Under the microscope: A cellular look at U.S. science standards
Science standards are not unlike a single, albeit critical, cell within a much larger organism
With the considerable push in recent years for more focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, many state officials found themselves needing to reconsider science standards that weren't up to date. Of course, science standards have long been a topic of debate and controversy in the U.S., oft-politicized for points with interest groups—and the fervent backlash to Common Core standards for reading and math all but guaranteed a national set of science standards would see as heated a reaction as ever.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Consider, if you will, the idea that science is not unlike a single, albeit critical, cell within a much larger organism—in this instance, a well-rounded education. Through that context, the issue of Next Generation Science Standards is a little easier to digest using three of the cell's most critical parts.
What's at the heart of Next Generation Science Standards?
At the core, or nucleus, of the current debate over science standards are the aforementioned Next Generation Science Standards, a national set of benchmarks developed by Achieve, the National Research Council (NRC), the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in collaboration with 26 lead state partners.
A critical component of NGSS is the idea of presenting three dimensions of science. Among these: the practices or behaviors scientists or engineers use to investigate and build theories or models, concepts like cause-and-effect that cut across all scientific disciplines, and disciplinary core ideas that define disciplines, provide tools for understanding, and can be taught in various degrees of depth across grade levels.
But like Common Core, that first bit about "national" standards immediately ruffles some feathers—and not just because of conspiracies involving a nationalized education system. "[Some] states like to have their own identity and do things their own way," said Dr. George DeBoer, deputy director for the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061. "They don’t all want to be part of the whole big national agenda, so you get some states that don’t really want to be part of this because of that."
What ultimately matters is that states are using benchmarks that are up-to-date, whether they be NGSS or their own. Adopting nationally-developed standards, however, has its benefits.
"We were one of the lead states that helped develop those standards, and we had state legislation that required us to develop new standards in the core academic subjects, so it was a good fit for us," said Dr. Terry Holliday, Kentucky's commissioner of education. "When a state does it on their own, it’s very expensive, so this really helped us save some money and saved a lot of time, and we got a lot more expertise involved in developing the standards."
One big source of confusion for many, DeBoer said, is that "standards" or "benchmarks"—which describe knowledge and skills students should have in certain disciplines—are often conflated with "curriculum," the actual content they learn, which is still left largely up to states to determine. This, of course, has been a major sticking point with Common Core, so what makes NGSS different?
Ultimately, it boils down to three topics that made science education a touchy subject before NGSS' time: evolution, the big bang, and man-made climate change. The intense debate over these is, in a sense, part of science education's DNA.
The debate is largely driven by content controversy
For better or worse, science education conversations draw energy from various organizations and interest groups, much like a cell is energized by its mitochondria.
It's pretty much expected that the inclusion of evolution, the formation of the universe, and the idea that human actions have adversely altered climate are called into question will energize certain opposition against any science standards, NGSS or otherwise—at least in the U.S.
"They were not controversial in other countries, historically, at all. Some of them are becoming more so because of some other kinds of things that are happening," said Dr. Molly Weinburgh, Texas Christian University's William L. & Betty F. Adams Chair of Education and director of the Andrews Institute of Mathematics & Science Education. "In mathematics...nobody says you should teach that a 90-degree angle is a right angle. Nobody says that you can’t say that one plus one is two in the same way that they’re saying, ‘I wish you weren’t teaching evolution. I wish you weren’t teaching big bang.' "
Historically, the first two topics have largely seen reproach from religious groups, to little or no avail.
"In the case of evolution, you can’t do it. A state cannot teach an alternative to accepted science," said DeBoer. "You can’t teach creationism. You can’t teach intelligent design. Courts will decide against that."
Of course, that still hasn't stopped some from using the mandate for critical thinking built into the scientific method to push creationism into curriculum. And a quick read of the Next Gen standards for evolution and natural selection reveal that they're largely around analyzing and understanding the evidence, not accepting the theory as fact.
"They always allege that you’re teaching [evolution] as fact, and we always say, ‘No. We’re teaching it as scientific theory. It’s the best theory that’s out there right now, and if you have another theory, let us know," said Holliday. "But it’ll have to be a scientific theory and not a faith-based theory like creationism."
