Thomas R. O'Donnell

Take this important survey to support fact-based science in Iowa schools

In STEM on September 25, 2013 at 2:27 am

Next Generation Science Standards LogoIf want to help ensure Iowa kids aren’t fed creationism alongside evolution and aren’t told to forget the idea that humans are changing the world’s climate, I have a job for you.

I’ve written before about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which 26 states, including Iowa, formulated. They’re designed to mesh with the Common Core State Standards, educational guidelines established through a similar process.

The science standards were published in April and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad immediately shunted them off to a task force to consider whether to adopt them.

The task force has been busy. This is where your job comes in.

To gather input on the standards, the Iowa Department of Education has an on-line survey. It’s designed to obtain “the opinions and comments of educators, students, business representatives and the public regarding … the Next Generation Science Standards.”

“Your survey responses will be used to inform the NGSS Task Force and provide guidance to the Director and the State Board of Education when making decisions regarding the NGSS in Iowa.”

It all sounds good, but there are hazards. First, the task force must bear in mind this is not a scientific survey and can’t represent the interests of all Iowans. At best, it may reflect the views of people with a stake in what kids are taught – and that may not include typical parents and the kids. They’ll will feel the impact most, but probably don’t have the time or interest to read the standards and vote on them.

To the credit of the Department of Education and the task force, the survey introduction tells people to actually read the standards (in some fashion) before taking the survey. I do realize it’s fruitless to poll a selection of all Iowans, few of whom will have read the standards or even know about them.

The other hazard: people with an ax to grind will load the survey with negative comments on standards they disagree with, especially evolution and climate change. As I wrote before, those parts have sparked some controversy in other states. If creationists and climate change deniers come out against the standards – either in the survey or comments to the task force – I’m skeptical Branstad will embrace the NGSS and upset the Republican base.

I’ve skimmed an outline and some of the standards themselves (I plan to read them more closely soon) and taken the survey. Here’s my brief take on them.

The NGSS treat science, engineering math and other subjects as an interrelated whole. They focus on students demonstrating they understand concepts rather than merely spouting rote responses that may or may not demonstrate comprehension. They also say students should understand and be able to apply core concepts in each science discipline, rather than just a few chosen from a menu of classes.

That’s a lot of turf to cover, so the standards limit the core ideas students are expected to grasp to the essential ones in each discipline. So in practice, the standards provide a minimum level of science literacy, giving students a foundation for more demanding courses if they choose them.

The standards do not specify how states and schools should teach these concepts. They only specify what understanding the students should be able to demonstrate. The standards also connect science concepts to ones in the Common Core State Standards; the guidelines states have promulgated to ensure students have a comprehensive education in language, literacy and mathematics.

What will tick off some people are the core ideas listed at the ends of the Life Science (LS) and Earth and Space Science (ESS) sections of the NGSS framework: “LS4 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity” and “ESS3 Earth and Human Activity,” which includes “ESS3D Global Climate Change.” (Some might even question standards of “ESS1 Earth’s Place in the Universe,” including “The History of Planet Earth.”)

It’s likely to upset religious fundamentalists that the high school performance expectations for Life Sciences includes “Communicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence.”

And conservative climate-change deniers may cry foul because expectations for Earth and Space Science include “Use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity.”

Some people might call this something like liberal brainwashing. What it is: Teaching fact-based, research-tested concepts. In another word: science.

As for the survey, I like that it asks participants what they reviewed before answering. This will give the task force an idea of what weight to give the survey responses – if people are honest.

My experience may be different than yours. Before taking the survey, I took time to understand the structure and the concepts underlying the standards, then explored how a few specific things are outlined. As a result, my survey was short. If you tell the survey you read the entire document, I suspect it will take you to different questions.

It asked whether I think the standards are well organized and easy to read, whether the amount of content will adequately prepare students for post-high school education or life, and whether they’re rigorous. Then it gave me open-ended questions about strengths and weaknesses.

This is the spot where most people will criticize the evolution and climate change standards – and it appears there’s nothing to stop people from taking the survey multiple times (I took it twice). This is where you need to weigh in. If you live a science-based life, at least skim through the standards, take the survey and let the task force know you support the teaching of evolution and climate change. Then come back and tell me what you think.

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  1. […] also wrote about an important survey the task force is taking to get Iowans’ views on the standards. The […]

  2. […] NGSS, moving from my fear the Branstad administration was out to torpedo the standards, to a survey gathering opinions on the proposal, to conservative […]

  3. […] also wrote about what the standards actually say and an on-line survey the task force set up. Despite the […]

  4. […] review team, read this post. For more on a previous NGSS task force and its conclusions, see this, this, and […]

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