Published Online: August 9, 2011
Published in Print: August 10, 2011, as New Science Framework Paves Way for Academic Standards

New Science Framework Paves Way for Academic Standards

The focus is on depth, coherence, and inquiry

Work is getting under way to develop a set of common standards in science, following the release last month by the National Research Council of a framework to guide such standards, with the goal of sparking big changes in K-12 science education across the country.

Top priorities in the framework, crafted by an expert panel the NRC convened, include promoting a greater emphasis on depth over breadth in understanding science and getting young people to continually engage in the practices of both scientific inquiry and engineering design as part of the learning process. Another goal is to promote what the panel calls greater “coherence” in the teaching of science as students progress through school, with the core scientific concepts revisited at multiple grade levels to build on prior learning and help facilitate a deeper understanding.

Achieve, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, will work with states and outside experts to craft a set of what’s being billed as “next generation” science standards for elementary and secondary education, expected out by fall 2012. Organizers say they hope that states from coast to coast will ultimately choose to adopt the standards to replace existing ones.

The effort comes amid strong and growing concerns about the need to improve student achievement in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and as 45 states and the District of Columbia that adopted common-core standards in math and English/language arts attempt to implement them.

“Many of those states are feeling, if we’re doing common things in math and English/language arts, why not in other areas?” said Helen R. Quinn, who chaired the NRC panel and is a professor emeritus of physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center at Stanford University.

The framework is built around three major dimensions: scientific and engineering practices; cross-cutting concepts that unify the study of science and engineering; and core ideas in four disciplinary areas—physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology, and the applications of science.

Funding to develop both the framework and the new standards comes from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. (The foundation also underwrites coverage of district and high school reform in Education Week.)

The congressionally chartered NRC issued a draft last summer, but made significant revisions in response to public feedback, though Ms. Quinn emphasized that the final product still keeps to the core agenda for revamping science education.

The National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va., issued a statement last month praising the framework as holding the potential to bring about “transformational changes” in science education, especially with the focus on better engaging students and bringing close attention to the practices of science.

That said, Francis Q. Eberle, the group’s executive director, cautioned that there’s plenty of work ahead to see if the framework really can spur widespread change.

“That’s the big question,” he said in an interview. “It really will depend on the ways in which it gets implemented. There are many steps: articulation into standards, then what happens for teachers, teacher preparation, for curriculum, for assessments. We’re at the beginning of a journey here.”

Some advocates for computer science and the social and behavioral sciences, however, lamented that the final document did not include a significant focus on those areas, despite a push for significant changes in the framework to do so.

Advances in Learning

An 18-member committee that included experts in education and science from a variety of disciplines designed the framework. It lays out the broad ideas and practices that students should learn and that are intended to serve as the foundation for the new standards.

The new science framework comes more than a decade after the NRC first issued a set of national science education standards in 1996. Separately, in 1993, the American Association for the Advancement of Science published its Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Both documents, which experts say have a lot in common, are seen as having had considerable influence on state science standards. At the same time, the documents have encountered criticism, including the complaint that they contain too many learning objectives for students.

Panelists who helped craft the standards note that not only has science advanced since the 1990s, but so has research on science learning itself.

“We’ve learned an awful lot about how children learn and ways to develop environments to support science learning, and this is our chance to reflect [that],” said Brian J. Reiser, a member of the NRC committee and a professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill. “The research points us to what is possible and helps us articulate this vision for what really effective science education should be.”

Related Blog

In setting the stage for the framework, the committee points to its concerns about the current state of science education in the nation.

“It is not organized systematically across multiple years of school, emphasizes discrete facts with a focus on breadth over depth, and does not provide students with engaging opportunities to experience how science is actually done,” the document says. “The framework is designed to directly address and overcome these weaknesses.”

Mr. Reiser drew special attention to the committee’s attempt to bring better coherence across elementary and secondary education in learning science by promoting the idea that key concepts—such as energy or forces and motion in the area of physical sciences—should be revisited at various grade spans, whether K-2, 3-5, and so on.

“This is not a dramatically new idea, but unfortunately, there are lots of obstacles in our education system that ... work against coherence.”

Engineering and Technology

The framework also contains a strong emphasis on engineering and technology.

“Engineering and technology are featured alongside the natural sciences ... for two critical reasons: to reflect the importance of understanding the human-built world, and to recognize the value of better integrating the teaching and learning of science, engineering, and technology,” the NRC document says.

Achieve, a group of governors and business leaders created in 1996, has already assembled a team of 36 writers with expertise across science and education to craft the standards, said Stephen L. Pruitt, the vice president for content, research, and development at the organization.

Although all states will have a chance to weigh in at various points, a group of at least six to eight states will be named next month to serve as “lead state partners” in their development.

“It is going to be truly a state-led effort,” said Mr. Pruitt, a former Georgia education department science supervisor, with a dozen years of teaching experience.

In addition, a broad-based “stakeholder group” with hundreds of members—from K-12 educators to prominent scientists and industry leaders—will provide feedback throughout the process, he said.

Mr. Pruitt himself was a member of the NRC framework panel, though he had to step down from that position when he joined Achieve’s staff last summer.

Vol. 30, Issue 37, Pages 8-9

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