Next Generation Science Standards: What’s Really Been Achieved?

Note:  This is the second in a series of posts on the Next Generation Science Standards.  You can read the first one here.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are the latest iteration of writing science objectives for the eventual purpose of testing students’ knowledge of science.  The objectives are developed by teams of experts, and rely on either their own domain analysis chart of science, or in this case the Framework for K-12 Science Education developed by another prestigious group of educators and scientists.

The NGSS, although they are presented in an overwhelming and distinctly powerful way on Achieve’s website, when you drill down to the actual standards, you find content statements that are not very different than standards that we’ve seen in the past.

This is what I mean.

A Bit of History

Roots of the Next Generation Science Standards

Note: A good part of this discussion is based on The Art of Teaching Science, Chapter 4. com

Astrolabe, invented by the Greek astron0mer Hipparchus, later improved by Christian and then Muslim scientists.

The roots of science education as it has developed in the United States, and many countries throughout the world, has its origins in the science of the Greeks.  The works of Archimedes, Eratosthenes, and Pythagoras have been carried forward and are a part of what we call modern Western science.  The roots of what we might call modern science education can be traced to the 19th Century in Europe and especially Britain.  At that time, what we know as science was natural philosophy, which emerged from the Greek term philosophy, the love of wisdom. Glen Aikenhead writes

This Greek philosophy radically advanced in Western Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries (after the Renaissance period) with the establishment of natural philosophy, a new knowledge system based on the authority of empirical evidence and imbued with the value of gaining power and dominion over nature. This historical advance is known as the Scientific Revolution

This is where modern science began, and where we find the roots of science education as well.

Committee of Ten. For science education, however, the standards that we use today were initially created to make sure that students would be ready for college (sound familiar).  But the standards I am speaking about were written by The Committee of Ten in 1895!  Of the nine committees that were formed, three dealt with the science curriculum:  (1) physics, astronomy, and chemistry; (2) natural history; and (3) geography. Each committee formulated goals for elementary and secondary science, and described what students should know and learn, and suggested methods of teaching.  Here is what the natural history committee had to say about elementary science:

In the elementary grades, the Natural History Committee recommended and worked out the details for nature study not less than two periods per week for all grades up to high school. The first purpose of nature study is not knowledge of plants and animals, but to interest children in nature. The second purpose was to develop students’ ability to observe, compare, and express ideas (in contemporary terms, the processes of science); to cause children to form habits (habits of mind in today’s language) of careful investigation and of making clear statements of their observations. Acquisition of knowledge was the third purpose. So interest, science process and content acquisition formed the goals of nature study.  Interestingly, the committee recommended that no book be used in nature study.  Students should be observing and discussing plants and animals in the classroom or out in nature.

In the early part of the 20th Century, the nature study movement, an interdisciplinary approach to elementary science teaching, the progressive education movement, and important NSSE Yearbooks published in 1932 and 1946, and 1959, identified goals of science teaching that ought to guide the teaching of K – 12 science during those periods in science education history.

In 1957, the launch of Sputnik accelerated a movement to “modernize” science teaching.  The Golden Age of Science Education emerged with the development of NSF funded alphabet science curriculum projects, including PSSC Physcis, Chem Study, BSCS Biology, Earth Science Curriculum Project, AAAS Elementary Science, and Elementary Science Study.  These projects greatly influenced science education in the U.S., especially traditional textbook publishers by upgrading their texts and resources based on the NSF projects developed during this period.

The Florida Project

In 1972 I was invited to Florida State University to be a writer for the NSF project, the Intermediate Science Curriculum Project (ISCP), and to work on the Florida Assessment Project, a research and development project.

The task of the Florida Assessment was to write standards and assessment items for middle and high school science for Florida’s initial attempt to develop state-wide standards in science.  When I returned to Georgia State University, a team of colleagues and I submitted a proposal to the Florida Department of Education to write the K-6 Elementary Science standards (we called them objectives way back then), and test items.

