Education Opinion

A Science Teacher’s View: The Backward-Engineered Common Core Science Standards

By Anthony Cody — May 14, 2012 6 min read
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Guest post by Chemtchr.

Last Friday afternoon, Achieve’s “Next Generation Science Standards”, as they’re calling their Common Core, finally became available. Their “public comment” interval ends June first.

I’m going to argue this Common Core was specifically designed to narrow the scope of education to skills that can be (relatively) easily tested. I described my personal experience with the science core in a comment on Anthony Cody’s blog last month. He asked me to expand it into a column, but I couldn’t do that until readers could examine the actual Common Core science product.

I was serving a term as a volunteer on my state’s Math and Science Advisory Council three years ago. I’m only describing my personal experiences, and can’t speak for the rest of the committee, but some of those experiences were really frustrating for me. For instance, representatives of the DOE came to our meetings and asked us to “integrate” the inquiry strand of our state science standards into the testable bullets. We wrote a beautiful report on the role of inquiry, and the interaction of science and mathematics. The DOE then edited our report without our input, “correcting” our references to laboratory work so that virtual simulations could be substituted.

The Race to the Top application required my state legislature to hurriedly embrace the as-yet nonexistent Achieve Common Core effort, and we were asked for input. I noticed that when Achieve came to our meetings, they sat at the head of the table while the DOE liaison assisted our chairperson in administering their agenda. Then, during the Race to the Top application process, the Gates Foundation sent representatives to our meeting, who showed us the curriculum map which their grantees were creating for the new Science Core standards. The aim was to arrive, by high school, at a discreet set of testable skills.

An example was Newton’s Laws of Motion. The testable outcome had been identified, and standards for the earlier years were being pruned. “Orphan standards” that didn’t lead towards later desired assessment goals were removed, and replaced by preliminary work towards the eventual “higher-level” learning and assessment. One presenter referred to the process as “reverse engineering”, or starting with a solution and working backwards from it.

It was clear the “solution” they were working towards was testing, not teaching.

I protested in helpless horror as double pan balances were removed from our primary schools, to be replaced by assessment criteria for the formalistic recognition by a young child that if she pushes on the table, it pushes back with equal force. There was nothing I (or anyone) could say or do to stop it. The Common Core was a done deal, about to be blindly legislated by state after state in the RttT juggernaut.

Why is this Reverse Engineering Approach So Wrong for Science Education?

One wise systems analyst made this comment on backwards-engineered solutions:
“I heard someone say, “backwards-engineer a solution” on a conference call today. I think he meant, “reverse-engineer,” but it got me thinking about when we pass “backwards-engineering” off as “forward-thinking.”
-Amusingly Moss

The “Next Generation Science Standards” have set out to backwards engineer the whole science curriculum into a coherent, self-validating tool. The goal all along was an instrument to market both teaching and assessment products to a captive education system, not to provide a framework for good teaching of the sciences. In addition to all the historical evidence for this interpretation, we can now examine the document itself.

Here’s the vertically-integrated physics strand I witnessed as it was being formulated. As I foretold last month, this perfectly reasonable standard appears in Achieve’s science standards for grades 9-12:

Plan and carry out investigations to show that the algebraic formulation of Newton's second law of motion accurately predicts the relationship between the net force on macroscopic objects, their mass, and acceleration and the resulting change in motion. [Assessment Boundary: Restricted to one- and two-dimensional motion and does not include rotational motion. Does not apply in the case of subatomic scales or for speeds close to the speed of light. Calculations restricted to macroscopic objects moving at non-relativistic speeds.]

- Forces and Motion (a)

And here are the standard’s bizarre new primary grade antecedents, for grades K-2:

Investigate the effect of pushes and pulls of different strengths on the resulting motion of objects. [Assessment Boundary: Simultaneous pushes and pulls to be along a single line; pushes and pulls to be between objects in contact. Students not to be assessed on quantitative relationships.]
Construct an explanation for why an object subjected to multiple pushes and pulls might stay in one place or move. [Assessment Boundary: Pushes and pulls to be between objects in contact.]

- Pushes and Pulls (b,c)

For this, the children have lost their double-pan balances. Achieve is touting its opus as being “based on” input from its partners, including the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They claim their standards “are promoting depth over breadth in science education, ensuring greater coherence in learning across grade levels, and helping students understand the cross-cutting nature of crucial concepts, such as energy and matter, that span scientific disciplines.”

In fact, we can readily see that their standards are made out of picked bones. These standards actually don’t span anything much, and connect nothing but assessment boundaries. In this case, less isn’t more. We would be forced to devote all the formative, developmental years to consumption of standards-based learning products and assessments, in absurdist preparation for future standards-based product lines.

What Will We Lose if this Backwards-Engineered Core is Adopted?

Satisfactory decision-making in complex situations often requires keeping a number of possibilities open and adopting several solutions. Whatever the choice, pursuing one or more smaller, related problems and their possible solutions results in a large number of other problems and potential solutions ceasing to be considered. Particular difficulties arise when the solution takes on a life of its own in such a way that it begins to dictate the perception of the problem rather it being an answer to the problem.

- connected.org

The forward-looking possibilities we need to keep open are the stuff of education itself. In this closed-off, test-based approach, sponsored by the data-driven assessment industry, Achieve has produced an obstacle to teaching and learning.

Their real goal was a seamlessly integrated product line, and that blinded them to potential solutions inherent in a rich primary and elementary education experience. Test-based accountability has taken on a life of its own, and now its flagship, the Common Core, misdirects our efforts rather than offering any answer to our real challenges.

Wikipedia describes reverse-engineering like this:

“The purpose is to deduce design decisions from end products with little or no additional knowledge about the procedures involved in the original production.”

- Wikipedia, Reverse Engineering

Education isn’t an alien starship we’re trying to replicate, though. We educators and researchers possess a great wealth of knowledge about the processes and procedures involved in children’s intellectual development and in science learning. Instead of using that knowledge base, the Common Core developers essentially outlawed it in favor of the longest, narrowest test-prep regimen in history.

One Core to Rule Them All

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 do you think? Has the Common Core started with what is testable and worked backwards? Is this a dead end?

Chemtchr teaches science and advises a student service club at a public high school in a diverse low-income community. She is a graduate of UC Santa Cruz and MSU Bozeman, and has taught in urban community-based programs and at a tribal college, as well as in public districts. She’s active in Citizens for Public Schools, and in local and state councils.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.