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?

 

In Math and Science, Have American students Fallen Behind?

Is science and mathematics teaching inferior to science teaching in Singapore, South Korea, and Finland?  Have American students fallen behind in math and science?

In the 2008 and 2012,  Science Debate asked presidential candidates (as well as congressional candidates) why have American students fallen behind in science and mathematics and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students for the science and technology global economy?

Following are some “talking points” that Obama and Romney, and congressional candidates might consider as they talk about mathematics and science education.

Table 1 shows the education questions put to the two presidential and congressional candidates.

Science Education Question 2008 Science Education Question 2012
A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th.  What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?  Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st.  In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?

Table 1.  2008 and 2012 Education Question asked by Science Debate

League Standings

In each question, the premise is that American mathematics and science education is way behind other countries based on rankings on PISA, an international study of more than 60 county’s educational system by testing students in mathematics, reading and science literacy.  Based on academic tests, PISA claims to assess literacy in terms of knowledge and skills needed in adult life.  It is important to note that there is controversy around using a test to “measure” higher level thinking and applications to real life.

Dr. Svein Sjøberg of the University of Oslo questions the use of these tests, and suggests that tests such as PISA are often considered as objective and value-free scientific truths, while in fact they are not.  Consequently, politicians and the media misuse test results and create perceptions of a country’s overall education system that may in fact not be correct.

Normally, the results are reported comparing countries in a fashion similar to standings in professional sports, where 1 is at the top, which is typically Singapore, followed by lower scoring countries, and as suggested in the question, placing the U.S.A. 17th out of 30.

And it’s not just a concern expressed by U.S. politicians.  Sjoberg reported (in a study–Real Life Challenges: Mission Impossible) that results on PISA of students in Norway provided “war-like headings” in most of Norway’s newspapers. In fact the commissioner of education of Norway was quoted as saying, “Norway is a school loser, and now it is well documented.”

There is a real problem in using results to compare one country to another. As some researchers have pointed out, the scores reported are averages for the country of the students who took the test. Often the differences between average scores from country to another are not significant, BUT politicians and the media  see that if their country is not NUMBER ONE, “the sky is falling.”

So, when U.S. students score 17th on an international test, policy makers make the claim that science education in the U.S. is in free-fall, and needs to uplifted. Remember, that the score used on these tests is an average. There are more than 15,000 independent school systems in the U.S. and to use an average score on a science test (typically composed of 40 – 60 questions) does not describe the qualities or inequalities inherent in the U.S.A.’s schools.

David Berliner (in a research study entitled Our Schools vs. Theirs: Averages That Hide The True Extremes) points out that the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) data for the U.S.A., when analyzed by socioeconomic levels, shows great disparities and inequalities. For example, schools in the most affluent neighborhoods do well on these tests, but schools in poorer neighborhoods do not. And Berliner points out that scores on international tests will not change unless the inequalities in the schools are fixed.

That said, lets look at the question that Science Debate has posed to our politicians.  Up front, it’s a good question because it will tell us a lot about the candidate’s understanding of our educational system, what tests measure, and what role the federal government should play in supporting American schools and what to do with the math and science “problem.”

Economic Preparedness of Students

If we are going to try to use test scores obtained from international tests to discuss student’s preparedness in a global economy, then we need to explore this connection in more detail.  Is there really a connection?

Why is the perception of science education in the U.S. (and other countries as well) driven by rankings of students on international test score comparisons?  The perception is that U.S. students are not competitive in the global market place because of their place in the rankings of the scores obtained on tests such as PISA and TIMSS.  The same is true for many other countries.

Will the candidates examine the research related to the use of rankings based on test scores to make assessments about a country’s educational system, or the likelihood that its students are prepared to live in the 21st Century?

Iris C. Rotberg, Professor of Education Policy, George Washington University, has shown in her analysis of educational reforms on a global scale that most of the conclusions that we make based on international studies are not supported either by their findings or by research in general.

For example, the most visible conclusion that is made from the international studies is that “test-score rankings are linked to a country’s economic competitiveness.” Rotberg uses data from the World Economic Forum’s 2010 – 2011 global-competitiveness report to show that student test score rankings do not correlate with a nation’s economic competitiveness. For example, on the 2009 PISA international test, U.S. students do not rank in the top 10 member countries in any of these areas: Maths, Sciences, and Reading. The United States ranked 30 in maths, 23 in sciences, and 17 in reading.

