Panel Moves Toward ‘Next Generation’ Science Standards

July 13, 2010 4 min read
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As part of a national effort to produce “next generation” science standards for K-12 education, a panel of experts convened by the National Research Council yesterday issued a draft of a conceptual framework designed to guide the standards and “move science education toward a more coherent vision.”

One key goal of the effort is to focus science instruction on a more limited number of core ideas that students can learn in greater depth.

“The growing national consensus around the need for ‘fewer, higher, clearer’ [standards] is central to this effort,” the draft framework declares. “There is widespread recognition that too often standards are long lists of detailed and disconnected facts, reinforcing the criticism that the U.S. science curriculum tends to be ‘a mile wide and an inch deep.’”

At the same time, two other overarching priorities of the document are to embrace science learning as an “ongoing developmental progression” that enables students to continually build on and revise their knowledge and abilities, and to emphasize that learning about science and engineering involves the integration of content knowledge with the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design.

The congressionally chartered National Research Council is gathering public input on the framework until Aug. 2, with the final document expected out in early 2011.

“It is a draft that we are putting out for public input, and we are genuinely looking for feedback from educators and scientists and business people and the general public on what they think of the direction the committee has taken to date,” said Thomas E. Keller, a senior program officer at the NRC.

Organizers say they hope the initiative will play an important role in reshaping state science standards. The effort, however, is entirely separate from the recently completed work to develop common core state standards in mathematics and English/language arts. (“State Adoption of Common Standards Steam Ahead,” July 9, 2010.)

Once the framework is finalized, Achieve, a Washington-based group formed by governors and business leaders, will take the lead on developing the standards, in collaboration with states and other interested stakeholders. The standards are expected to be finalized late next year.

Engineering and Technology

The new science initiative comes nearly 15 years after the NRC first issued a set of national science education standards. 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 significantly influenced state standards in science. At the same time, the documents have encountered criticism, including the complaint that they contain too many learning objectives for students.

The 18-member NRC panel, which includes experts in the science disciplines and education, first met in January to develop the framework for new science standards. (“Work Begins on ‘Next Generation’ of Science Standards,” Feb. 10, 2010.)

The draft presents a “vision of the scope and nature of the education in science and engineering that is needed in the 21st century,” the panel explains in the introduction. The framework describes the “major scientific ideas and practices that all students should be familiar with by the end of high school.”

It also includes a strong emphasis on engineering and technology.

“Engineering and technology are featured alongside the natural sciences in recognition of the importance of understanding the designed world and the need to better integrate the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” the document says.

In an interview, Brian J. Reiser, a member of the framework panel, emphasized the need to ensure students move beyond simply acquiring scientific knowledge.

“Science isn’t just about learning facts, it’s not just about learning the ideas, it’s using those ideas,” said Mr. Reiser, who is a professor of learning sciences in the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill.

Four Major Areas

The framework organizes disciplinary ideas in four major areas: life sciences, earth and space sciences, physical sciences, and engineering and technology.

Mr. Reiser said the committee worked hard to stay true to the notion of focusing on a limited number of core ideas.

“We feel confident that we’ve converged on some important ideas, but this is a draft,” he said, “and we’re eager to see what people think.”

Andrés Henríquez, a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which is providing funding for both the development of the framework and the standards, said he’s hopeful that the effort will ensure that students are better prepared in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Part of it is our feeling that there has to be a whole lot more young people who are STEM-capable than we’ve ever had in the past,” he said.

(The Carnegie Corporation provides grant support to Education Week.)

Francis Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va., said it’s high time to develop new national science standards, given advances both in science itself and in the understanding of how students learn about the subject.

“We should be revising these on a regular basis,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week


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