Time to Review Online: National Research Council Framework for Science Education

In a post that I wrote in February, I announced that the National Research Council had received funding from the Carnegie Foundation to develop a “conceptual framework for a new generation of science standards.”  The conceptual framework has been completed in a public draft that is now ready for review.  There is an online questionnaire that you can complete to provide the NRC with your feedback. A very good review by Eric Brunsell is posted on his blog, and he provides details on the process expected for development of the next generation science standards.

In February I wrote that much of the rationale for this new NRC project can be found in the 2006 report (follow the link to read the report online) by the NRC entitled “Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8.” One of the goals of the “new standards” committee is to develop a rationale that will focus on a few “core concepts” in each of the major science disciplines, as well as those ideas that cut across disciplines.

In the Carnegie Corporation announcement of the NRC project, the focus of the new framework is as follows:

Given the proliferation of knowledge in the sciences, particularly knowledge that blurs the lines between traditional science disciplines (e.g., chemistry or biology), the identification of core ideas has greater importance for organizing curriculum, teaching and learning. The core ideas in science around which the education framework may be developed include physical sciences, life sciences, earth sciences and applied sciences, as well as cross-cutting ideas such as mathematization*, causal reasoning, evaluating and using evidence, argumentation, and model development. The framework will look at student learning in at least 4th, 8th, and 12th grade.

The present National Science Education Standards (NSES) were published in 1996 by the National Research Council and were designed to “guide our nation toward a scientifically literate society.”  Many would question that after 15 years of “standards-based” science teaching, whether the goal of scientifically literate society has been reached.

I was particularly interested in research related to the standards, as well criticism and comment on the influence and impact of the NSES.  Unfortunately there is not a large body of research to help one answer questions about the standards influence.  There are several pieces of literature that standout in the science education research field that might help us shed light on the 1996 NSES.

In a 1998 issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, professor Alberto J. Rodriquez published a critical review essay in which he argues that the NRC’s 1996 Science Standards uses a discourse of invisibility to lay out its massive reform for science education.  He claims that the standards do not directly address the ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, and theoretical issues that influence learning in contemporary American schools.  Rodriques goes further to suggest that equity must be a guiding principle in science education, and the standards should reflect this same principle.  Rodriques has written other critiques, and you can find one of his articles Maxwell Hines 2003 book, Multicultural Science Education.  In reviewing the documents for new generation of standards, Professor Rodriques was part of a panel on equity and diversity in the new standards at the 3rd NRC Framework Committee meeting.

Angelo Collins has published research that asserts that the NSES were developed within a political context, and as such the document should be viewed as a political document.  Collins, who was one of the authors of the 1996 NSES, reviews the process that resulted in the NSES, and provides a rationale showing that the NSES is a political document: political in context, political in process, and political in intent.

There are other research studies on the standards, such as by Krajcik on how the curriculum materials can be aligned with the NSES, by Anderson and Helms on needed research on the standards, by Donnelly and Sadler on how high school science teachers view the standards.  You will find links to these below.

Perhaps the most valuable research by Hollweg and Hill (2003) entitled What is the Influence of the National Science Education Standards?: Reviewing the Evidence, A Workshop Summary.  The workshop, the results of which were published as this book, explored the influence of the NSES on curriculum, professional development, assessment and accountability, and on student achievement.  Five research papers were presented at this workshop, each written on the topics mentioned here.  Although the researchers could point to relationships that exist between the standards, and say curriculum, there were more questions raised, especially when the relationship between the standards and student achievement is considered.  In his research paper, Anderson reviewed the research on student achievement and science standards.  His comments, quoted here, are important when we consider the fact that a new generation of standards are being developed, and all but two states are now convinced that it is possible to determine the effect of teacher performance on student learning (achievement).  Here is what he says:

Is our focus on standards a distraction from the issues that really matter? If our goal is to improve student learning, should we devote our attention and resources to developing and implementing standards, or would our students benefit more from other emphases?
In summary, the meager evidence in the studies reviewed does not indicate that investment in standards-based practices affects the achievement gap between middle class European Americans and other students. Nationally, the achievement gap between Hispanic and European American students seems to be shrinking, but the data are not strong enough to support the claim that this is due to standards-influenced teaching. It is equally likely to be due to other causes, such as the successful assimilation of Hispanic immigrants into the American economy and culture (Ogbu, 1982). The achievement gap between European Americans and African Americans is largely unchanged.
So when all is said and done, what can we conclude about the questions at the beginning of this chapter? Mostly, we can conclude that the evidence is inconclusive. The evidence that is available generally shows that investment in standards-based practices or the presence of teaching practices has a modest positive impact on student learning, but little or no effect on the “achievement gap” between European American and Hispanic or African American students.

The Framework for a New Generation of Science Standards is being developed by the National Research Council and consists of a Committee of 18 experts (all professors except for a NASA specialist, a consultant from a Utah consortium, and science coordinator from a state department of education; there are no science teachers represented).  In addition to the Committee, there are 4 design teams comprised of 19 persons, all of whom are either professors, academic researchers, curriculum specialists, except for one science educator from a school district.  Again, no science teachers are involved in the details of the content areas that are drafting the core ideas for life science, earth and space science, physical science, and engineering and technology.

For nearly 20 years, standards-based education has been the dominant paradigm in American education (and in many countries around the world).  The development of national standards led to the development of state-wide standards in nearly all the States.  With the passing of the NCLB Act in 2003, high-stakes testing of American students was used to evaluate the “effectiveness” of each school.  Now, all but two states will implement a plan in which part or all of a teacher’s performance will tied directly to student achievement on tests that are based on standards.

Will the effort to develop a new set of science standards undermine science education, or will this reform effort integrate the criticisms of the 1996 NSES? Is the Carnegie funding part of an effort to coordinate with the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers Common Standards movement to create a singular set of standards for America’s 15,000 school district? Are teachers being moved to the sidelines in being involved in making the key and significant decisions about curriculum, learning and assessment? More on these questions to follow. In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

Rodriguez, A. (1997). The dangerous discourse of invisibility: A critique of the National Research Council’s national science education standards Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 34 (1), 19-37 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2736(199701)34:13.0.CO;2-R
Collins, A. (1998). National Science Education Standards: A political document Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 35 (7), 711-727 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2736(199809)35:73.0.CO;2-O
Krajcik, J., McNeill, K., & Reiser, B. (2008). Learning-goals-driven design model: Developing curriculum materials that align with national standards and incorporate project-based pedagogy Science Education, 92 (1), 1-32 DOI: 10.1002/sce.20240

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University