If you were in Waukee at a forum about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) last Wednesday night and knew nothing about them, you may have come away thinking they’re a government plot to dumb down science for our kids and brainwash them.
Or you might have left thinking they’re evidence-based, objective guidelines that will help children understand how science works and how to apply those principles throughout their lives.
An Iowa Department of Education team is considering using the NGSS as a base to set new standards for what Iowa youths should learn about science.
To gather public input the team of educators is holding a series of forums around the state. I attended the first one, at the Waukee Community School District offices, on Feb. 11.
As I’ve written in previous posts, I fear conservative forces will attempt to scuttle the standards, at least in part because they teach evolution as the best explanation for Earth’s biological diversity and human influence as the best explanation for climate change.
What I heard on Wednesday did little to ease my fears and much to exacerbate them.
If you support the standards, you must do this, because there is organized opposition to the NGSS and their sister standards, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). You can bet these naysayers will flood the survey with negative feedback.
As far as I know, no one has organized to support the NGSS in Iowa. So it was no surprise that the majority of speakers at Wednesday’s forum opposed Iowa adopting the standards. By my count, of the 13 or 14 speakers, only five (including your humble correspondent) spoke in support.
I’ll try to give an accurate sampling of what people said, but the most powerful statement came near the end, so stick with me. (I’ll offer some additional perspective on the standards in a future post.)
Seating at the forum was nearly full when I arrived (a bit late), and Department of Education staff members brought out more folding chairs. My guess is between 30 and 40 people attended.
Those who wished to speak had to sign in. I wasn’t sure if I would speak, and I suspect other NGSS supporters hadn’t planned on it, either. But after the first few people at the microphone criticized the standards and their selection – sometimes with wrong information – supporters began signing up and the meeting took on more balance.
I didn’t get everyone’s name precisely, so please forgive the sometimes poor identification.
Many of the opponents cited a report by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank that gave the NGSS a C. Among other things, it criticized the standards’ emphasis on practice rather than content and (therefore) its omission of some material. Fordham also gave Iowa’s science standards a D.
Michele Crystal, an Adel mother of two who was the second to speak, said a C is an unacceptable grade at her house. She reacted scornfully to the idea of moving Iowa’s standards from ones earning a D from Fordham to ones earning a C.
“Are you kidding me?” she spat. She and other speakers wanted to know why department panels haven’t considered standards from other states, like Massachusetts, Indiana and Washington, D.C., that Fordham rated more highly.
Actually, the panel did examine other standards (PDF) – from Massachusetts and Ohio – plus the Iowa Core standards, and rated each. The team, broken in groups, also examined standards from Oregon and Washington (
the minutes don’t make it clear whether that meant Washington state or Washington, D.C. UPDATE: Iowa Department of Education consultant Brad Niebling says they’re Washington State ) but felt they were essentially the same as the NGSS and so didn’t rate them.
The panel also examined and rated the 8+1 standards developed at Michigan State University with National Science Foundation support and benchmarks from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a project that compares student performance across national boundaries. The 8+1, like the NGSS, is a set of inquiry-based standards revolving around eight fundamental concepts. UPDATE: The TIMSS, Niebling says, was considered because it defines a set of standards for what students “are supposed to know and be able to do.”
At least a couple of speakers seem to confuse the present review team with the previous task force I mentioned earlier. That group examined just the NGSS and didn’t consider other state standards.
Steve Boesen of Ankeny told review team members “We seem to be shooting for mediocrity instead of excellence” with the NGSS. If the Iowa Department of Education adopts them, “you’re going to have a lot of pissed-off people,” he warned.
Leslie Beck, a Waukee former math teacher, said the NGSS are inferior to other standards, “further an agenda,” and don’t allow for local control by school boards.
“Science has become so agenda-driven,” Beck said, citing environmental claims relating to human-caused climate change. It’s not settle science that humans are changing the climate, she said. (Unfortunately, that’s just not true.)
Shane Vander Hart, a conservative gadfly and a driver behind the organized effort to tank the NGSS and CCSS, cited details from the Fordham report, including findings that terms in the standards are inconsistent or ill-used.
While evolution as the basis of biological change is part of the current Iowa standards, Vander Hart noted, he believes the NGSS begins teaching the concept too early.
“That’s unduly influencing kids to a theory many Iowans object to,” including himself, Vander Hart said. Climate change, he added, is “worthy to be discussed, but I’m not sure it should be a foundational standard.”
But Sandra Thompson, a young mother, supported adopting the NGSS, saying students must understand important concepts like evolution and climate change.
“I would encourage you to look at science-based standards,” based on peer-reviewed science literature, that “encourage our children to learn,”’ she added.
Jason, a young man whose last name I also missed, noted that a coalition of educators developed the NGSS. The standards are “designed to equip our students to discover the world around us.” They’re evidence-based and not driven by ideology, he noted.
“I look forward to a society where evidence is valued,” he added.
Along the same lines, in my remarks I noted that the standards support inquiry-based learning: They give students the tools to think like scientists by forming hypotheses, running experiments or seeking data, and reaching conclusions explaining what they find.
That’s why I believe Fordham rated the standards poorly: They go against the traditional rote-learning approach.
Not every student will go into science-related fields requiring specific knowledge about physics or chemistry. Those that do will take detailed classes in those subjects.
But every student will need to evaluate evidence, consider errors and biases, and judge the conclusions of scientists and government officials. They can’t know everything and we can’t predict what they will need to know in a rapidly changing world. We can only give them the tools to find out for themselves.
The last speaker was the most powerful. Jonnie Becker (pronounced “Joanie”) taught high school science in the Boone school district and said she has taught science for 12 years. She told me later she now works for Iowa Learning Online, an Iowa Department of Education program.
“I strongly support the NGSS as a teacher and a mom,” she said, fighting back tears. Teaching with no standards was “total chaos,” with elementary teachers with weak science backgrounds choosing to teach units about dinosaurs or shells. The Iowa Core standards are good but also leave too much up to the teacher, Becker said.
The NGSS, she said, are more rigorous and weave the threads of science together with other subjects, like English and reading, “into a really strong braid.”
But if Becker’s experience is an example, the NGSS might get resistance from more than just conservative parents. Two years ago she implemented the NGSS in her classes at Boone High School.
“The parents told me I was being too hard on their kids and that I was expecting too much” by asking them to think like scientists. Parents said students should just be able to look things up on the Internet, Becker said.
“If we do not implement the NGSS” as at least part of new standards, she said, “we are vastly underpreparing our students.”
“We have to act now,” Becker added.