We used Robert Gagne’s cognitive theory of learning which modeled a 7 stage hierarchy of learning.  We used it to categorize the standards into the 7 levels of learning. Working with high school and middle school science teachers, and doctoral students in science education, our team created a domain chart of the disciplines of science: Earth and Space Science, Physical Science, and Life Science.  The domain chart and the Gagne categories guided our work.  For each standard or objective we wrote two assessment items.

Individualized Science Instructional System

From 1974 – 1978, I was a writer, and field test coordinator of the NSF project entitled the Individualized Science Instructional System (ISIS), which was a high school science program designed to develop nearly 60 modules of science teaching for grades 9 – 12.  In this project, objectives for the entire project were written and field tested (parents, school administrators and teachers were involved).  Objectives were grouped by content, and were assigned to an author (high school teachers and university professors) to write one ISIS Module, or a mini-course.

The Global Thinking Project

In the 1990s I worked with science teachers in the U.S. and Russia, and together we wrote and field-tested the Global Thinking Project, which was an environmental science curriculum designed for middle and high school students.  We created a telecommunications network by bringing Macintosh computers, printers and models to Russia and set them up in schools around the country.  The curriculum included objectives or standards, and each of the “projects” was designed for students to investigate an important local environmental problem, use scientific tools to collect data, as needed, and the GTP network to upload data and collaborate with peers in other countries (Spain, Australia, Japan, Czech Republic, Scotland, Brazil joined the project soon after it was up and running.

NSES and State-Wide Science Standards

In 1996, the National Science Education Standards were published ushering in a new era in standards-based education and then a few years later, high-stakes testing.  The NSES were developed in the same manner as the NGSS, and countless state-wide standards and assessments around the country.

The NSES project was primarily based on Science for All Americans as part of Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  Soon after, AAAS released its Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy, and then the two-volume work entitled The Atlas of Science Literacy.

The Next Generation Science Standards comes after a long line of projects, all of which wrote curriculum, standards and objectives, and assessment materials.

Achieving the Next Generation Science Standards

Why New Standards?

In a e-Book published on this blog on the science standards movement, we argued that much of the movement to produce new standards is driven by the perception that American students don’t perform well on international tests, and on the NAEP science achievement tests.

But one can also make the argument that American students actually perform consistently and very well on these tests and have actually improved over the years.  In fact the results from the 2011 NAEP Science Assessment show that:

The average eighth-grade science score increased from 150 in 2009 to 152 in 2011. The percentages of students performing at or above the Basic and Proficient levels were higher in 2011 than in 2009. There was no significant change from 2009 to 2011 in the percentage of students at the Advanced level.

Achieve, Inc., the organization that will stand to benefit financially from the standards movement, makes it very clear that we need new standards to help improve America’s competitive edge, to boost the lagging achievement of U.S. students, to make sure students have the essential education for all careers in the modern workforce, to improve the literacy of Americans.  They fail to cite data that shows that a nation’s competitive edge is too complicated to even claim that student test scores have anything to do with; that NAEP data shows that American students have improved in science for a long time.

In whose interests is it to develop these new standards?  Try: Achieve, publishers, especially of online courses and texts, testing companies.

Who Wrote the NGSS?

According to Achieve, Inc., the writing team consisted of 41 members from 26 states.  To make sure that there is a connection between NRC’s Framework for K-12 Science Education and the NGSS, chairs of the NRC’s design teams were selected as chairs of the NGSS writing team committees.  Here is the breakdown of the writing team by field of expertise.  There are 14 teachers on the writing team, representing one-third of the writing team.  There are 12 curriculum & instruction specialists (29%), and 15 Non-K-12 educators (35%).  The panel is a distinguished group with links to their bios. But I found that one of the member identified as a high school teacher, is not teaching.  There certainly were many teachers in U.S. who would have been qualified to replace this team member.  I also note that the science education professors on the writing team do not represent a new cadre of science education professors that might bring fresh and novel ideas to the panel. Is having these individuals as chairs of the writing committees a good idea? I don’t really know. Just thinking.

I would like to know more about the process of actually writing the standards that appear online.  How were the teachers involved?  Did they participate directly in writing drafts, or did they review drafts written by others?  How did Achieve, Inc., interface with the writing team?  Did Achieve provide it own human resources to to the effort, and in what ways?

