Thomas R. O'Donnell

NGSS: On to the next battle

In STEM on October 18, 2013 at 11:53 am
A summary of comments on the NGSS from community members, students, nonprofits and philanthropic groups.

A summary of comments on the NGSS from Iowa citizens, students, nonprofits and philanthropic groups.

I can say, gladly, that I was wrong.

My fear was unfounded, that Iowa officials (and probably politicians) would kill the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by shunting their consideration to a task force of administrators, teachers, education experts, parents and students in order to kill them.

It turned out that evolution opponents and climate change deniers failed to hijack an open survey to campaign against the standards, which teach both as supported by the evidence. So I was wrong about that, too, although the survey produced some interesting results.

In the end, the NGSS will go to the Iowa Board of Education with a recommendation for adoption, although not without some provisos.

I took a day off work to attend Wednesday’s task force meeting at the Science Center of Iowa. There were presentations drawing comparisons between Iowa’s current core science standards and the NGSS – even though Department of Education staff clearly were uncomfortable with the idea, saying they were too different in nature.

Other speakers addressed questions about cost for assessment and implementation. And Sarah Derry, South Central Iowa STEM Hub manager, issued a plea for science standards that prepare kids to persist in hard tasks, “evaluate truth in a world saturated in misinformation” and formulate good, scientific arguments to support their views.

But the highlights were results from an on-line survey and a final vote. Here’s the complete survey (PDF), including hundreds of comments. (Thanks to Iowans for Local Control for posting this, even if I don’t agree with the group’s conclusions and agenda. They clearly have a pipeline to the task force.)

The results show 750 people started the survey while 593 finished it. Of those, 62 percent identified themselves as primary or secondary education teachers and instructional coaches; parents were 28.1 percent and community members were 20.6 percent. The rest were from other sectors, including administrators or curriculum specialists, higher education, non-formal education, students, business or industry, philanthropic or nonprofit organization and other. (People could choose more than one, thus the total exceeds 100 percent.)

A summary of comments on the NGSS from community members, students, nonprofits and philanthropic groups.

A summary of comments on the NGSS from Iowa school administrators and higher education and other educators.

The nut of the survey is in these questions:

The amount of content present in the (NGSS) will prepare students to be ready for college, careers and other postsecondary options.

Responses: 78.1 percent agreed, with 24.2 percent agreeing strongly; 13 percent were neutral. Only 15.4 percent disagreed, with 3.8 percent strongly disagreeing.

The Next Generation Science Standards promote rigorous levels of learning to help prepare students to be ready for college, careers, and other postsecondary options.

Responses: 76 percent agreed, with 35.1 percent agreeing strongly; 10.3 percent were neutral; 13.8 percent disagreed to any degree.

This isn’t a scientific survey, as we know. On the other hand, a general poll of Iowans probably would be useless; few would know much if anything about the NGSS and their contents. It’s not like asking their opinion on something they have general knowledge of, like whether they approve of President Obama.

The survey asks participants how much of the standards they reviewed. Some 32 percent reported reviewing the entire document – a monumental task. Another 24.3 percent reviewed the K-12 progression of standards through a particular core idea or topic. Others reviewed other chunks, whether all disciplines for a grade or a single discipline.

Two open-ended questions asked participants to identify the standards’ strengths and weaknesses. There are hundreds of responses, and I invite you to breeze through them for amusement and edification. They range from thoughtful to bizarre.

Some cut and pasted from or echoed other documents, including task force member Jill Jennings’ open letter criticizing the standards. Others cited research supporting their views, for and against – although some came from spurious sources, such as Citizens for Objective Public Education.

Some, of course, objected to the inclusion of evolution and climate change. Some called the standards Marxist or communist. One even mentioned the “Free and Independent Union state of Iowa” based on the “Organic Laws of the United States.” Another invoked Godwin’s Law by saying the standards would “pigeon-hole kids” like Hitler did.