Yet, in 2011, the United States was in 4th place in the rankings of 139 countries global competitiveness (dropping from the number 2 place from the last year). The comparisons are made across countries using 12 pillars of competitiveness, including basic requirements (institutions, infrastructure, etc.), efficiency enhancers (higher education, good market, labor market, financial market, etc.) and innovation and sophistication factors (business sophistication, innovation).

Indeed, if you look at the report, student achievement test scores or changes in student scores over time,  are not part of the 12 pillars of competitiveness.

If our presidential and congressional candidates were to study the research by Rotberg they might conclude as she does that:

Other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness.  Continuing to use student test scores is not a valid argument to understand a nation’s competitiveness.

If American students are not well prepared in mathematics, science and technology, how do we account for America’s inventiveness.  The National Science Foundation reports that the United States has consistently led the world in inventiveness as measured by the number of patents applied for between the period 1985 – 2005. and this seems to be continuing. The community of scientists in the United States has consistently produced thousands of peer-reviewed articles per year, and is only exceeded in this output by the European Union, which is composed of many nations. The United States also graduates more people with doctoral degrees than any other nation in science, science education and engineering. Furthermore, K-12 students fare very well on tests, and consistently show improvement over time, and with its peer group of industrialized nations, does very well.

The Imposing Role of the Federal Government

In my mind, the federal government’s role in local education, especially starting with the NCLB Act, and the Race to the Top Fund, and later flexibility requests has created a system of education that is overly hierarchical with rules to make the nation’s schools conform to an imposed set of standards and authoritarian assessments.

The accountability movement that now dominates our schools derives from an authority, and that authority is far from the classrooms of teachers who really know how to work with their students.  Accountability in American schools is based on a conservative world-view, deriving its power from the top, then down to schools, classrooms, teachers and students.  Success is defined by the authority with no advice from schools, teachers or parents.  In general, the  state is able to “raise the bar” on students over time. It’s as if the authority is mad at students (because of scores on international tests?), and punishes them by making it more difficult to pass the tests. Is this the kind of accountability that professional educators would choose?

The AFT at their annual convention in Detroit,  unanimously approved a resolution against high-stakes testing.  Last year the National Council of Teachers of English resolved to call for an end to high stakes testing.  Professors in Chicago and in the state of Georgia, led by EmpowerED Georgia have written letters to government and education officials questioning the use of tests to evaluate teachers.  Based on research in peer-reviewed journals, these professors have provided government and education officials with data and recommendations on the use of testing.  Go slow, and pilot programs before they are imposed on the masses.

Test Score Trajectory: Are We Falling Behind?

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2009 and 2011 Assessments: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2011/2012465.pdf Extracted July 29, 2012.

The latest data was reported this year by NAEP on how American students are doing in science.  According to the Science 2011 report, average scores for eight-grade students was 2 points higher in 2011 than in 2009, which was significantly different.  The only groups of students that didn’t show significant positive changes were the highest performing students.  Maybe they topped out?

We have much better data for math and reading.  Long-term trend NAEP measures student performance in mathematics and reading every four years. The last report was in 2008.  The next report will be in 2012.

Average reading scores for 9- and 13-year-olds increased in 2008 compared to 1971, but the reading score for 17-year-olds was not significantly different. The national trend in mathematics showed that both 9- and 13-year-olds had higher average scores in 2008 than in any earlier assessment year. For 17-year-olds, there were no significant differences between the average score in 2008 and those in 1973 or 2004.

Main NAEP assessments measure student performance in mathematics and reading every two years, most recently in 2011, and then in 2013. Other subjects, such as science, writing, and more, are also assessed.

Although science is not part of the “long-term trend” NAEP testing, NAEP does have data that show trends in science achievement.   According to NAEP, the trends in science are characterized by declines in the 1970, followed by increases during the 1980s and early 1990s, and mostly stable performance since then.  Science (and math) scores have NOT been falling in U.S. schools.  And the data shows that the achievement gap between white and black students is narrowing, but at the level that is acceptable to many.

Are we falling behind?

It is very convenient for some groups to make the claim that the U.S. is falling behind in math and science.  But the evidence is that student learning in science, mathematics and reading has either improved or remained stable over the past thirty years, and during that time the achievements in science and technology have been breathtaking.

