Social, Behavioral Sciences Left Out of Standards Blueprint

By Erik W. Robelen — July 25, 2011 4 min read
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Last summer, 39 organizations banded together to issue a sharply worded letter protesting a draft framework for new national science standards. Their gripe? The absence of social and behavioral sciences as “core sciences” in the document.

“The framework ... needs to change fundamentally so that major areas of science are not omitted,” wrote groups representing an assortment of fields, including the American Psychological Association, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the Society for Research in Child Development, and even the American Educational Research Association.

A year later, the National Research Council’s blueprint for new science standards is out in final form, but the social and behavioral sciences failed to gain a significant focus.

(Late last week, I blogged about similar complaints from computer science advocates.)

However, the decision was by no means intended as a sleight, according to the NRC panel convened to draft the framework. In fact, the final report notes that the NRC plans to host a workshop this fall on what core ideas in the social and behavioral (as well as the economic) sciences would be appropriate to teach at the K-12 level and at what grade levels to introduce them.

"[T]he committee strongly believes that these important disciplines need their own framework for defining core concepts to be learned at the K-12 level,” the panel writes. “There is much work to be done to address the role of these sciences in the development of an informed 21st century citizen.”

Later, in an appendix, the panel adds: “The committee considers the behavioral and social sciences to be part of science, but for a number of reasons we think it is inappropriate at this time to include them as a separate disciplinary area with its own set of core ideas. The primary reason is that these subjects are not currently part of what is considered the K-12 science curriculum. To include them here would speak to a major reorganization of K-12 schooling, which would go far beyond the committee’s charge and, indeed, the professional expertise of the committee.”

(The panel also notes that even though the behavioral and social sciences were not included as a separate discipline, “we did make efforts to discuss them explicitly throughout the document and particularly to identify places where they intersect with the framework’s three dimensions.”)

Steven Breckler, the executive director for science at the American Psychological Association, told me that he understands the decision the NRC made, but that he and others remain deeply disappointed.

“What it’s going to do is speed ahead with a form of science education that sustains what we’ve always done in terms of the substantive domains,” he said. “We’ll have yet another generation of children learning what science is, and what science is not, and continuing to develop holes in their knowledge.”

Breckler said he is pleased about the upcoming NRC workshop, but suggested it’s far from clear whether that discussion will lead to the actual development of a national framework and standards in the behavioral and social sciences.

“Like almost everything the NRC does, it’s going to come down to funding,” he said. “Finding the money [to support such an effort] is going to be a little harder.”

Breckler also said it would have been preferable to build the behavioral and social sciences into the existing NRC framework, since that document is guiding the development of standards that may well see broad adoption in states. He worries that it might be far more difficult to get states to pay attention to a set of standards separately developed for the behavioral and social sciences.

Martin Storksdieck, the director of the Board on Science Education at the National Academies, said the concerns raised in the letter were taken very seriously. (Keep in mind that the Board on Science Education itself is part of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education at the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academies.)

“It’s tricky because we are so much in sympathy with the notion that not all of the sciences are represented in the framework,” he said.

Storksdieck said the upcoming NRC workshop, scheduled for Nov. 17-18, represents an important opportunity to explore K-12 education in the social and behavioral sciences in greater depth and examine the potential for developing a separate NRC framework in those areas.

Asked whether such a standards framework might have trouble generating much notice from states and other key players, Storksdieck acknowledged that this could be a challenge, but said it’s no reason not to proceed.

“You have to begin somewhere,” he said. “If we don’t have a framework, you could never take off. ... I personally think that a framework for the social and behavioral and economic sciences would be extremely useful, because it would be a guiding, initial document, ... and give folks something to rally around.”

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