Getting serious about science

Science education in America is in trouble. "Discovery learning" is attacking on one flank and the Discovery Institute on the other. That's the core finding of our just-released State of State Science Standards 2005 appraisal by the eminent biologist Paul R. Gross, former head of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole and former provost of the University of Virginia.

Fordham undertook similar studies in 1998 and 2000. Why do it again? Because much has changed in five years. Most states have revised or replaced (or launched) their standards to prepare for the testing in science that No Child Left Behind will soon mandate. Also at play are the forces of anti-science, particularly neo-creationists flying the banner of intelligent design.

Simultaneously, pressure is increasing to fix America's slipshod performance in science education . A recent National Academy of Sciences commission concludes that "Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, our economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living." (See here for more.) In his best-selling book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman hammers the point: "The truth is, we are in a crisis now.... And this quiet crisis involves the steady erosion of America's scientific and engineering base, which has always been the source of American innovation and our rising standard of living." Safeguarding the nation's future means paying serious attention to science education in today's schools.

There's ample evidence that it needs work. Long-term trend results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show virtually no change in students' science prowess over the past 30 years. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), American youngsters' grasp of science is actually slipping. In 1995, our 4th graders were outperformed by their peers in four countries; eight years later, seven other lands had 4th graders that bested ours in science.

In 2000, Fordham reviewer Lawrence Lerner conferred "honors" ("A" and "B") grades on the standards of just 19 states, "C's" on 6, "D's" on 9, and failing marks on a full dozen. (Iowa and four other jurisdictions had no reviewable science standards at the time.)

This time around, a number of states did better - but as many did worse. Nineteen states again deserve honors grades - but now there are 9 "C's," 7 "D's," and 15 "F's."

If there's good news, it's that 55 percent of U.S. children attend school in the "honors" states.

But 45 percent do not.

The seven "A" states prove that it's possible to craft outstanding standards despite all the pushing and hollering. Hence we find ourselves wondering why other states don't use those standards as models for their own. And speculating that America might be better off with high-quality national standards for science. How much difference is there, after all, between what kids in Jacksonville should learn about science and what those in Worcester or Terre Haute should learn? (For that matter, how much difference is there between Jacksonville and Seoul, Prague, or Cape Town?)

Five other conclusions also leap out from Dr. Gross's study.

 

First, evolution remains a flashpoint and the intelligent design folks are relentless. (They've even recruited President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to urge "equal time" for intelligent design creationism and Darwin, which is not unlike recommending that mustard plasters and bleeding be taken as seriously as antibiotics and bypass surgery.) A number of states have resisted this madness but too many are fudging or obfuscating the entire basis on which biology rests. Kansas is the worst offender but far from the only one.  (Other observers have reached the same conclusion. A new analysis by Education Week says "many ... standards ... fail to address the fundamental evidence supporting the theory, which explains how life on Earth developed.")

 

Second, "discovery learning" is getting more weight than it can support in science, mostly due to states' over-eager and misguided application of some pedagogical advice enshrined in the so-called "national standards" propounded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Research Council (NRC). If schools taught nothing else, the school day might be long enough to contain a full measure of lab work and student-directed learning as well as teacher-led instruction in fundamental scientific knowledge, skills, and procedures. Given the tight limits within which science education typically occurs, however, and given educators' affection for constructivist pedagogy rather than traditional instruction, U.S. students run a grave risk of being expected to discover the laws of thermodynamics for themselves and to replicate the work of Newton, Einstein, Watson, and Crick. That's crazy.

 

Third, the follies of AAAS and NRC need to be kept in mind not just by states reworking their own standards but also in any effort to substitute national for state standards. The swarming panels of science educators that recently drafted a new science "framework" for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) delivered an inadequate product. (See Fordham's report, Less Than Proficient: A Review of the Draft Science Framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.) The National Assessment Governing Board wisely adjusted their draft - but this bears close scrutiny as NAEP moves from framework to actual science test (to start in 2009).

 

Fourth, many of the shortcomings in states' science standards are easily fixed. What they mainly need (apart from the simple remedy of substituting the outstanding versions already crafted by other states) is deeper involvement by bench scientists and better editing!

 

Fifth, and finally, it bears repeating that terrific standards are no guarantor of a terrific education being delivered or absorbed. Science may be the subject that U.S. teachers are least able to teach well - and the one where the traditional personnel practices of public education (e.g., ed-school preparation, state certification, uniform salary schedules) are least apt to yield the teachers we need in 2005.

Given America's well-warranted anxiety about its future scientific knowhow, one would think that states would do all they could to address this challenge. Drafting rigorous standards is the first step - and a relatively easy (and inexpensive) one. Yet most states have again come up short. So besides pronouncements from blue-ribbon panels and best-selling authors, it must be asked whether we're sincere about improving science education in this country. The rest of the world isn't waiting for our answer.           

State of State Science Standards 2005, by Paul R. Gross


"Report Says States Aim Low in Science Class," by Michael Janofsky, New York Times

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