A summary of comments from Iowa teachers on the NGSS.

A summary of comments from Iowa teachers on the NGSS.

But the many others who gave long, detailed responses, for and against, outweighed those crackpots.

Task force members broke into groups to analyze the comments, with each group taking those attributed to a particular set of respondents. The task force groups found many of the same themes across all the respondents, with some comments citing as strengths what others cited as weaknesses: some like the rigor while others thought the standards were too rigorous; some liked the amount of content while others thought there was too much content.

Among the things survey participants liked (and to some extent, at times, disliked) were the standards’ rigor, interdisciplinary practice, hands-on nature, clear criteria and other aspects.

Parents, business leaders, community members, students and nonprofit officials complained about the amount of content and said the standards confused them. They also mentioned concerns about the inclusion of “controversial” content like evolution and climate change (although neither is really controversial within the science community). Some perceived political or religious overtones in the standards. A few (wrongly) challenged the standards’ constitutionality.

In contrast, education professionals, including teachers, administrators and those working in higher and non-formal education, made little or no mention of those topics. They worried about implementation and resources, and that the standards aren’t deep enough, are too prescriptive, and omit some content.

Objections that the NGSS are some kind of plot to force evolution and climate change on students are off base, said Yvette McCulley, an Iowa Department of Education science consultant who worked with the task force. The Iowa Core standards, already in place, include biological change over time and climate change, she told me.

A summary of comments on the NGSS from Iowa parents, business people and others.

A summary of comments on the NGSS from Iowa parents, business people and others.

It all came down, at last, to a vote: With clicks on electronic voting devices, 11 task force members opted to recommend the NGSS with no reservations. Seven more recommended them with reservations. Just one person voted no and one abstained (Education staff will gather votes from other task force members who couldn’t attend or left early – about seven people.)

So an overwhelming 18 task force members support the standards in some form. In a second vote, 16 of the participants said instituting the NGSS would require assistance to develop teacher skills and curriculum.

“The majority of people in this room are saying ‘I believe the NGSS will better meet the needs of our kids than what we have.’ That’s what this says to me,” McCulley said. Even so, education staff is offering to meet with the seven who expressed reservations to pass on or address their concerns.

Task force members will get to write a one-page summary of their thoughts to accompany the recommendation.

As I’m not trained as an educator or scientists, I’m not qualified to say whether the NGSS are better or worse than the Iowa Core or any other standards. I do know that by including evolution and climate change – the two science concepts that evangelicals and conservatives try to block – they are teaching accepted science.

I also endorse the idea of national standards – voluntarily adopted – for the concepts kids should learn. To me, there’s little debate about what constitutes basic scientific knowledge; the only things to decide are the depth and the method. Some minimum expectations make sense.

More importantly, science education should teach how science is done – something about which there’s great confusion. Kids should learn to think like scientists or at least understand how scientists work. The NGSS are largely directed toward that goal.

Evangelical and conservative Shane Vander Hart was at Wednesday’s meeting. His take: The Department of Education railroaded the standards and the vote was a fait accompli. Unlike me, he thinks any national standards are anathema and a government power grab.

I don’t buy it. The NGSS development was an organic, state-driven process. There’s no doubt many Iowa education department staff are fans, but perhaps that’s because they genuinely believe they’re better. And the task force represented a pretty broad spectrum, including people as far right as Jennings and State Senator Amy Sinclair, the Allerton Republican who Vander Hart himself endorsed last year.

The task force included numerous education professionals from schools and universities, many of them familiar with the current Iowa Core standards. Surely they can recognize a snow job and ask the right questions. I don’t think the task force was a rubber stamp. In fact, I feared they were the opposite.

In any event, it’s not over. The group’s recommendation goes to the Iowa Board of Education for final consideration. You can expect a bigger fight there, where there’s more opportunity for public comment.

  1. […] been six months since an Iowa Department of Education task force recommended the state adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The group of educators, legislators, […]

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