Writing Team Fields of Expertise Number of Members Percentage

Non-K-12 Educators

University Professors 10 24%
Science Education Consultants 2 4%
CEO/Private Corporations 3 7%
Non-K-12 Educators 15 35%

Curriculum Specialists

Curriculum Directors – Instructional Specialists 12 29%

K – 12 Teachers

Elementary Teachers 4 9%
Middle School Teachers 5 12%
High School Teachers 5 12%
Total Teachers 14 33%

Table 1. NGSS Writing Team Members by Expertise Area

The Nature of the Standards

The NGSS are organized like standards from the past, into content domains including: (if you click on any of these links it will bring to the NGSS for that content area.)

As you can see the standards are organized into four distinct disciplines or core areas.  If you click on any of the categories within the main content areas, you will then be at the level where you can read the standards, and also the information from the Framework for K-12 Science Education that was used to write the performance expectations.  Three columns of information are arranged to highlight these ideas:  science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts.

Middle School Earth Space Science Performance Expectations

I’ve chosen the Middle School Earth Space Science (ESS) performance objectives as representative of the NGSS to evaluate.  There are Earth Space Science performance expectations at each grade level (K-HS).  Here is the complete list of Earth Space Sciences major categories extracted from the NGSS website here:

Table 2.  NGSS Earth Space Science Performance Expectation Categories for the Earth Space Sciences Domain.  Note: The links are live.
All of the topics that included in this list have been included in the previous standards iterations, including the NSES, our work on the Florida Assessment Project, the NAEP Science.  What strikes me is the linearity of the structure of the NGSS.  We have a list of topics, but there is attempt to show the content schematically perhaps using a tool such as Mindmeister where webs can be created to show how ideas interconnect and relate to one another.
Writing a set of texts for Earth and Space Science would be quite straight forward.  Give each writer a subset of the performance expectations, and assign them the task of writing a unit or mini-book of activities, projects, content, interactions that are true to the four or five standards for the topic.  When authors for the NSF curriculum project ISIS were assigned to write a content module, they were given a set of performance expectations, and told, turn these into interacting activities and content.
But in my own view, one of the major uses of the NGSS will be to create assessments that will be used to continue the madness of high-stages testing. By writing the standards as behavioral statements, it will be very easy for test construction engineers to push out lots of pineapple type questions.

Each standard is written in the form of a behavioral objective.  A good behavioral objective ought to be a statement of what students are expected to do, learn or know.  The NGSS uses the term performance expectation to define its standards, and it seems to me that this is the definition of a behavioral objective, an ideas that was at its height in the 1970s.

Inside a NGSS Standard

I’ll give you two examples from the NGSS from the Earth and Space Sciences.  This is a performance expectation from the history of the earth (MS.ESS-HE or Middle School.Earth Space Science-History of Earth):

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

  • Construct explanations for patterns in geologic evidence to determine the relative ages of a sequence of events that have occurred in Earth’s past
  • Use models of the geologic time scale in order to organize major events in Earth’s history.

Each standard included the three dimensions that NRC and Achieve describe as a vision of what it means to be proficient in science.  The blue part of the standard are meant to be the science and engineering practices—-what scientists and engineers do—construct explanations, use models, use empirical evidence, etc.  This is the “action” part of the standard, and it is designed to make assessment of the standard straight forward.  The orange part of the standard is the disciplinary core idea (the content), and the underlined part of the standard is the crosscutting concept, ideas that have application across content area such as patterns, similarity, and diversity, cause and effect, scale, and so forth.

So the Earth Space Science domain of the NGSS has 17 categories or topics as shown in Table 2.  Generally speaking there are four objectives per topic, so in all the NGSS has about 103 Earth Space Sciences standards.  We might estimate that there are slightly more than 400 science standards in the NGSS.

One can be fooled by the way content is presented on the Web.  The organizers of the NGSS did a very good job of creating a Website that can be navigated fairly easily, and also provide supporting materials.

But, in my own analysis of the standard statements, the scope and sequence of the Earth Space Science section is not new, nor does it appear to based on any structural components that would lead us to think that this concept should be introduced at the elementary level, and this concept at the middle level.

