in the interests of the nation’s economy and prosperousness of business and industry.

According to the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, the Common Core State Standards will have little to no effect on student achievement. Author Tom Loveless explains that neither the quality or the rigor of state standards is related to state NAEP scores. Loveless suggests that if there was an effect, we would have seen it since all states had standards in 2003.

The researchers concluded that we should not expect much from the Common Core. In an interesting discussion of the implications of their findings, Tom Loveless, the author of the report, cautions us to be careful about not being drawn into thinking that standards represent a kind of system of “weights and measures.” Loveless tells us that standards’ reformers use the word—benchmarks—as a synonym for standards. And he says that they use too often. In science education, we’ve had a long history of using the word benchmarks, and Loveless reminds us that there are not real, or measured benchmarks in any content area. Yet, when you read the standards—common core or science—there is the implication we really know–almost in a measured way–what standards should be met at a particular grade level.

As the Brown report suggests, we should not depend on the common core or the Next Generation Science Standards having any effect on students’ achievement. The report ends with this statement:

The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.

Teachers will be in a bind when they are told to carry out the new science standards.  Wading through the boxes of performance expectations, and foundation components will give any science educator a headache, not to mention the near impossibility of thinking that every student should be exposed to the same set of content goals.

The rationale for the science standards is achievement-based. One way to look at the standards is that they use backwards engineering to define the field of science that teachers should cover in their science courses. A teacher writing on Anthony Cody’s blog explained backward engineered standards. Backward engineering means starting with an assessment, and then working backwards from it to write standards. She explains that “the goal of the Next Generation Science Standards is create a document that can market both teaching and assessment products to a captive education system, not offer a framework for good teaching of science.”

The new standards will not lead on a path that will improve learning.  It will however provide documentation for test development companies and consortia to design online assessments that will be used by bureaucrats to foster “data driven” educational reform.

What do you expect will be the affect of the Next Generation Science Standards on science teaching in American schools?




Krajcik, Joe (2013). The next generation science standards: A focus on physical science. The Science Teacher, 80 (3), 29 – 35.

Fordham Institute Review of New Science Standards: Fealty to Conservatism & Canonical Science

Fordham Institute has published their  review of the draft of the Next Generation Science Standards.  Achieve wrote the the new science standards.   Achieve also wrote the math and reading/language arts common core standards.

Unchanging fealty to a conservative agenda and a canonical view of science education restricts and confines Fordham’s review to an old school view of science teaching.  Science education has rocketed past the views in two reports issued by Fordham about science education standards.

The Fordham reviewers use a strict content (canonical) view of science education and dismiss any reference to the scientific practices (science processes) and pedagogical advances such as constructivism, and inquiry teaching.  Many of the creative ideas that emerged in science teaching in the past thirty years represent interdisciplinary thinking, the learning sciences, deep understanding of how students learn science, and yes, constructivism.

These creative ideas are not reflected in Fordham’s analysis of science teaching and science curriculum.

I have also studied and reviewed the draft of the Next Generation Science Standards and have written about them here, and here.

The Framework

In 2011, the Carnegie Corporation funded the National Research Council’s project A Framework for K-12 Science Education (Framework).  The Framework was published last year, and it being used by Achieve as the basis for writing the Next Generation Science Standards (Science Standards)

These two documents, The Framework and the Science Standards, will decide the nature of science teaching for many years to come.

In this post, I’ll focus on how Fordham has responded to these two reports.

In late 2011, the Carnegie Corporation provided financial support to the Fordham Institute to review the NRC Framework.  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 person, 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.

I’ve read and reviewed the Fordham review of the Framework, and published my review here. Here some excerpts from my review.

Grade: B. In general, Dr. Gross, as well as Chester E. Finn, Jr. (President of the Fordham Foundation), are reluctant to give the Framework a grade of “A” instead mark the NRC’s thick report a grade of “B”.

Rigor.  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?

Practices, Crosscutting Concepts & Engineering. 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.

For some reason, Gross thinks that science-related social issues and the radical idea of helping students construct their own ideas are not part of  mainstream science education, when indeed they are. Many of the creative Internet-based projects developed over the past 15 years have involved students in researching issues that have social implications.  The National Science Foundation made huge investments in creative learning projects.

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 much 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. Gross and the Fordham Foundation make the case that Practices and Crosscutting ideas are accessories, and that only the Disciplinary Core Ideas of the Framework should be taken seriously . 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.  Dr. Gross  could have consulted science education journals found here, here, here or here.  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.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST) published this article in 2010. Here is the abstract of the research study:

Various findings across 138 analyzed studies show 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 review of the Framework is not surprising, nor is their review of the first draft of the standards.  Fordham has its own set of science standards that it uses to check other organizations’ standards such as the state standards.  They used their standards as the “benchmark” to check all of the state science standards, and concluded that only 7 states earned an A.  Most of  the states earned an F.

If you download Fordham’s report here, scroll down to page 208 to read their science standards, which they call content-specific criteria.

I analyzed all the Fordham standards against Bloom’s Taxonomy in the Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor domains.  Using Bloom’s Taxonomy, 52% of the Fordham science standards were rated at the lowest level.   Twenty-eight percent of their standards were at the comprehension level, 10% at application, and only 10% above analysis.  No standards were found for the affective or psychomotor designs.

All I am saying here is that Fordham has its own set of science standards, and I found them inferior to most of the state science standards, the National Science Education Standards (published in 1996), as well as the NAEP science framework.  You can read my full report here.  I gave Fordham’s science standards a grade of D.

Fordham Commentary on the New Science Standards

Given this background, we now turn our attention to Fordham’s Commentary & Feedback on Draft I of the NGSS.

