Why Do We Promote Consumption And Not Inquiry

Why in a democracy do we promote consumption and not inquiry in science teaching?  Why are we so possessed to have teachers cover the ground and not helping students uncover their connection to the world around them?

The second public draft of The Next Generation Science Standards will be released this December by Achieve, the organization that wrote the Common Core State Standards.  I wish I could link you to the first draft of the science standards, but Achieve pulled them off their website on June 1, 2012 after posting them for about three weeks.

The NGSS were based on the National Research Council’s project, A Framework for Science Education, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.  The document was written by nearly 20 experts, not one of whom is a K-12 teacher.  The only professional educator was Stephen Pruitt, who while on the committee was chief of staff for the Office of the State Superintendent of Schools in the Georgia Department of Education.  He did teach science for 12 years in Georgia.  However, now he is Vice President, Content, Research and Development for Achieve, the company writing the science standards.

The “Framework” document was used by Achieve’s science writing teams who developed the first draft of the new standards.  The rationale for the development of 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 the notion of 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.”

A good standard is one that can be easily accessed using multiple choice questions, or short answers that require consumption of science goals.  When you check the new standards they are aligned vertically by content area creating endless lists of stuff to be taught and learned.  I spent several days reading the new science standards, participated in Achieve’s public review process, and wrote several posts on the process.  The science standards are organized around core ideas in each science discipline, which meant, unfortunately, that there was almost no attempt to create relationships among the content areas.  We still have the same content areas that the Committee of Ten created in the 1890s!

There are more than 400 standards in the science document.  Although they are divided into grade level bands, which does reduce  the number of standards per grade level.  When you look at a specific content area, as I did (earth science), there is still a long list of content to be taught.  And remember, the standards will be measured using high stakes tests, which will soon be totally computerized by 2014.

We have reported on this blog that the very nature of standards-based education sets up an authoritarian framework that values the consumption, recall, and repetition of information.  Using the backward engineering model, teaching will be based on the content lists because each one of them will be assessed using a multiple choice format.  Teaching to the standards is no different than teaching to the test.

Yet, science educators, especially if you attend major conferences on science teaching and research, have had a love affair with engaging students in inquiry.  Asking students to formulate investigations, ask questions, searching for answers, and  uncovering content that excites them are some of the kinds of thinking that science teachers advocate.  When we put the teaching of science into the hands of experts as we did with the National Research Council, we end up with an outline of the content that they know and think kids should know, even without real experience with teachers or with students.

Inquiry, independent thinking, and creative thought are buried in standards-based documents. Henry Giroux in an article about democracy and education,  raises the concern that public education is under assault by conservative forces that cut schooling to a process of producing students who can perform on tests, not think differently or question  things as they are.  He puts it this way:

In this conservative right-wing reform culture, the role of public education, if we are to believe the Heritage Foundation and the likes of Bill Gates-type billionaires, is to produce students who laud conformity, believe job training is more important than education, and view public values as irrelevant. Students in this view are no longer educated for democratic citizenship. On the contrary, they are now being trained to fulfill the need for human capital [1]. What is lost in this approach to schooling is what Noam Chomsky calls “creating creative and independent thought and inquiry, challenging perceived beliefs, exploring new horizons and forgetting external constraints.”[2]

 One of the major goals of science teachers is to help students wonder, explore, and be actively involved in inquiry—which is the cornerstone of science. The science standards, when published, will have the appearance of a digest of science factoids that teachers must face, and teach. This tends to sideline inquiry, and problem solving because teachers will be required to cover the ground. Furthermore, “common” assessments will be based on the digest of factoids, to further discourage teaching science as inquiry.

[1] David Glenn, “Public Higher Education Is ‘Eroding From All Sides,’ Warns Political Scientists,”  The Chronicle of Higher Education, (Sept. 2, 2010).

[2] Noam Chomsky, “Public Education Under Massive Corporate Assault—What’s Next?AlterNet(August 5, 2011).


Do Higher Science Standards Lead to Higher Achievement?

In a recent article in Scientific American, it was suggested that the U.S. should adopt higher standards in science, and that all 50 states should adopt them.