American mathematics and teachers are by nature inventive, and readily solve problems in their classrooms every day.  If anything is in teachers’ ways of continuing creative and innovative teaching, it is rules imposed by NCLB  on our schools.  The requirements lessen the opportunity for learning.  On this blog, we have cited peer-reviewed research that indicates that the high-stakes testing, and authoritarian standards impedes learning, and prevents teachers from doing what they are prepared to do, and that is help students uncover their love of mathematics and science.

Are we falling behind?

In mathematics, the only country of similar size and demographics that scored higher than the U.S. was Canada. Most of the other countries that did score significantly higher were small European or Asian (Korea, Japan) countries. The U.S. score was above the average score of OECD countries. Although there were 12 countries that scored significantly higher, there were only three that are similar to the U.S. in size and demographics. We are not ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. (source: PISA Data 2009)

Are we falling behind?

America’s top students’ performance place near the top of all students tested by PISA. For example Dr. Gerold Tirozzi, Executive Director of the National Association of Secondary Schools, analyzed the PISA data from the lens of poverty, as measured by the percentage of students receiving government free or reduced lunches. For example, Tirozzi found that in schools where less than 10% of the students get a free lunch, the reading score would place them number 2 in the ranking of countries.

What role should the federal government play in improving science and mathematic?  President Obama partially answered this question. Here is what he said in this year’s State of the Union address:

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced states to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies — just to make a difference.

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making. (Emphasis mine).

For Obama to say that teachers should teach with creativity, and stop teaching to the test is a remarkable statement give how the Department of Education is advocating high-stakes tests based on a common set of standards. Many researchers would argue that continuing to use high-stakes tests will not result in teachers not teaching to the test. Until high-stakes tests are banned from being used to make decisions about student learning and teacher performance, we will continue to be immobilized.

Obama should reach back to his earlier work in Chicago where he will find the paradigm that will be advance education in ways that I’ve urged in this post.   In his book, Dreams from My Father, Obama discussed his desire to become involved with the Chicago Public Schools.

Obama and his colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced them to one of the school counselors, Mr. Asante Moran. He was, according to the principal, interested in establishing a mentorship program for young men in the school.

In his office, which was decorated with African themes, Obama discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of this short meeting with Mr. Moran, Obama was clearly told that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered Obama his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987:

Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).

Starting with the child as he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of progressive teaching.   Most teachers know and try and act on this philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle.

The locus of control is far removed from the individual teacher’s classroom. The control is centered in state departments of education, and the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). And much of that control creates a conflict for innovative teachers. As responsible professional teachers, they want their students to do well on the high-stakes, end-of-year exams, yet know intuitively that this persistence on testing leaves creative teaching behind.

For science and mathematics education to flourish, teachers need to be set free to work as professionals in their schools.  They are quite able to interpret professional standards in mathematics and science, and do not need to be held to a “Common” set of standards that all students are expected to meet.

What do you think? Are American students falling behind the rest of the world in science and mathematics?

What are People Saying About the Next Generation Science Standards?

The Next Generation Science Standards came online last week, and some of us have read and explored Achieve’s website.  It’s a massive site, so much so that there is a video on how to use the website.

What are people saying about the new standards?  Do they like what they see?  Do they think that the standards’ writers hit a home run, or struck out?

Since the summer of 2011, this blog has studied the literature and research related to standards-based teaching.  When the Framework for K-12 Science Education was published in 2011, the stage was set for the process of writing the Next Generation of Science Standards.  It seems to me that in order to properly evaluate the new standards we have to consider the context and rationale for developing new science standards.

Context and Rationale for New Science Standards

Why do we need new standards?  The fundamental reason that new standards that are now available for public review is embodied in the following statement written by the Carnegie Foundation’s commission or committee who formulated A Framework for K-12 Science Education that is the basis for the new standards.

According to Achieve, Inc., the company that developed the science standards, the U.S. system of science and mathematics education is performing below par, and if left unattended, will leave millions of young Americans unprepared to succeed in a global economy.

