15 July 2010

Bigger Isn't Always Better

Have you seen the draft Science Standards Framework? In a move very similar to the Common Core Standards for Math and English-Language Arts, "new" national standards for science are in development. The first public draft was released on Monday. All 190 pages of it. Public comment will be accepted through August 2, so if you're so inclined, have a look at the whole document and put your $.02 cents in via the survey. This document will likely drive K-12 science education for many years to come (previous version of national science standards is about 15 years old). It is critical for anyone who has an interest in science in the US to review and comment. Visit the main site for more information.

I need to spend more time with the document, but here are my preliminary observations...

The Introduction starts off with some background on their (National Academies of Science Board of Science Education) vision. It sounds promising:

This framework is an attempt to move science education toward a more coherent vision in three ways. First, it focuses on a limited number of core ideas in science and engineering both within and across the disciplines. The committee made this choice to avoid shallow coverage of a large number of topics and to allow more time for teachers and students to explore each idea in greater depth. Reduction of the sheer sum of details to be mastered gives time for students to engage in scientific investigations and argumentation and to achieve depth of understanding of the material that is included.

It has long been my dream that every content area  identify what is truly essential for students to know and be able to do---not a wishlist of 1001 things kids should regurgitate. Maybe this time, someone will finally show some leadership?

Later in the first chapter, we get to a list of the Core Ideas. This is not so different from other standards that are out there, but the format is new: They take the form of essential (my word, not theirs) questions. I kinda like this. So, for the Life Sciences, we have
  1. How do living things do what they need to do so they can live, grow, and reproduce?
  2. How are characteristics of one generation of organisms passed to the next and what are the consequences regarding inheritance and variation across generations?
  3. How and why do organisms interact with other organisms and their environment? What happens to ecosystems as a result of these interactions?
  4. How can we explain the many different kinds of plants, animals, and microorganisms? Why are there are so many similarities among organisms? More generally, how can the diversity within this unity be explained? What is the relationship between biodiversity and humans?
Each one of those questions has sub-questions. As a teacher, I can see how the questions would be very helpful for framing curriculum development and discussions. Questions engender a sense of wonder. They invite.

And then, there is a metric assload of text to read. I skimmed most of it, slowing down when I got to Chapter 5 and the examples of "Practices for Science Classrooms." Think of this section as a description of skills for investigation. No grade level sorts of goals or standards here, just things that look like this:


I'm not sure if this is more or less helpful than grade-level guidance. I'm also not sure about the term "competent." However, I might be willing to roll with these. I think for secondary students, they're nice descriptors. For elementary, they're too depressing. Who wants to tell the parent of a second grader that the work being done by the child is somewhere in the less than competent range...but that's probably okay because we aren't told when the kid should be competent (let alone proficient)?

Moving on, we finally get to the Pièce de Résistance: Chapter Seven, "Prototype Learning Progressions." This is the kind of thing teachers might be used to seeing, where there are specific learning targets listed by grade band. Here is an example:


Holy Standards, Batman! Oh, and the picture above represents the more shorthand method for these. There are going to also be tables for each of the boxes shown which go into nauseating more detail. The volume of information is overwhelming.

It is at this point that I switched into bean counter mode. There are 12 Core Ideas for Life Science, 14 for Earth Science, 11 for Physical Science, 12 for Engineering and Technology, plus the 16 Practices. Keep in mind that the graphic above is for one Core Idea. There are 49 of these (+16 tables), each with their own lists of learning targets.

The mind boggles.

What is listed for Grades 6 - 8 alone for this "Idea" would take weeks and weeks. What happened to the "choice to avoid shallow coverage of a large number of topics and to allow more time for teachers and students to explore each idea in greater depth" described in the vision for this document? Even divvying up the Core Ideas and Practices among the grade levels means that a student would need to reach mastery for one every two weeks. I know that it doesn't really work that way---we wouldn't teach them in isolation, but that is still too tight of a timeline. There is no way a teacher is going to provide meaningful learning experiences, gather formative assessment, re-teach as necessary, allow for practice with a concept, and collect a variety of summative assessment information in order to determine that students are ready to move forward within an average two-week period. These frameworks are therefore setting up the need for some truly shitty classroom instruction for science.

Look, I'm all for a scientifically literate society. But this document is no roadmap for that. So here are my suggestions:
  • Significantly pare down the Core Ideas for Life, Earth, and Physical Science. Don't make science a collection of facts for students to memorize/learn. In my dream world of standards, there would be no more than three Ideas for each of these areas. 
  • Flesh out no more than 12 of the Practices (asking questions, modeling, interpreting data...). It is more important that we have a public who can think scientifically than recall the details of the Core Ideas. If we get graduates who can ask good questions and interpret data, we have a lot less to worry about in terms of people who don't "believe" in vaccinating children, evolution, climate change, etc.
  • Reduce the number of Core Ideas for Engineering and Technology to no more than six (four would be better). I can't believe I'm actually saying this as this section is the weakest of our current state standards for science. But the ones here show some thought. More importantly, they get at the ideas of creative problem solving I posted about earlier in the week.
Make no mistake, science teachers. These standards will be shoved down your throat in the next year or two. They are being developed by people who do not spend time in K-12 classrooms. Whether you love them or hate them, let your voice be heard...and soon.

5 comments:

doyle said...

I think I gave you an "AMEN!" recently....

So how about a "Hallelujah"? (Or maybe not--tough to spell.....)

Joe said...

The grades 6-8 section reminds me of the current Indiana standards, way too much is expected and there isn't enough time. I teach 6, 7, and 8 grade and right now each grade level has about 70 standards. Thankfully, Indiana just adopted new science standards that take effect for the 11-12 school year. With the new standards, each grade will have a little over 30 standards and 10 of those are more process skills than content (of course, I can't find the new standards now because the DOE website is awful).
When I was young, naive, and in college, Indiana was just moving towards standards and I was very much in favor of them. After actually trying to squeeze all the standards with all the disruptions to a school year, I am excited for the changes coming to Indiana's standards and being able to actually take some time with things. What you're saying about the "National Standards" feels like a step backwards and makes me cringe.

The Science Goddess said...

I really hope that this group listens and responds to teacher input. This document is ridonkulous.

@educatoral said...

I too teach middle school, 6th and 8th next year. The way I see it I don't stress covering all the standards. It's not right. So I start by choosing some to start off with and I let students choose some topics they want to learn (no matter what topic they choose there is a standard to go with it). If I don't get to a lot of it that's okay. The new learning progressions may have a lot but if they don't cut it down we have to cut it down ourselves for our students. It's like choosing Power Standards. Choose the ones that you will spend most of your time on.

The Science Goddess said...

I used to select Power Standards, too...but I have to say that I kind of resent the need for them.

If those writing the standards would make the effort to identify critical content at the beginning, we wouldn't need Power Standards.