I am also concerned that there are no graphics showing how ideas relate to each other.  Science educators, of all people, should have included graphic organizers and used them to get out of their linear mode of thinking.  There are certainly many examples, and conceptual approaches to do this.  The AAAS Atlas of Literacy would be good bet.

What Can We Expect?

There is no doubt that Achieve, Inc., and its long list of partners and financial supports will charge ahead and ready the draft documents for final presentation and publication next year (at least that’s their plan).  Their long term goal is to have all of the states adopt the NGSS.  There are 26 states that are ‘lead’ partners in this effort, and although they did not have to commit to the standards, there will be great pressure for these states to do.

However there is a serious push-back occurring in the States right now over the Common Core Standards.  School districts across the country are signing petitions refusing to participate in high-stakes tests, which of course are part of standards-based reform effort.

In previous blog posts I have argued using research in the field of science education that science standards present barriers to learning.  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. In her research, Wallace uncovers evidence that the use of standards by practicing science teachers pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning.  She cites two aspects of authoritarian standards that cause this barrier:

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 with the release of the public draft of the NGSS, and the fact that most likely the 26 states that working as partners with Achieve will adopt the NGSS as their state standards.  If most of the states did this, as was done with the Common Core State Standards in math and English/language arts, we move the country closer to a national curriculum.  But what is worse yet, there are national assessments coming in math and English/language arts, and science.  These will be used to hold all teachers hostage to a set of standards developed by very few practicing teachers.

I agree with Chemtchr’s guest post over at Anthony Cody’s blog, Living in Dialog.  Chemtchr, a high school science teacher and she explains that the NGSS is using reverse engineering to produce a product that will be used for assessment purposes, with very little teacher education.

Then she says this, and we need to take heed to her insights:

I’m not willing to pretend this is a genteel dispute among contrary theorists of education progress. The “partners” in the Common Core development include many of our largest and most powerful corporations, several with long histories of fierce monopolistic battles. Pearson Education is one partner, and the Gates Foundation is functioning as a tax-exempt advocacy arm for Microsoft itself.

Through ignorance, arrogance, or the narrowness of their self-interest, politically connected corporatists are about to perpetrate a massive for-profit take-over of science education that will do long-term damage to the very foundation of our scientific and technical infrastructure, while they devour our local and state education tax money.

If you advocate or support the development of a vibrant information technology industry, and a scientifically capable people who can actually contribute to the health and welfare of society as a whole, join us educators in our struggle to stop this huge, backwards-engineered insider deal.

What is your take on the Next Generation Science Standards?  Are they going to impact science teaching so that we’ll be more competitive, and students achievement scores will soar?

Guest Post by Ingvar Stål: Humanistic Science Inquiry-Oriented Teaching in Finland

Note: This is the second post by Dr. Ingvar Stål, Senior lecturer in physics, chemistry, and science at the Botby Junior High School. In his first post, which you can read here, Dr. Stål gave us an overview of the Finnish educational system, which provides a basic education to all Finnish citizens ages 7 to 16, as well as a higher education.  In the first post, Dr. Stål helped us understand the overall structure of the Finnish educational system, beginning with basic education, grades 1 – 6, followed by lower secondary, grades 7 – 10, and upper secondary, 11 and 12.

Dr. Stål teaches at Botby School, Helsinki, Finland.  He conducts teacher training courses in science at Turku ( 92,6 miles or 149,02 km from Helsinki), School Resources.  He is also doing research in Science Education for his second doctorate at Interdisciplinary Science Education, Technologies and Learning (ISETL), School of Education, University of Glasgow, UK ( 1098,8 miles or 1768,3 km from Helsinki) under supervision of Professor Vic Lally.

In this post, Dr. Stål writes about the methods that science teachers use in Finnish classrooms by comparing the behavioristic teaching of school physics, which is teacher-centered (TCM) to the humanistic science inquiry oriented (HSIO) method, which student-centered (SCM).  This post is based on a research paper by Dr. Stål which you can read in full here.

By Dr. Ingvar Stål

In class, regardless of the country there is always a central figure – the teacher. The teacher knows how to work with students, in order to involve them in teaching process. The teacher is responsible for the organization of curriculum content for the students.  Therefore, the teacher must have appropriate education for this activity.