The Reasons for the New Standards  Achieve identifies on its Next Generation Science Standards Website four reasons for the need for new standards:

  1. Reduction of the United States’ Competitive Economic Edge
  2. Lagging Achievement of U.S. students
  3. Need for Essential Preparation for all Careers in the Modern Workforce
  4. Scientific and Technical Literacy for an Educated Society

Continue reading “What are People Saying About the Next Generation Science Standards?”

Are Next Generation Science Standards a Brick Wall or a Bridge to Learning?

Are Next Generation Science Standards a Brick Wall or a Bridge to Learning?  After a review of the new standards, one has to wonder.

Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, suggested that brick walls are there for a reason.  The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

Bridges are there to get us across something such as a river or a canyon.  But sometimes we build bridges that take us nowhere?

In this post, I am going to suggest that the authoritarian standards are metaphorically brick walls acting as barriers to learning and teaching.  By understanding how authoritarian standards can prevent teachers from helping students learn, opportunities for change will come to light.

And at the same time, especially after reading the Next Generation Science Standards, I have to wonder where the standards are taking us.  The NGSS website is not a bridge connecting the content of science with classroom learning.  It’s an impersonal document that consists of one list after another of objectives that teachers will have to wade through and be accountable for teaching to a diverse population of students.  The standards are more of a barrier than a bridge to learning.

Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning Science

According to research published by  Dr. Carolyn S. Wallace,  a professor at the Center for Science Education, Indiana State University, science standards are barriers to teaching and learning in science.  She makes this claim in her 2011 study, published in the journal Science Education, entitled Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience.

One of the key aspects of her study is her suggestion “that there are two characteristics of the current generation of accountability standards that pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning in science.”

1. The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fits the needs of their students.

2. The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to achieve them.

And then she adds that these two barriers are reinforced by the use of high-stakes testing in the present accountability model of education.

Dr. Wallace’s suggestions are significant in that nearly every state has adopted the Common Core State Standards, bringing America very close to having a national set of common standards and possibly a national curriculum, at least in English language arts and mathematics, with science next in line to be adopted by each state.

And to further support the notion of inflexibility of the standards, Achieve, the developers of the Common Core State Standards, makes the assumption that one set of standards will provide consistency, and the appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live.  This is a troublesome assumption in that it is in conflict with findings in the learning sciences about how students learn.  Do all students learn in the same way?  How do students prior experiences and conceptions of science concepts fit into the way standards are written?

And on the heels of these standards is the development of Common State Assessments, with funding from Race to the Top Assessment (RTTA), with the goal to develop a technology based next-generation assessment system.  You can read about all of this here.

Wallace’s research sheds light on how science standards have posed barriers to meaningful science teaching and learning.  Dr. Wallace’s research integrates experiential learning theory (her own experience as a data source), and scholarly literature of educational policy, curriculum theory, and science education.  Let’s take a look.

Barriers to Learning

As Wallace points out, the research evidence is very clear that student’s worldviews, and prior experiences are crucial to their learning.  In science education research, the consensus is that students generate their own meanings for science concepts—such as energy, mass, or heat—within a sociocultural context.

Yet, as Wallace shows, the content of the school science curriculum uses a content (of science) and product (of science) model K-12.  Indeed, if you were to look at any list of standards in science (NSES or state standards) the language according to Wallace is “authoritarian” in the sense that the standards as written defines what is to be learned and how it will be “mastered.”  This model of curriculum stands in contrast to the “alternative models” suggested in STS or STSE in the discussion above.

The  content and product model basically says that there is a body of knowledge that must be learned by all learners.  As Wallace shows, its the individuals in charge of curriculum (read standards) that determine the lists of standards to be learned.  The lists of science content to be learned exists without a context, and without any knowledge of the students who are required to master this stuff, and teachers who plan and carry out the instruction.

An important point that Wallace highlights is that teachers (and students) are recipients of the standards, rather than having been a part of the process in creating the standards.  By and large teachers are nonparticipants in the design and writing of standards.  But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, in the first place.  That was done by elite groups of scientists and educators.

Wallace integrates research by Apple and Kelly to show that standards are written in technical language rather than in plain language.  Standards statements are full of technical words that student’s will be held responsible for learning.  But the problem is that standards statements are “decontextualized” into discrete pieces that can be tested by groups far removed from the classroom.

Standards as Bridges

Can we have standards in a democratic society that won’t impede teachers from teaching science, and students from learning science?  In the American democracy, things don’t look very promising.

