Volume 87 Issue 34 | pp. 37-38
Issue Date: August 24, 2009

On The Road To Core Standards

A drive is under way in the U.S. to develop common education standards in math and English; science could be next
Department: Education
Keywords: Education, Elementary, Secondary, K-12, Curriculum, Standards
Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

Report after report has bemoaned the state of elementary and secondary science education in the U.S. American students perform poorly on international exams such as the Program for International Student Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study. Multiple calls to reform science education have been sounded, starting with "A Nation at Risk," a report published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983.

Potential reformers confront multiple challenges, not the least of which is the decentralized nature of the American education system. In the U.S., elementary and secondary education standards are set at the state level and implemented at the local level. Every state is free to draft its own standards, and that autonomy leads to a hodgepodge system in which students in neighboring states may be taught different things.

Replacing this patchwork of state standards with a tightly focused set of national standards could result in a more uniform education system and pave the way to broader education reform, according to education experts who back such measures. By stripping down to the essentials of what students need to learn, they believe, common standards could make it easier to develop curricular materials and move education away from the tendency to teach science as a set of isolated facts rather than an integrated whole.

The reform effort is finally picking up steam: A push is under way to draft a set of voluntary common national standards for states to adopt. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association have teamed up with the education reform organization Achieve and the educational testing and assessment organizations ACT and the College Board to develop a set of common core standards for grades K–12 in mathematics and English-language education. So far, 47 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have signed on for this Common Core State Standards Initiative. The holdouts are Alaska, South Carolina, and Texas.

The initiative began in earnest in April, and a first draft of the K–12 standards was sent to the states in July for review, according to Chris Minnich, director of standards at CCSSO. A draft of high school exit standards will be available for public comment in September, and a draft of grade-by-grade K–12 standards should be available for public comment by the end of the year, he says.

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

The initiative participants are using education research to develop "evidence based" standards that connect learning expectations with the college and career outcomes they're intended to achieve. "We're trying to get down to the essential knowledge that would prepare students for college or careers," Minnich says.

Some people are already criticizing the common core standards. In an opinion piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Robert Holland, a policy analyst at Lexington Institute, a public policy organization in Arlington, Va., wrote that the first draft of the standards "makes one wonder if Virginia would be taking a step backward by ditching its standards (generally acknowledged to be among the nation's strongest) in favor of the nationalized version."

But Minnich brushes aside such concerns. "One of the things we've committed to our states is that no state would have to lower their standards," he says.

This round of standards, called the Common Core State Standards Initiative, addresses only math and English. It has no plans to address other subjects. "We know science would be the next logical step to take after we get through this," Minnich says. But "we are still in the middle of the math and reading process, and we're trying to learn lessons from that and see how we can apply them to future subjects."

The U.S. Department of Education applauds the effort to develop common standards but is taking a hands-off approach. "Federal law does not mandate national standards. It empowers states to decide what kids need to learn and how to measure it," Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a speech at the 2009 Governors Education Symposium. "While this effort is being led at the state level—as it should be—it is absolutely a national challenge that we must meet together or we will compromise our future."

Two prominent teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have voiced their support for common standards. And in a National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) survey with more than 4,000 respondents, "overwhelmingly, teachers said national standards are where we need to be," says Francis Eberle, executive director of the association.

Scientific and education organizations believe that the work being done on common English and math standards should be extended to science. NSTA "believes the time has come for states to work together to adopt a common core of concepts and abilities that every student needs to be scientifically literate," Eberle says.

"National standards would certainly make it easier for students to change school districts and advance to the next grade in our mobile society as expectations would be the same in different locations," says Mary M. Kirchhoff, director of the Education Division at the American Chemical Society. "A coherent set of standards, based on learning outcomes and coupled with appropriate assessments, has the potential to provide all students with a deeper understanding of the process of science."

To be fair, national science standards have already existed for more than a decade. In 1996, the National Research Council, part of the National Academies, published the National Science Education Standards. However, no mechanism was in place for states to collaborate in adopting them as a common core. The states adopted the standards piecemeal rather than whole cloth, leading once again to a national patchwork of standards.

The process for revising the science standards is just getting under way. Last week, NRC's Board on Science Education (BOSE) convened a preliminary meeting to discuss how science standards might be rewritten with a focus on core ideas rather than a broader list of topics. "One of the hoped-for benefits of going to a model where you focus on core ideas is it would signal to states these are the things you really want to be at the center of your science standards," says Heidi Schweingruber, acting director of BOSE. The board hopes that its recommendations will serve as the basis for standards developed by organizations such as the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

A recent report from the philanthropic foundation Carnegie Corporation of New York and the independent Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J.—"The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy"—calls for completely revamping the way Americans "do school" and restructuring the education system with math and science at the center. As part of this goal, the report calls for common national standards that are "fewer, clearer, and higher" than the current ones.

The report acknowledges the explosion of scientific knowledge in the past 50 years. "The knowledge base is growing very rapidly," says Michele Cahill, vice president for national programs and director of urban education at Carnegie. "We need to have experts define the essential knowledge in their fields." On the basis of their advice, standards would be reshaped "to counteract the tendency in American education to cover too much material in too little depth."

The American Association for the Advancement of Science supports voluntary common standards in science, says Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061, an initiative AAAS established in 1985 to help all Americans become literate in science, mathematics, and technology. The present lack of common standards forces textbook publishers to write materials that meet every state's standards but as a result lack depth, Roseman notes. "The mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum is almost an obvious consequence of there being 50 sets of learning goals," she says. "No publisher can afford to ignore any state."

Publishers might not ignore any state, but neither can they afford to produce separate curricula tailored for each state—except for large states like California and Texas. The state science standards often boil down to a set of vocabulary words. "What ends up counting as meeting state standards is including all the terms and topics they include," Roseman says. Moreover, at the middle school level, states vary in which topics are covered in which grade. "The consequence is that publishers have to cover every topic in every grade and can't do anything in sufficient depth."

Still, Roseman questions what "fewer, higher, clearer" standards really represent. "You're not going to leave out important ideas," she says. "Fewer could mean a coarser grain size. We can zoom out to the point where we have fewer, more general statements, but then we've underspecified what they mean. That's one way to get fewer, but not clearer."

A way around the problem of fewer versus clearer, Roseman says, is to specify learning goals at multiple grain sizes, as Project 2061 does. As the standards zoom in to finer grain size, they further clarify the boundaries of each learning goal. But this requires more prose. "Fewer and clearer are in opposition to one another," Roseman says.

"Preserving a coherent view of science is another challenge," Roseman says. "Science ideas are interconnected, and one needs to be careful" to maintain the connections when reducing content.

Cahill, who cochaired the commission writing "The Opportunity Equation," has been pleasantly surprised by the support—including financial resources—behind the development of national standards. As part of the economic stimulus package, for example, the Department of Education has earmarked $4.3 billion for state grants for education reform in four priority areas, including standards and assessments.

"This is an incredible moment of opportunity and urgency that we can't afford to waste," Cahill says. "There has not been this coalescence of people coming together with an understanding of what the current economic problems portend for us in the world. Similarly, with the stimulus package, there has not been this kind of financial resource for school reform before."

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