Finnish Science Teachers and Teaching

Dr. Ingvar Stål, science teacher and researcher, Botby School, Helsinki, Finland. Copyright © | Ingvar Stål 2008-2009

In the Finnish comprehensive school, teachers still have a respectable position in society. The education of physics teachers takes about 5 years and is carried out by local universities, and as additional training to obligatory specialization.

After this training teachers receive a Mastes Degree in a subject and a Teaching Certificate. For example, a teacher may have a Masters Degree in Physics and Certificate of Teaching in Physics at Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary Schools. In order to receive this certificate candidates must have at least 60 credits in Pedagogy Studies and Practice.

In recent years in the Finnish comprehensive schools there has been a shortage of Physics teachers. In the Finland-Swedish comprehensive school year 2008 only 57,1 % physics teachers had a Teaching Certificate [1]. There are several reasons for the physics teacher shortage: lack of candidates, preference to work as a physics teacher at upper secondary school due to problems with discipline and low level of curriculum content, low salary compared to the amount of work and responsibilities.

The common responsibilities of science teachers are as follows : teaching, preparation of lab work and demonstrations, ordering of material and instruments, design of assessment tests for students, maintain contact with students’ parents.

The teaching process in school physics is a teacher-centered activity. It means that the teacher is the presenter of physics content and students are the recipients.  In the Finnish comprehensive schools, the teaching of school physics and others school sciences is a variation of the three stage model of teaching: Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE [2]), and is described as the Teacher-Centered Model TCM [3, 4].
Continue reading “Guest Post by Ingvar Stål: Humanistic Science Inquiry-Oriented Teaching in Finland”

Why a Single Set of Science Standards in a Democracy?

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

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

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

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

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

Grade Band Endpoints: Factoids of Science

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

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

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

Hip Hop Generation: Humanizing Urban Science Education

The current wave of reform in science education is not in the best interests of the diverse cultures that comprise the population of the United States.  The reform is standards- and test-based, and seeks to create schooling that ignores differences in people, and instead creates an outline of what is to learned for all students regardless of where they live.

During my career as a teacher, I have been an advocate for humanistic education, which is a person-centered approach in which teachers create environments that are experiential and ones in which discovering, valuing, and exploring underscore the activities of students.

While doing research for the first edition of the Art of Teaching Science, I became aware of Dr. Christopher Emdin, through his research in science education.  In particular it was Emdin’s research that focused on science education in urban classrooms.

In the first publication that I found written by Dr. Emdin, entitled Exploring the context of urban science classrooms the concepts of corporate and communal classroom organizations were introduced.

Corporate vs Communal Teaching

Corporate classroom organization occurs when students and teachers are involved with subject matter and functioning that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction.  The primary goal in corporate classes is to maintain order and to achieve specific results, such as scores on achievement tests.

Communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.

Hip-Hop Generation

Find Christopher Emdin's Book on Amazon

Recently Dr. Emdin published a ground-breaking book entitled Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation.  The book provides essential tools for the urban science educator and researcher, according to the publisher.  But it is much more than that.

Christopher Emdin say this about the philosophy that under-girds his book:

In urban classroom, the culture of the school is generally different from the culture of the students.  In addition, a majority of students are either African American or Latino/a while their teachers are mostly White.  Culturally, urban youth are mostly immersed in a generally communal and distinctly hip-hop based way of knowing and being.  By this, I mean that the shared realities that come with being socioeconomically deprived areas brings urban youth together in ways that transcend race/ethnicity and embraces their collective connections to hip-hop.  Concurrently, hip-hop is falsely interpreted as being counter to the objectives of school, or seen as “outside of” school culture.

In the current conversation about educational reform, and in particular, science education reform, the thinking reflected in Emdin’s book should be fundamental reading for science teachers and teacher educators, as well the corporate types that are aggressively pushing the corporate take over of schooling which relies on a very traditional model of teaching.

Hip-Hop and Reform of Education

As I pointed out at the beginning of this piece, my interest was piqued after reading Emdin’s research comparing and contrasting the corporate vs the communal organization of classrooms.  I would expand this to include whole school systems.