When you check the literature on science standards, the main reason for aiming for higher standards (raising the bar) is because in the “Olympics” of international academic test taking, the U.S. never takes home the gold.  In fact, according the tests results reported by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students never score high enough to even merit a bronze medal.  In the last PISA Science Olympics, Shanghai-China (population 23 million) took home the Gold, Finland (population 5.4 million) the Silver, and Hong Kong-China (population 7 million, the Bronze.  The United States (population 314 million) average score positioned them 22nd on the leaderboard of 65 countries that participated in the PISA 2009 testing.

Some would argue that comparing scores across countries that vary so much in population, ethnic groups, poverty, health care, and housing is not a valid enterprise.  We’ll take that into consideration as we explore the relationship of standards to student achievement.

Its assumed that there is a connection or correlation between the quality of the standards in a particular discipline such as science, and the achievement levels of students as measured by tests.  So the argument is promoted that because U.S. students score near the bottom of the top third of countries that took the PISA test in 2009, then the U.S. science education standards need to be ramped up.  If we ramp up the standards, that is to say, make them more rigorous and at a higher level, then we should see a movement upwards for U.S. students on future PISA tests.  It seems like a reasonable assumption, and one that has driven the U.S. education system toward a single set of standards in mathematics and reading/language arts (Common Core State Standards-CCSS), and very soon, there will be a single set of science standards.

There is a real problem here

There is no research to support the contention that higher standards mean higher student achievement.  In fact there are very few facts to show that standards make a difference in student achievement.  It could be that standards, per se, act as barriers to learning, not bridges to the world of science.

Barriers to Learning

I’ve reported on this blog research published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching by professor Carolyn Wallace of Indiana State University that indicates that the science standards in Georgia actually present barriers to teaching and learning. Wallace analyzed the effects of authoritarian standards language on science  classroom teaching.  She argues that curriculum standards based on a content and product model of education are “incongruent” with research in science education, cognitive psychology, language use, and science as inquiry.  The Next Generation Science Standards is based on a content and product model of teaching, and in fact, has not deviated from the earlier National Science Education Standards.

Over the past three decades, researchers from around the world have shown that students prior knowledge and the context of how science is learned are significant factors in helping students learn science.  Instead of starting with the prior experiences and interests of students, the standards are used to determine what students learn.  Even the standards in the NGSS, or the CCSS are lists of objectives defining a body of knowledge to 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. 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 élite groups of scientists, consultants, and educators.

The Brown Center Report

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 nor 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 since 2003.

For example in the Brown Center study, it was reported (in a separate 2009 study by Whitehurst), that there was no correlation of NAEP scores with the quality ratings of state standards. Whitehurst studied scores from 2000 to 2007, and found that NAEP scores did not depend upon the “quality of the standards,” and he reported that this was true for both white and black students (The Brown Center Report on American Education, p.9). The correlation coefficients ranged from -0.6 to 0.08.

The higher a “cut score” that a state established for difficulty of performance can be used to define the rigor or expectations of standards. One would expect that over time, achievement scores in states that have more rigorous and higher expectations, would trend upwards. The Brown study reported it this way:

States with higher, more rigorous cut points did not have stronger NAEP scores than states with less rigorous cut points.

The researchers found that it did not matter if states raised the bar, or lowered the bar on NAEP scores. The only positive and significant correlations reported between raising and lowering the bar were in 4th grade math and reading. One can not decide causality using simple correlations, but we can say there is some relationship here.

When researchers looked at facts to find out if standardization would cut the variation of scores between states, they found that the variation was relatively small compared to looking at the variation within states. The researchers put it this way (The Brown Center Report on American Education, p. 12): The findings are clear.

Most variation on NAEP occurs within states not between them. The variation within states is four to five times larger than the variation between states.

According to the Brown Report, the Common Core will have very little impact on national achievement (Brown Report, p. 12).  There is no reason to believe that won’t be true for science.

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 cut this variation between states or within a state simply will not succeed. As he puts it, the common core (a kind of intended curriculum) sits on top of the implemented and achieved curriculum. The implemented curriculum is what teachers do with their students day-to-day. It is full of variation within a school. Two biology teachers in the same school will get very different results for a lot of different factors. But as far as the state is concerned, the achieved curriculum is all that matters. The state uses high-stakes tests to decide whether schools met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Now What?

If standards do not result in improved learning as measured by achievement tests, what should we be doing to improve schools?

