Statue in a block of marble
Science will soon join the short list of K-12 subjects for which American states, districts, and schools will have the option of using new, common (aka, “national”) academic standards. Is this a good thing for American students and teachers—and for the nation’s future? It depends, of course, on whether the new standards (and ensuing assessments, etc.) are better than those that states have been devising and deploying on their own.
When those “common” standards are ready, we will review and evaluate them. In the meantime, we are completing our review of existing state science standards and planning to publish those evaluations later this year—just as we did in July 2010 for the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) in English language arts and math.
But unlike the Common Core standards, whose authors scoured the nation and the world for evidence and advice regarding essential content and rigor in those subjects for the K-12 grades, the drafters of these “next generation” science standards are beginning with an anchor document—the Framework for K-12 Science Education that was released by the National Research Council (NRC) in July 2011.
At this time, we’ve no idea how the common science standards themselves will turn out. But we can gauge the quality of the framework that will undergird it. How reliable a guide is that document to the essential content of K-12 science? And even if it is solid on content, how good a job does it do of presenting that content in clear, usable form?
We set out to answer those questions by turning, once again, to one of America’s most eminent scientists, Paul R. Gross, who has been a lead reviewer of state and national (and international) science standards and frameworks for Fordham since 2005.
So what did Dr. Gross find? A lot that’s good and strong, timely and useful. He gives the document as a whole a more-than-respectable grade of B-plus and, when it comes to content and rigor alone, he gives it top marks: seven points out of a possible seven. He terms the Framework “an impressive policy document, a collective, collaborative work of high quality, with much to recommend its vision of good standards for the study of science.” In particular, Dr. Gross finds that the progression of content through the grades is intelligently cumulative and appropriately rigorous—and not bogged down by “science appreciation” or “inquiry-based education.”
That’s the good news. But, unfortunately, that’s not the end of it. Dr. Gross also finds the strong content immersed in much else that could distract, confuse, and disrupt the priorities of framework users. He finds, in the Framework’s protracted discussion of “equity and diversity”—especially in its emphasis on differentiating content and pedagogy—the risk of contradicting the Framework’s own core mandate, which is to frame the same science content for all young Americans.
To ensure that the standards this Framework informs don’t end up suffering from the overreach and sprawl that plague far too many existing state versions, standards-writers must make some critical decisions about priorities that were not made by the authors of the Framework itself.
In Dr. Gross’s concluding words, “If the statue within this sizable block of marble were more deftly hewn, an A grade would be within reach—and may yet be for the standards-writers, so long as their chisels are sharp and their arms strong.”
The NRC Science Framework, then, fits into the familiar category of valuable products that are best used carefully, with due attention to users manuals, reviewers’ comments, and consumer cautions. Think of a model train that works beautifully so long as the tracks are properly laid. Picture a restaurant at which you can eat a terrific meal—nutritious, tasty, balanced, and economical. If careless, however, you may find yourself neglecting the good stuff and consuming more than you should of tempting but disappointing fare.
And so we offer this advice to users of the NRC Framework now and in the future: Select carefully.
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