A cadre of 20 states was named last week to lead the development of common standards that aim to reshape science teaching across the nation, with an emphasis on promoting deeper understanding and increased coherence in the disciplines across grade levels.
The states—from California to Kansas and Massachusetts—will work with Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit managing the effort, as well as a just-announced team of 41 writers that includes science teachers, specialists on state standards, and others.
Organizers say drafts of the science standards, to be based on a framework for K-12 science learning issued in July by the congressionally chartered National Research Council, will be made available for public input at least twice before completion next year.
Mitchell D. Chester, the Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said his state was drawn to the effort by the quality of the NRC framework.
“We felt the [NRC’s] effort to define elementary and secondary science education was a great resource for us to take advantage of ... as part of a multi-state effort,” Mr. Chester said.
The effort comes as nearly all states, including Massachusetts, have adopted common standards in English/language arts and mathematics. The development of the science standards, as well as the framework, is supported with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which also helps underwrite Education Week’s coverage of district and high school reform.
“We want to develop science standards for today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce, science standards that really tell a good story over the time a student is in school,” said Stephen L. Pruitt, Achieve’s vice president of content, research, and development, who plays a lead role in overseeing the project. “We hope to develop standards that build a coherent structure over grades and disciplines for all students.”
This summer, Achieve indicated that only six to eight states would serve as lead states in helping to craft the new standards, but the organization received responses from 20 states when the invitation to participate was extended, and decided to include them all, Mr. Pruitt said. “The more the merrier,” he said of the number of states taking part. Achieve, a group formed by governors and business leaders, is happy with both the participating states and the writing team, he said, noting that the list brings both geographic and disciplinary diversity.
The additional lead states are: Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. They will work with the 41 writers to produce the standards, meeting throughout the next year.
In addition, a wide variety of outside experts also will be consulted.
Brett D. Moulding, the director of the Ogden-based Utah Partnership for Effective Science Teaching and Learning and a member of the writing team, said he doesn’t believe the large number of states playing a lead role might reduce the likelihood for reaching consensus, and called the process of guiding state input by the NRC framework “well-structured.” Mr. Moulding also was a member of the NRC panel that developed the framework.
Kansas’ participation in crafting the standards is notable given that the state in recent years has been a center stage for debate over the teaching of evolution. Organizers say evolution is a key component to understanding biology that will be included in the standards.
Another member of the writing team, Richard Duschl, a professor of science education at Pennsylvania State University, suggested that there might be some resistance to how particular topics are treated in the standards.
“While we are very optimistic [that states will embrace the end product], we ... expect some pushback at the inclusion of evolution and some may balk at climate change, as those are contentious issues,” Mr. Duschl said.
The framework, developed by a panel of experts in education and science, was built around three major dimensions: scientific and engineering practices; cross-cutting concepts that unify the study of science and engineering; and core ideas in four disciplinary areas—physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology, and the applications of science. (“New Science Framework Paves Way for Academic Standards,” Aug. 10, 2011.)
Why Get Involved?
Officials in some states, such as Massachusetts and California, said the chance to be involved in creating the common standards was a welcome opportunity, given that it was time to upgrade their own science standards.
Phil LaFontaine, the director of professional learning and support at the California department of education, said a bill recently introduced in that state’s Senate would have California adopt new science standards by March 2013. He said California officials see the common-standards project as complementing the state’s own increasing emphasis on science to prepare students for careers in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Also, Mr. LaFontaine said he’s encouraged that the new framework promotes a deeper understanding of science material, rather than emphasizing rote memorization.
A spokeswoman for the Tennessee department of education said her state was pleased with the common standards in English and math and wanted to continue with a similar effort to make its state science standards more rigorous.
Unlike states developing the common standards in English and math, the 20 lead state partners do not have to commit to adopt the science standards prior to their release, but they must be prepared to strongly consider it.
It’s too early to tell, however, which states ultimately will embrace them; some plan on waiting to see how the process unfolds.
“We want to adopt science standards that represent the best thinking of our educators in Massachusetts,” Mr. Chester said. “At the end of the day, we will adopt what makes sense, revise what can be stronger, and augment what we think is missing. We will rely on our state expertise to make the final decision.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2011 edition of Education Week as States Identified to Lead in Crafting New Science Standards