Blueprint for Science Standards Earns B+ From Think Tank

By Erik W. Robelen — October 04, 2011 4 min read
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A framework for common standards in science issued in July by the National Research Council has been handed a grade of B-plus by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a new report. Among the concerns identified is whether the document provides “undue prominence” to engineering and technology.

The report issued today by the Washington-based think tank gives the framework a solid seven-out-of-seven when it comes to “content and rigor,” but also “finds the strong content immersed in much else that could distract, confuse, and disrupt the priorities of framework users, even though substantial portions of the ‘much else’ have some merit,” write Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn Jr. and senior director Kathleen Porter Magee. (Finn served as an assistant education secretary in the Reagan administration.)

Beyond concerns about the treatment of engineering and technology, the report suggests too much attention goes to “science process” skills. It also raises concerns that the framework’s extensive discussion of equity and diversity,” especially in its emphasis on differentiating content and pedagogy for some minority groups, risks contradicting the framework’s own mandate to frame the same science content for all young people.

The review was conducted for Fordham by Paul R. Gross, a professor emeritus of life sciences at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also served as the director and president of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole from 1978-88. You can learn still more about his background here. He has served as Fordham’s lead reviewer of state, national, and international science standards since 2005.

The review comes as late last month, 20 states were named that will play a lead role in helping to craft a set of common standards in science. The states—from California to Kansas and Massachusetts—will work with Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit managing the effort, as well as a team of 41 writers that includes science teachers, specialists on state standards, and others. And that work is to be guided by the framework released in July from an expert panel named by the congressionally chartered National Research Council.

For a closer look at the NRC framework, check out this EdWeek story. Top priorities in the framework include promoting a greater emphasis of 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 NRC 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.

But now back to the Fordham report. Here are a few excerpts that highlight some of the concerns raised about the framework:

• On the role of engineering:
“Given the meager hours for science in K-12, is this boost for engineering worth the trouble, the distractions, even the poetry? We suspect the presence of institutional or political considerations, and enthusiasm for the E in STEM as the key to national prosperity, beyond purely rational argument. ... The argument for engineering as a full partner in K-12 science content matters; yet as presented here it is weak.”

The report also suggests that a similar argument could be made for the inclusion of medicine. “Why not medicine, then?” he writes. “Modern medicine, an applied science like engineering, has art in its practice, like engineering; and today both have deep involvement in creating and using basic science.”

• On equity and diversity:
“As the framework notes, ‘Tailored instructional perspectives and additional approaches ... may be needed to engage these and other students in the full range of practices described in Chapter 4.’ We are urged to teach differently to different students, or to teach different or modified subject matter to all, in aid of removing a defined inequity. Yet trying to do that means abandoning a repeatedly announced goal: to have one optimum set of science standards that applies to all students.”

• On teaching the “processes” of science:
“Directly and indirectly, the framework, like its predecessors, is making (scientific) reasoning a part of content, to be part per se and learned, for which standards must be set. ‘Scientific reasoning’ is a catch phrase in current literature on K-12 science, a major part of science ‘processes.’ ” ...

... But the state of the data does not convince us that the heavy labor of installing process learning per se, as in this framework, is fully justified by the highest standards of evidence. ... This framework does move away from the vagueness of ‘inquiry learning’ and other constructivist favorites to the more specific science processes. That is a welcome change. But potential confusion remains.”

Finn said his organization will review the common science standards themselves when they are issued, but also said it was worth taking a look at the framework that is intended to guide them.

“It seemed to us that it was important to actually evaluate the framework before the standards writers get too far down the path,” he said in an interview, noting that no such framework was prepared to guide the development of the common standards in mathematics and English/language arts. “This is like writing a review of a cookbook rather than a restaurant. Nothing has been cooked yet, you can’t taste it yet, but we’re looking at what the ingredients are and cooking techniques ought to be.”

In his closing remarks to the report, Gross turns to a different metaphor.

“If the statute within this sizable block of marble were more deftly hewn, an A grade would be within reach—and may yet be for the standards-writers, so long as their chisels are sharp and their arms strong.”

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