New Science Standards Draw Some Criticism

By Erik W. Robelen — April 30, 2013 4 min read
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With the final Next Generation Science Standards now out for exactly three weeks, reactions are cropping up in blogs, news outlets, and other media. Although I’ve encountered no shortage of high praise for the standards, this welcoming stance is by no means universal. Today, I’ll highlight a few examples of criticism and/or caution about the standards, which were developed by a coalition of 26 states in partnership with several national organizations.

One of the most outspoken critiques I’ve seen was published earlier this month on a blog hosted by National Review Online, an outlet for conservative political news and opinion.

“One doesn’t need to be a global-warming skeptic to be appalled by a new set of national K-12 science standards,” said Heather Mac Donald, who writes on a wide range of issues for the National Review Online, and is also a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She argues that the standards “put the study of global warming and other ways that humans are destroying life as we know it at at the very core of science education. This is a political choice, not a scientific one. But the standards are equally troubling in their embrace of the nostrums of progressive pedagogy. ... The standards drearily mimic progressive education’s enthusiasm for ‘critical-thinking skills.’ ”

This post sparked considerable debate in the comments section of the blog, not all of it complimentary of the author’s take.

Second, Paul Bruno, a middle school science teacher from California wrote an online commentary last weeek for EdSource, a nonprofit research and policy organization based in Oakland. The title says it all: “California Should Not Adopt the Next Generation Science Standards.”

Bruno argues that while the standards “may have much to recommend them to other states, it is unlikely that they represent an improvement over the status quo for California.” He identifies “the most immediately striking weakness of these new science standards is that they are difficult to read.” He also argues that the standards document “overemphasizes skills at the expense of factual knowledge. As a result, I’d prefer to continue teaching under California’s existing standards.” (From all I’ve heard, California, one of the lead states in developing the standards, is likely to adopt the standards this year.)

Here too, scroll down to the comments section at the end of Bruno’s commentary for reaction, including a defense of the standards by the president and president-elect of the California Science Teachers Association, and another from Chris Roe, who leads the California STEM Learning Network. (Here, by the way, is the CSTA’s statement praising the final standards, as well as a statement from the STEM network touting the standards potential to transform California education, and urging their adoption.)

Finally, I’ll highlight a warning for states to “hold your horses” before adopting the new standards, courtesy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank led by Checker Finn, a former Reagan administration education official.

“States are being encouraged to embrace and adopt these standards—and it’s no secret that most would benefit from far stronger standards than those they’ve been using,” write Finn and his colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee at Fordham. They note that in Fordham’s latest grades for science standards, issued in January 2012, the average score was a decidedly mediocre C minus. (Ouch.)

“At present time, however, we urge states considering NGSS to exercise caution and patience, for three reasons,” they write.

Those reasons? In a nutshell:

• First, some “important ancillary documents” are still forthcoming, most notably materials to address alignment with the common-core standards, and a discussion of high school course sequences in science that may prove “crucial” in determining the extent to which the standards will “sufficiently impart ‘college and career readiness.’ ”

• Second, leaving questions of quality aside, a majority of states are “already consumed” by challenges with common-core implementation and will want to weigh how many big changes they can realistically undertake at the same time.

• Third, their early read is that the final version of the standards “suffers from some of the same challenges that were evident in the first and second public drafts.” (You can find the response of their panel of science and math experts to the second draft here.) Key questions Finn and Porter-Magee identify regarding the final standards include: Is crucial science content missing, especially at the high school level? Are the expectations detailed enough to inform curriculum and assessment development? And does the systematic integration of science “practices” have the effect of “constraining and distorting pedagogy by mandating classroom activities, rather than articulating student outcomes?”

Fordham is the only organization I know of that currently is in the business of evaluating—and grading—state science standards. It’s planning to grade the NGSS, and also offer some kind of comparison and contrast with existing standards for each state. (However, I’m told Fordham will not make recommendations on whether an individual state should adopt NGSS or not.) The think tank, by the way, gave a grade of B+ to the National Research Council framework created to help guide development of the standards.

Also, Fordham has proven a pretty influential ally for the Common Core State Standards, especially in reassuring conservative political leaders. So, what it has to say on the subject is likely to get the ear of policymakers in at least some states as they consider whether to adopt the standards.

Meanwhile, leaving aside the critiques highlighted here, the NRC has concluded that the new standards are consistent with the intent of the framework document it developed.

Also, you can learn here which states are likely to be early adopters of the new standards.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.