Work Begins on ‘Next Generation’ of Science Standards

February 09, 2010 8 min read
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A national effort is getting under way to craft a set of “next generation” science standards for elementary and secondary education that are intended to reshape the focus and delivery of instruction across U.S. schools.

The congressionally chartered National Research Council late last month convened for the first time a 16-member panel of experts here that has the task of devising a “conceptual framework” to guide the new standards.

The organizers hope the initiative will play a critical role in reshaping state science standards. The effort is separate from the process now taking place with the support of 48 states to craft common standards in mathematics and English/language arts. (“State School Boards Raise Questions About Standards,” Feb. 3, 2010.)

It also comes amid growing interest in promoting education in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, including from President Barack Obama and state governors. Many policymakers and analysts have expressed concern about disappointing levels of science achievement among American students.

Thomas E. Keller, a senior program officer at the NRC’s board of science education, said two central goals of the project are to focus science instruction on a smaller set of critical concepts and to ensure that students don’t just learn facts and figures, but gain a deeper conceptual understanding of science that is grounded in thinking and reasoning skills.

“The research is pretty clear that helping kids answer the right fill-in-the-bubble [questions] doesn’t make them science-literate,” he said. “And our goal is, we want a scientifically capable society.”

The NRC panel will identify and articulate a small set of what officials are calling “core ideas” in each of the major science disciplines, as well as those ideas that cut across disciplines.

That approach, and the very phrase “core ideas,” echoes a 2006 NRC report, “Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8,” that called for an overhaul of science education in the United States.

The approach also has echoes of the much-publicized curriculum guidelines issued the same year by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Those guidelines offered a streamlined set of crucial math skills and principles that elementary and middle school students should master. (“Math Organization Attempts to Bring Focus to Subject,” Sept. 20, 2006.)

The NRC says the framework committee, composed of experts in the science disciplines and education, will draw on current research on science learning, as well as research and evaluation evidence related to standards-based education reform, in undertaking its work.

Once the framework is final, it will be used as the basis for teams from three national organizations—the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, a group formed by governors and business leaders—to collaborate on writing the standards.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York is providing financial support for developing both the framework and the standards. (Carnegie also provides grant support to Education Week.)

A draft framework will be put out for public comment in late spring or early summer, Mr. Keller said, with a final document ready by fall. The standards themselves are expected to be completed in about two years, said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve.

‘Too Much Information’?

The initiative comes nearly 15 years after the NRC first issued a set of national science education standards, in 1996. Separately, in 1993, the AAAS 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.

The documents have faced criticism over time, however, including the charge that they contain too many learning objectives.

“Everyone seems to agree that there’s just too much information in both documents,” said Richard A. Duschl, a professor of science education at Pennsylvania State University. “And when that gets put into the hands of people at the state, ... you start to get the problem of coverage rather than spending time on deep understanding or enduring understanding.”

In any case, one motive for writing new standards is that much has changed since the early to mid-’90s, not only in science itself, but in understanding how young people learn about the subject.

“We’ve had a lot more research on science learning,” Mr. Keller said. “The research base is much stronger now. ... We have the opportunity to apply that in a much better way to the things we think kids should know and be able to do.”

In addition, experts say, a great deal has been learned about how standards do, and often do not, effectively shape instruction and learning in schools, which they hope will help guide the effort.

The NRC’s “Taking Science to School” report is expected to play an especially key role in informing the framework and ensuing standards.

It raised concerns about the state of science standards, assessments, and curricula.

“Many existing national, state, and local standards and assessments, as well as the typical curricula in use in the United States, contain too many disconnected topics given equal priority,” the 2006 report found. “Too little attention is given to how students’ understanding of a topic can be supported and enhanced from grade to grade.”

It advised that the “next generation” of standards and curricula at the state and national levels “should be structured to identify a few core ideas in a discipline and elaborate on how those ideas can be cumulatively developed over grades K-8.” It also called for better alignment across standards, assessments, curricula, and teacher professional development.

In addition, the report said many standards and widely used curriculum materials “fail to reflect what is now known about children’s thinking, particularly the cognitive capabilities of younger children.”

Implemention Issues

James W. Pelligrino, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he’s pleased to see the national-standards work in science getting started.

“Many in the science education community feel that we’ve needed to do something with respect to rethinking science education in the United States for quite some time,” said Mr. Pelligrino, who serves on the NRC panel. “It is very incoherent in terms of lacking a consistent conceptual framework for what students are supposed to learn in grades K-8, and how that’s supposed to feed in to what happens in high school.”

He added, “We need to rethink what science students really need to learn, and how we might best structure that across the K-12 spectrum.”

At the NRC meeting in Washington, held Jan. 28-29, participants discussed a range of issues related to the framework and standards, including concerns about how to be sure their work will reach schools. (Only a portion of the Jan. 28 meeting was open to the public.)

“Are we going to produce something that sounds good, but where we have not really confronted the actual ... issues of [effectively] implementing it?” said panelist Marc W. Kirschner, a professor of systems biology at Harvard University.

“One of the problems states have with standards is they cost money to implement, and also there is the question of the instructional materials available,” said Brett P. Moulding, a panelist and the director of the Utah Partnership for Effective Science Teaching and Learning, a five-district professional-development collaborative. “You have this wave, but you don’t have a surfboard.”

Meanwhile, the panel’s chairwoman, Helen R. Quinn, a professor of physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center at Stanford University, said a big challenge ahead is moving from conceiving the core ideas to figuring out what students really need to know.

“The top-level, big ideas are relatively easy to agree upon,” she said. “What is much more difficult is how far down [to go], and what details do students need to know.

Added Ms. Quinn: “The question is: What’s the right level of understanding of those ideas, and what are the minimum things you need to know ... for scientific literacy?”

Another question the panel pondered was how far to veer from the previous NRC standards.

“As we look back on it, do we need new standards that are really radically different from what we had before,” asked Mr. Kirschner, or “some more contemporary restatement?”

Balance Urged

“You have to maintain the system at some level, and at the same time, you have to change the system,” replied Rodger W. Bybee, a former executive director of Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based nonprofit organization, who is also part of the new science-standards effort.

“You cannot be too bold,” he said. “To arrive [in schools] and say there’s this entirely different thing that especially teachers can’t identify with—they don’t see it; it’s not going to work very well.”

Before reaching schools on a broad basis, the new standards would have to be embraced by states. Organizers hope that states will buy in to the effort.

Mr. Keller said the NRC is reaching out to key groups, such as the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which are spearheading the common-standards work in math and English/language arts.

“What [states] decide to do is their call,” he said, adding that the framework itself is likely to have uses that go beyond state standards, such as informing instructional materials.

“There needs to be a conversation with states around this,” said Achieve’s Mr. Cohen, during a break in the meeting. “I think the job now is to get the substantive work going.”

He added: “If you wanted to write science standards that have credibility, you would want the science community behind it. Here is the science community.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Work Begins on ‘Next Generation’ of Science Standards


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