The danger we face is that American education is being led to adopt and solidify, through common standards and common assessments, a corporate management style of classrooms and schools.  Teachers and students are together in the service of reaching the goals and objectives (standards) set by outside groups (although only one group wrote the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics and English/Language arts & the same company is writing the common science standards—Achieve, Inc.).  To meet these standards, the same organizations have developed bubble type achievement tests, and mandated that all students should reach the same level of proficiency regardless of where they live.

Emdin’s approach is to encourage classrooms that are organized as communal systems in which teachers and students work with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.

It is obvious that the corporate approach would see hip-hop as something outside of schooling, and reject it as a legitimate form of communication inside education.  Of course, this is a huge mistake.  One of the biggest problems that beginning teachers have who are hired to teach in urban classrooms is their lack of knowledge of their students’ culture, and how to work with students in a culture very different than their own.

The county in which I live in Georgia just turned down the superintendent’s request to hire 50 Teach for America Teachers and place them in south Cobb schools, which reflect the urban culture described above, especially since most of the students in these schools are Latino/a.  The decision needless to say was a controversial one.  The TFA is a large corporate entity that places “teachers” in full time teaching positions in urban schools.  However the TFA teachers have no prior training in teaching other than a four week summer program prior to employment.  TFA will tell you that their teachers help urban students learn more (on achievement tests) than other beginning teachers.  There is little to no evidence to support this.  But because TFA teachers are from prestigious schools and are bright and smart, the common sense notion is that they are the kind of teachers needed for urban schools, like the schools in South Cobb.

Not so according to many teachers in Cobb County and its school board.  Not only is there is a budget shortage in Cobb (as in most other districts), but by hiring 50 TFA teachers would mean that 50 experienced teachers would have to go.  Those who embrace the TFA mantra tell us that they will deliver the best and the brightest, and the most inexperienced professionals for America’s urban schools.   Its not solving the problem, and the teachers and school board in Cobb made the right decision.

Communal Teaching and Reform

The kind of teaching environment that Emdin suggests for urban schools is a communal one.  Communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.  This type of teaching requires not only an understanding of the student’s culture, but the courage and willingness to create classrooms that are based on relationships, empathy, and understanding, and there is substantial evidence that in order to do this the best and most experienced teachers are needed.  Putting unlicensed and inexperienced teachers in urban classrooms is more of an experiment being carried out by TFA rather than a solution to urban schooling.

Emdin provides insight for us as to go about being a teacher in urban classrooms.  Because Emdin places great emphasis encouraging teachers to understand their urban students and he says this:

…it is necessary to understand how students know, feel, and experience the world by becoming familiar with where students come from and consciously immersing oneself in their culture.  This immersion in student culture, even for teachers who may perceive themselves to be outsiders to hip-hop, simply requires taking the time to visit, observe, and study student culture.

Dr. Emdin suggests that classrooms should be viewed as a “space with its own reality.”  In particular he urges us to focus on the “experiences of hip-hop participants as a conduit through which they can connect to science.”  Using the concept “reality pedagogy” teaching in the urban classroom means creating a new dialogue in which the student’s beliefs and behaviors are considered normal, and that the experiences within the hip-hop culture can actually be the way to learning science.

You might want to follow this link to a review of Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation by Jose M. Rios in Democracy & Education.

What do you think about Dr. Emdin’s ideas about teaching and learning in the urban classroom?  What experiences would you like to share with us about teaching?

Standards-Based and High-Stakes Science Education: Frivolous, Capricious & Unreasonable?

Science educators, especially during the past 50 years, have been instrumental in developing curriculum and teaching methods that are intelligent, prudent, reflective, and thoughtful.  Underlying science education has been the well-advised and deliberate attempt to encourage inquiry- and problem-based teaching.  Not only has this been on solid ground in the U.S., but in most nations of the world.

Working Out How Students Learn

During this time, researchers in science education, and in the newly established field of the learning sciences began to work out some of the principles that help us understand how people learn.  Much of this work is described in several publications, including How People Learn (National Academy Press, 2000) by Bransford, Brown and Cocking.