The Fordham reviewers, as they did when they reviewed the NRC Framework for Science, felt the standards’ writers “went overboard on scientific and engineering practices.  From their point of view, crosscutting concepts and scientific and engineering practices create challenges to those who write standards.

Fordham science standards are reminiscent of the way  learning goals were written in the 1960s and 1970s.   Writers used one of many behavioral or action verbs such as define, describe, find, diagram, classify, and so forth to construct  behavioral objectives.  The Fordham standards were written using this strategy. Here are three examples from their list of standards:

  • Describe the organization of matter in the universe into stars and galaxies.
  • Identify the sun as the major source of energy for processes on Earth’s surface.
  • Describe the greenhouse effect and how a planet’s atmosphere can affect its climate.

The Fordham experts raised concerns about the way standard statements are written.  As shown in the examples from the draft of the NGSS, the standards integrate content with process and pedagogical components.

I agree with the Fordham reviewers that the Next Generation Science Standards  are rather complex.  Shown in Figure 1 is the “system architecture that Achieve used for all of the standards.  Figure 1 shows just four performance expectations (read standards), and their connection to practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts.  Every science standard in the Achieve report is presented in this way.

Figure 1. System Architecture of the NGSS. Source:, extracted May 12, 2012

The Fordham reviewers gave careful attention to each standard statement, and indeed in their report they include many examples of how the standards’ writers got the content wrong or stated it in such a way that was unclear.

But the Fordham reviewers take the exception to the science education community’s research on constructivism.  In their terms, science educators show fealty to constructivist pedagogical theory.  To ignore constructivism, or to think that science educators have an unswerving allegiance to this well established and researched theory is quite telling.  To me it indicates that Fordham holds a traditional view of how students learn.  It tells me that these reviewers have boxed themselves into a vision of science literacy by looking inward at the canon of orthodox nature science.  Content is king.

To many science teachers and science education researchers, an alternative vision gets its meaning from the “character of situations with a scientific component, situations that students are likely to encounter as students.  Science literacy focuses on science-related situations (See Douglas Roberts’ chapter on science literacy in the Handbook of Research on Science Education).

The Fordham reviewers recommend that every standard be rewritten to cut “practices” where they are not needed.  They also want independent, highly qualified scientists who have not been involved in the standards writing attempt to check every standard.  The National Science Teachers Association, comprised of science teachers and scientists is quite qualified to do this, and indeed the NSTA sent their recommendations to Achieve last week.

I would agree with the Fordham group that the next version of the standards should be presented in a clearer way, and easily searchable.  I spent a good deal of time online with the first draft, and after a while I was able to search the document, but it was a bit overwhelming.

Finally I would add that when you check the Fordham analysis of the new standards, the word “basic” jumps out.  Near the end of their opinion report, they remind us that the science basics in the underlying NRC Framework were sound.  What they are saying is that the NGSS writers need to chisel away anything that is not solid content from the standards.

One More Thing

Organizations such as Achieve and the Fordham Institute believe the U.S. system of science and mathematics education is performing below par, and if something isn’t done, then millions of students will not be prepared to compete in the global economy. Achieve cites achievement data from PISA and NAEP to make its case that American science and mathematics teaching is in horrible shape, and needs to fixed.

The solution to fix this problem to make the American dream possible for all citizens is to write new science (and mathematics) standards.  One could argue that quality science teaching is not based on authoritarian content standards, but much richer standards of teaching that form the foundation of professional teaching.

What ever standards are agreed upon, they ought to be based on a set of values that are rooted in democratic thinking, including empathy and responsibility. Professional teachers above all else are empathic in the sense that teachers have the capacity to connect with their students, to feel what others feel, and to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel a kinship with others. Professional teachers are responsible in the sense that they act on empathy, and that they are not only responsible for others (their students, parents, colleagues), but themselves as well.

The dual forces of authoritarian standards and high-stakes testing has taken hold of K-12 education through a top-down, corporate led enterprise. This is very big business, and it is having an effect of thwarting teaching and learning in American schools. A recent study by Pioneer Institute estimated that states will spend at least $15 billion over the next few years to replace their current standards with the common core.  What will it cost to implement new science standards?

In research that I have reported here, standards are barriers to teaching and learning.  In this research, the tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fit the needs of their students.  And the standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning provesses needed to achieve them.  Combine this with high-stakes tests, and you have a recipe for disaster.

According to the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, the Common Core State Standards will have little to no effect on student achievement. Author Tom Loveless explains that neither the quality or the rigor of state standards is related to state NAEP scores. Loveless suggests that if there was an effect, we would have seen it since all states had standards in 2003.

The researchers concluded that we should not expect much from the Common Core. In an interesting discussion of the implications of their findings, Tom Loveless, the author of the report, cautions us to be careful about not being drawn into thinking that standards represent a kind of system of “weights and measures.” Loveless tells us that standards’ reformers use the word—benchmarks—as a synonym for standards. And he says that they use it too often. In science education, we’ve had a long history of using the word benchmarks, and Loveless reminds us that there are not real, or measured benchmarks in any content area. Yet, when you read the standards—common core or science—there is the implication we really know–almost in a measured way–what standards should be met at a particular grade level.

Loveless also makes a strong point when he says the entire system of education is “teeming with variation.” To think that creating a set of common core standards will reduce this variation between states or within a state simply will not succeed.

As the Brown report suggests, we should not depend on the common core or the Next Generation Science Standards having any effect on students’ achievement.

What do you think?  Is Fordham’s view of science education consistent with your ideas about science teaching?