When it comes to man-made climate change, Kentucky's backing of the standards is particularly interesting given its major coal industry presence. West Virginia notably flip-flopped on the issue in January, with coal industry pressure implied. Wyoming's legislature, on the other hand, voted last year to block consideration of NGSS all together, making it the first state to do so at the time. Though that ban has since been lifted, former state Rep. Matt Teeters cited at the time potential harm that teaching man-made climate change could do to the state's economy—Wyoming is the nation's largest energy exporter.
"I think it may be overplayed, you know, because really, scientific process could help figure out how to address burning clean coal," said Holliday. "Man-made climate change is a theory that kids would be exploring and looking at and analyzing...but in Kentucky, like many states, teachers and local school districts choose their own curriculum, so how they address these topics is gonna be left up to schools and districts."
"Any time standards get politicized, it’s bad in the long run for the kids, it’s bad for the state, and it’s bad for the educators."
As Wyoming State Board of Education Chairman Pete Gosar added, "It does a tremendous disservice. I don’t believe in the course of human history that censorship has ever proven to be an effective strategy, and quite honestly, that’s what the budget footnote was, in my opinion."
"Our students don’t just compete for jobs in Wyoming," he said. "They move throughout the country, and by not allowing them to have the best science education that we could possibly give to them, we hamper them in their future and in their willingness and their ability to move on in one of the science fields that are becoming quite important in the world today."
Ultimately, much of the issue over all three topics again comes down to a confusion based in vocabulary: the public's general understanding of the term "theory" differs with its scientific usage. In science, a theory isn't fact (that would be a law, like gravity, which can be definitively proven by dropping something), but it also isn't a simple guess. Scientific theories have significant, demonstrable evidence backing them up.
"[It's] the idea that science is tentative but durable. When you look over time, you see ideas have come, and there has been evidence to support those ideas," said Weinburgh. "But when new evidence begin to no longer support them, the scientific community has been willing to give those ideas up. Science doesn’t have all the answers. It never will have all the answers."
Yesterday builds today
The Next Generation Science Standards and the conversation surrounding them didn't just appear over night. As an extension of decades of debate over science education best practices and controversies, respectively, each can be seen as similar to the RNA (copies of DNA) produced by a cell's ribosomes.
AAAS, for its part, has long served as a standard-bearer for science education. Its Project 2061 is a testament to that, formed in 1985, the year of Halley's Comet's last visit, with the goal of achieving science literacy by its next visit in 2061. The name, said DeBoer, is "a metaphor for longterm reform and the fact that it takes a long time to get things done." Project 2061's 1993 publication of "Benchmarks for Science Literacy" is regarded as the nation's first science standards document, and was preceded by the 1989 mission statement, "Science For All Americans." The National Research Council followed them up in 1996 with its "National Science Education Standards."
"We served as a model for them and for states to develop their own standards," he said. "Since then we’ve been developing educational tools and resources—some print-based, some online—to help teachers, schools, students, curriculum developers, assessment developers do their work better."
The controversies surrounding evolution and science education predate these efforts, though, and really picked up steam following the first World War. In the 1927 opinion in "John Thomas Scopes v. the State," best known as "The Scopes Monkey Trial," the Tennessee Supreme Court set precedent when it found in favor of a teacher convicted for breaking a law against the teaching of evolution.
"I think the controversy will be there as long as we have some religious groups that feel very, very strongly about evolution," said Weinburgh.
For administrators looking to advocate for the most up-to-date science standards in their schools and districts, the advice remains tried and true, as well.
"The key is teacher involvement very early on," said Holliday. "Teachers were heavily involved in writing these standards, and then in implementing. So whenever you get local politicians like a house or a senate member that wants to express concern about the standards, it’s critical that local teachers are able to talk to that politician about their perception and that they support the standards, because it eventually gets down to ‘all politics is local.’”
Adds Gosar: "I would say just move forward. I think a lot of our districts—15 or more—are already embracing higher standards. They did that without us, but we’re gonna help the other folks to come up with a set of benchmarks that will help them out."
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