Over on Anthony Cody’s blog on Education Week, we might find some answers to this question.  Cody has begun a series of dialogs with the Gates Foundation on educational reform by bringing together discussions between opposing views to uncover some common ground. Cody has already broken new ground because the Gates Foundation is not only participating with him on his website, but Gates is publishing everything on their own site: Impatient Optimists blog. Three of the five dialog posts have been written, and it is the third one written by Anthony Cody that I want to bring in here.

In his post, Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring it?, Cody reminds us that the U.S. Department of Education (through the Race to the Top and NCLB Flexibility Requests) is unwavering in its promotion of data-driven education, using student test scores to rate and evaluate teachers and administrators.  Cody believes that the Gates Foundation has used its political influence to support this.  There is also an alliance between the ED, and PARCC which is developing assessments to be aligned to the Common Core Standards.  The Gates Foundation is a financial contributor to Achieve, which oversees the Common Core State Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards, and PARCC.

There is a “no excuses” attitude suggesting that students from impoverished backgrounds should do just as well as students from enriched communities.  The idea here is that teachers make the difference in student learning, and if this is true, then it is the “quality” of the teacher that will decide whether students do well on academic tests.

Anthony Cody says this is a huge error.  In his post, he says, and later in the post uses research to tell us:

In the US, the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems. It is the effects of poverty and racial isolation on our children.

As he points out, teachers account for only 20% of the variance in student test scores.  More than 60% of score variance on achievement tests correlates to out-of-school factors.  Out-of-school factors vary a great deal.  However, as Cody points out, the impact of violence, health, housing, and child development in poverty are factors that far out weigh the effect of teacher on a test given in the spring to students whose attendance is attendance, interest, and acceptance is poor.

In the Scientific American article I referenced at the beginning of this post, the author cites research from the Fordham Foundation that scores most state science standards as poor to mediocre.  We debunked the Fordham “research” here, and showed that its research method was unreliable, and invalid.  Unfortunately, various groups, even Scientific American, accept Fordham’s findings, and use in articles and papers as if it a valid assessment of science education standards.  It is not.

It’s not that we don’t have adequate science standards.  It’s that if we ignore the most important and significant factors that affect the life of students in and out of school, then standards of any quality won’t make a difference.

What is your view on the effect of changing the science standards on student achievement.  Are we heading in the wrong direction?  If so, which way should we go?


Some Problems with the Next Generation Science Standards: One Reviewer’s Notes

As you know the first public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are online and you have until June 1, 2012 to read and provide comments on the NGSS.

I’ve decided to participate in the survey, and use this post to share with you some aspects of the survey, especially the surveys on individual elementary, middle and high school standards.  There is a lot of stuff to look at and read on the NGSS website, but you can pick and choose which standards to provide feedback. Continue reading “Some Problems with the Next Generation Science Standards: One Reviewer’s Notes”

Curious Relationship Between NAEP Science Framework and the Next Generation Science Standards

There is a very curious relationship between NAEP Science Framework and the Next Generation Science Standards that I discovered while studying the NGSS and wanting to find out what was emphasized on the NAEP Science Assessments.  I had read on an NSTA list that I receive that someone had questioned the distribution of questions on the NAEP Science Assessment.  They had reported that the questions were distributed as follows: 30% Physical Science; 30 Life Science and 40% Earth Science.  I also wondered about that and went to the NAEP Website to find out.

I ended up at the NAEP 2009 Science Framework publication which you can download here.   The Commissioner of Education Statistics, who heads the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education, is responsible by law for carrying out the NAEP project. The National Assessment Governing Board, appointed by the Secretary of Education but independent of the Department, sets policy for NAEP and is responsible for developing the framework and test specifications that serve as the blueprint for the assessments.

In 2009, the NAEP published the latest framework for science.  I admit that I had not read this document until today.  But I had read the NRC’s Framework for K-12 Science, and I have studied the Next Generation Science Standards.

We all know that the NGSS was developed by Achieve, and released the first Public version of the new standards last week.  We also knew that the standards were based on the NRC’s Framework for K-12 Science that was developed and written by a 17 member task force set up by the NRC with funding from the Carnegie Foundation.