The Next Generation Science Standards is currently online for review by Achieve, Inc., based on the NRC’s document A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.   Are the new standards provide an alternative to the current status of state science standards, the NSES, and the Common Core State Standards?  After reading them, and a few reviews, it is not likely that the new standards will lead to the reform that the writers assume.

One solution or alternative to the current drive to hold teachers and students hostage to a set of authoritarian standards is to impose a democratic approach in which teachers can negotiate ways to interprete the standards based on the needs of their own student.  She points us to the New Zealand National Curriculum.  According to Wallace:

The new national curriculum in New Zealand is one example of a standards framework, which links reasoning skills with content objectives and leaves the nature of achievement performances open-ended.

Wallace suggests that standards need to allow for more democratic participation, flexibility, and plurality for teachers.  Teachers need to be the professionals who determine what makes for successful learning performance—in the context of local communities and cultures.

Her second democratic principle would firmly enable teachers to do more inquiry-based activities.  This is especially important in that in this case, teachers would have options to engage student in “open-ended reasoning processes and performances.  Done in a context of engaging students in local inquiry would help students “exercise their own thinking skills with the goals of fostering intellectual independence and developing a science identify.”

One of the barriers that standards reform presents is the way in which students are assessed using high-stakes tests.  Instead of tests that are context-based, these tests measure discrete knowledge and facts primarily though multiple choice tests.  Wallace alludes to research by Songer and colleagues on assessments being developed within the context of learning progressions.  Until we either ban high-stakes tests, or change them so that teachers are ones that are involved in their development, we will have made very little progress.

New Roles for Teachers

To clear away standards as barriers to learning, policy makers have to change the way standards are used to hold teachers back.  Instead of using high-stakes tests to effectively create a narrow curriculum based on teaching to the test, teachers should be prepared to design their own curriculum (based on the standards, if you wish), and assess their own students using diagnostic and formative assessment systems.  If the state wants to participate in low-stakes tests such as NAEP, PISA, or TIMSS, so be it.  Not all students need to participate, and in the end bureaucrats will have tons of data to explore.

In Finland, teaching is an esteemed profession.  According to Pasi Sahlberg, director of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, many American policy makers have looked to Finland as a model for educational reform.  As Sahlberg points out, however, many of these policy makers really don’t want to hear what educators such as Sahlberg have to say.  Sahlberg points out that Finland has a lot to offer the U.S., but to simply take one or two aspects of their approach to education, and transport it to the U.S. simply won’t work.

But knowing what underscores Finland’s educational system, helps us see how we are miles apart.  For one thing, all schools in Finland receive equal allocation of funding, all children in have access to childcare, health care, and pre-school, and education is a human right, from preschool to university.

In this context, here is how teachers and the profession of teaching is contextualized:

In Finland, there is a strong sense of trust in schools and teachers to carry out these responsibilities. There is no external inspection of schools or standardized testing of all pupils in Finland. For our national analysis of educational performance, we rely on testing only a small sample of students. The United States really cannot leave curriculum design and student assessment in the hands of schools and teachers unless there is similar public confidence in schools and teachers. To get there, a more coherent national system of teacher education is one major step.

Finland is home to such a coherent national system of teacher education. And unlike in the United States, teaching is one of the top career choices among young Finns. Teachers in Finland are highly regarded professionals — akin to medical doctors and lawyers. There are eight universities educating teachers in Finland, and all their programs have the same high academic standards. Furthermore, a research-based master’s degree is the minimum requirement to teach in Finland.

Teaching in Finland is, in fact, such a desired profession that the University of Helsinki, where I teach part-time, received 2,300 applicants this spring for 120 spots in its primary school teacher education program. In this teacher education program and the seven others, teachers are prepared to design their own curricula, assess their own pupils’ progress, and continuously improve their own teaching and their school. Until the United States has improved its teacher education, its teachers cannot enjoy similar prestige, public confidence and autonomy.

Do you think that we can confront the barrier that standards present to us?  What are some ways that we can make standards more realistic in a democratic society?

ResearchBlogging.org

Wallace, C. (2012). Authoritarian science curriculum standards as barriers to teaching and learning: An interpretation of personal experience Science Education, 96 (2), 291-310 DOI: 10.1002/sce.20470

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”