The term that has recently emerged to help us understand how people is the learning sciences, which is an interdisciplinary field including cognitive science, educational psychology, computer science, anthropology, sociology, information sciences, neurosciences, education, design studies, instructional design and other fields.

The research in the learning sciences has led to several findings about how people learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).

1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works.  If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom. 

If you have 30 students in your biology class, you know that not all of the students come into your course with the same preconceptions.  Do we think that it is possible for all of them to leave the class with the same level of “knowing?”

2. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application. 

This principle, which comes from research comparing experts and novices in a field of study, does not mean that students should be fed a diet of factual information.  The principle worked out here means that students must be engaged in active learning and given many opportunities to learn with understanding, to use inquiry to explore ideas, and be engaged with other students in solving problems.

By the way, the test questions that constitute the high-stakes tests are random questions that require memory and guesswork.  Instead of helping students develop conceptual frameworks within science (or any other subject), the high-stakes testing syndrome reinforces the notion that we are testing nothing more than factual knowledge, completely out of context.  How can this process possibly measure the kind of deep understanding that ought to characterize schooling in a democracy.

3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

Many science teachers know that metacognitive tools really help their students understand science.  However, because we are shooting for an end of the year test that requires bubbling an answer form, helping students be reflective and try and take responsibility for their learning goes by the wayside.  Metacognition requires “internal conversation” and teachers who encourage this in their students are pushing hard to overcome the day-to-day pressure to teach to the test.  Helping students be reflective thinker takes time.  Reflective activities such as journal keeping, reflective postings on the Internet, and small group discussions might not fit into a teacher’s schedule if the real premium is on well the students do on “the test.”

The model of teaching that seems to capture these three principles is constructivism.

Constructivism explains learning as a meaning-making process dependent on prior knowledge and individual interpretation. Thus, constructivism is the theoretical framework that supports the enduring push for teaching science by inquiry methods. If teaching were merely the process of communicating a message, then we could simply tell students key ideas (such as the definition of scientific theory) and achieve the instructional objective.

Is What We Are Doing Frivolous, Capricious, and Unreasonable?

So, why is it that science education in K-12 schools has accepted and acceded to standards-based and high-stakes testing that characterizes teaching and learning in today’s schools?

Why has education accepted the notion that one set of learning standards can be used with all students, regardless of where they live?  Why do we continue to administer high-stakes achievement tests to determine whether or not a student has learned?  Why do we assume that these tests measure student learning and that the one responsible for student progress is the teacher when we know that about 70% of the effect on learning is from outside the classroom? Why?

The Next Generation Science Standards, which the developers claim is state led, are far from the realities of classrooms and teachers, and represent a collection of performance objectives that are expected to be learned by all students, regardless of where they live.  The evidence is that where you live has a profound effect on learning, more so than the effectiveness of teachers.  Creating one set of science standards for nation of 15,000 school districts simply does not make sense.

If we want professional societies to develop science standards, all well and good.  But, the selection and implementation of standards should be a local decision made by teachers who have the knowledge and understanding of their students.

Research in the learning sciences would argue against using high-stakes tests.  These high-stakes tests are  frivolous, capricious and unreasonable. The tests are not a measure of what students learn.  They are a collection of discrete test items, written by strangers, that are used in disparate classrooms around the country. State department officials have convinced themselves that their tests are measuring not only student learning, but can be used to compare student scores from one year to the next, and make assertions about learning progress.  I don’t think so.

Community Based Education

The learning sciences can be used as the rationale for more local control over teaching and curriculum development.  Teachers are the ones who know how to implement the findings of the learning sciences to make science learning active and inquiry-based focused on helping students understand science and know how to use science to solve problems.  We need to get out the way and let professional teachers do their work.

The preposterous continuation of holding students and teachers hostage by making them follow someone else’s standards, and someone else’s high-stakes tests makes no sense, except to the officials at state and federal departments of education, and the core group of corporate meddlers.

What do think about standards-based science education?  Do you think high-stakes, end of the year tests should be used?  Do they measure student achievement in your courses?  

Standards-Based and High-Stakes Science Education: Frivolous, Capricious & Unreasonable?  Tell us what you think.