A Curious Similarity

What I found curious was how the NAEP document describing the rationale and the design of the science framework which is used to develop science assessment items was so similar to the NRC Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards framework.  The NAEP science framework was developed prior to the development of NRC’s science framework, and of course before the Next Generation Science Standards.

Table 1 compares and contrasts the NAEP Framework, the NRC Framework for K-12 Science Education, and the Next Generation Science Standards.  The language used in all three documents is very similar especially when defining key ideas including content or disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts and ideas.  When the NRC Framework was published in 2011, that was great fan fare over the new framework, and the ideas that had formulated the NRC’s committee to design the framework along three lines, shown in Table 1: Disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concept, and science and engineering practices.

These three big ideas would be used to develop the Next Generation Science Standards.

It turns out that the NAEP had developed its new science framework which they use to design and write test items or assessment for their science assessments.  It is very similar to the NRC Framework, or maybe it would be better to say that the NRC Framework is similar to the Assessment framework.  There is also an overlap in some key members of the planning, steering, and writing committee on the NAEP and NRC committees.  How might this influence the direction taken by each of the frameworks?  I am not questioning the credentials of the members of any of these groups.  I am only wondering about the overlap.

There is another similarity among the three projects, and that is the lack of K-12 educators in the planning processes, and the writing and development process.  I couldn’t find one teacher on the NAEP committees.  There were no teachers on the NRC Framework committee.  And one of the members of the NRC was later hired by Achieve to head up the development of the Next Generation Science Standards.

NAEP Science Framework, 2009 NRC Framework for K-12 Science Education, 2011 Next Generation Science Standards, 2012
Science Content or Disciplinary Core Ideas
  • Physical Science
  • Life Science
  • Earth and Space Science
  • Earth and Space Sciences
  • Life Sciences
  • Physical Sciences
  • Engineering, Technology & Applications
  • Earth and Space Sciences
  • Life Sciences
  • Physical Sciences
  • Engineering, Technology & Applications
Crosscutting Content or Concepts Interaction of science content and practices of science
  • Patterns
  • Cause and Effect
  • Stability
  • Systems and System Models
  • Energy and Matter
  • Interdependence


  • Patterns
  • Cause and Effect
  • Stability
  • Systems and System Models
  • Energy and Matter
  • Interdependence
  • Influence
Science Practices
  • Identifying Science Principles
  • Using Science Principles
  • Using Scientific Inquiry
  • Using Technological Design
  • Asking Questions and Defining Problems
  • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
  •   Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  •   Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  •   Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  •   Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
  • Asking Questions and Defining Problems
  • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
  • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
  • Asking Questions and Defining Problems
  • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
  • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information


Framework Development WestEd and CCSSO, AAAS, NSTA National Research Council NRC, Achieve, NSTA, AAAS

Table 1. Comparison of Science Frameworks Designed by NAEP, NRC, & Achieve

NAEP is a low-stakes test, and is perhaps one of the most reliable measures we have of student performance in science, math and reading.  However, the fact that the government assessment framework preceded the NRC and Achieve frameworks raises questions about what this sequence means, and what are we to expect in the future.

There is strong evidence that a national high-stakes science assessment will be developed and required of all states that the adopt the NGSS.  If you don’t believe me, then you should check to see what the record shows about the Common Core State Standards’ national computer-based assessment.  A recent study by the Pioneer Institute reported that to implement the Common Core in the states will cost more than $15 billion, and that does not include testing.

There is also evidence some influential groups have been involved in all three enterprises including the Thomas Fordham Foundation, Achieve, Inc., the U.S. Department of Education, Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association.  There were no requests for proposals for any of this work in the documents that I have read.  In each case, organizations were appointed by boards, or foundations, or councils.  There was no attempt in these developments to build in any kind of research and evaluation of the projects.  And of course, this is really odd in that these groups are creating products (tests and standards) that will hold others  accountable: teachers, students, administrators, schools, & school districts.

Do you think that the relationship among these three groups is curious?  Or is it simply of little concern, and we should move on?



The Predicted Effects of the Common Core: Implications for Next Generation Science Standards

According to Achieve, 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.  According to Achieve, quality science teaching is based on content standards “that are rich in content and practice, with aligned curricula, pedagogy, assessment and teacher preparation. Continue reading “The Predicted Effects of the Common Core: Implications for Next Generation Science Standards”