Thomas R. O'Donnell

Parents pack Waukee forum to comment on Next Generation Science Standards

In STEM on February 17, 2015 at 7:32 am

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.

For background on the standards and the science standards review team, read this post. For more on a previous NGSS task force and its conclusions, see this, this, and this.

Before you get too deeply into this, I urge you to attend one of three other forums coming up in Ottumwa, Dubuque or Sioux City and take this survey, which closes February 27.

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.

Although conservative, Fordham has been complimentary toward the CCSS. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation financed the study. You can read more about that in The Washington Post.

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.

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  1. I was at the next generation science standards meeting in Waukee, and I’ve got to tell you that I didn’t appreciate your cavalier attitude when it was your turn to present. I’m sure you made some valid points, but I think you made an effort to make the other presenters look uneducated. What you witnessed that evening was a lot of parents and others who object to the way Common Core is being forced down their throat. I found your reference “Regardless of whether or not the standards were railroaded” particularly offensive. What you were saying, in effect, is that you don’t care what others think. Yours is a pompous attitude that is typical of too many academic “experts”. As I mentioned during my time in front of the group, I have very little faith that Common Core will succeed any better than the government’s previous attempts over the past 40+ years to “fix” education. They haven’t worked. Your attitude is in line with progressives who think that they have all the answers and that the public is stupid. They aren’t, my friend. Next time you present, you might want to exhibit some humility. It would suit you better.

    • Larry, thanks for your comment. I certainly didn’t intend to make anyone look uneducated, but I wasn’t going to let assertions that the review team hadn’t considered other states standards go unchallenged. As minutes from their meetings show, they spent hours considering other standards. As the post notes, I think people got this review team confused with the earlier task force, whose mission was to focus solely on the NGSS and whether they were suitable for Iowa. (Regarding the earlier task force, I don’t think I said “regardless” of whether the standards were railroaded. I think I said I didn’t think they were railroaded, or regardless of whether people think they’re railroaded. But that’s beside the point.) I also wasn’t going to allow assertions that the evidence for human-caused climate change is still unsettled go unchallenged, or that evolution is not the best explanation we have for Earth’s diverse life. I don’t think the public is stupid, and I certainly don’t think I have all the answers. But I know there are many people who devote their careers to studying education, educational methods, and student performance. They certainly know more than I do — and most of the public does — about what works and what doesn’t. I have to put some faith in them, because I’m not an expert. Will the NGSS and Common Core succeed? I don’t know, but the organic process that led to their development and the emphasis they place on teaching kids HOW to learn as much as WHAT to learn gives me hope. The fact that other efforts may not have succeeded as well as we wanted doesn’t mean we give up trying. The bottom line is it’s not all up to schools: In too many households, education isn’t a priority. There isn’t a tradition of pushing kids to excel. There isn’t an emphasis on reading. My feeling always has been that if parents push kids to excel and to learn, they will, regardless of the education system. Thanks again.

  2. Informative post, thanks. The NGSS are excellent standards designed to get kids excited about learning and practicing science. Opponents are conflating NGSS with all kinds of things they don’t like, without bothering to understand them.

    Here’s a good resource for parents: http://ngss.nsta.org/parent-q-and-a.aspx. It includes this message: “The NGSS encourage students to learn the processes of science in a deep, meaningful way through firsthand investigative experiences, instead of just memorizing facts for a test. This scientific way of thinking will ensure that the concepts children learn in school will stay with them not just for a day, a week, or a year—but for a lifetime.”

    States across the country, including Kentucky, Kansas and West Virginia, are adopting these high quality standards. Iowa should get on board.

    • Thanks for the comment, John. For others out there reading this, I should note that John’s email address indicates he works for Climate Parents, an organization dedicated to supporting action to halt the effects of climate change. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, just that people should know where he’s coming from. Personally, I agree with their campaign and the effort to get the NGSS in effect. http://climateparents.org/

      TO

  3. States across the county are also rejecting the NGSS, like Kentucky, South Carolina, Wyoming, Oklahoma & Texas. Iowa should not bow to peer pressure but evaluate the standards based on real science, not politics, emotion, world view, or agendas.

    The lack of chemistry, physics, anatomy & physiology is concerning to me, as is the greater emphasis on engineering (qualitative) vs. real science (quantitative). While complementary to science, engineering is not science. Giving data to children in engineer labs will not replace the investigative learning of actual science labs (of which there is only one in the entire standards). Science is about discovery, experiments, testing theories (even the controversial ones), and finding out how & why things work. Engineering is about implementation, design, and making things work. These are supposed to be science standards correct? So why such emphasis on engineering?

    How will children successfully enter the science discipline fields of chemistry & physics & if their first real exposure to these are not until college? How will they enter the fields of medicine if they enter college without any basic knowledge of the body? Will that encourage or frustrate them? Will it make them feel smart or stupid? The idea that they can take outside or advanced courses or the teachers can add to it is unrealistic – teachers have limited time in the classroom and are already teaching to the test, as both they and our schools are rated on how well the kids score. And if not exposed to these disciplines, how will children even know they have an interest to take advanced or outside classes? Or if they will even have the time or discipline to do so? We are talking about children here, not mini-adults. It would be far better to either reduce or remove the engineering standards and return these basic science disciplines.

    And one final comment – the words of Jonnie Becker are highlighted in this article as an ultimate authority. I was actually there at this forum. She stated that she likes these standards because of the labs, the chemistry, the physics, and not the puff pieces chosen by teachers who didn’t know how to teach (she used the example of dinosaurs & shells). Yet, none of these items that she likes are even present in the NGSS. She claims she read the standards but her statement makes me call that into question.

    I think every parent would agree that they do not want their children taught puff pieces any more than they want them taught weak standards. The issue Jonnie was highlighting had less to do with standards & more to do with the teacher in question. That is a teacher quality issue, not a science standard issue. No amount of standards, even the “A” rated ones, will overcome that. Also, I find it curious that she did not disclose at the time that she works for the Iowa Department of Education, who are pushing these standards. That is an extreme conflict of interest. None of the parents who spoke in opposition, who were the majority by the way, had such a conflict. They wanted robust standards, not the watered down ones the DOE is pushing with NGSS. It makes no sense to me why the Iowa DOE would want to settle for average, let alone weaken their argument on how great these standards are by using their own employees to pose as ordinary members of the public in an open forum. Ironically, such biased methodology and the lack of objective pursuit of excellence is contrary to the principles of pure science itself.

    • Heather,

      Thanks for your comment. I recall your statement at the forum. I also recall that it confused me. I wasn’t sure that you and I were reading the same standards — your perception of them was so much different from mine. I want to respond further with specifics, but unfortunately for some reason the NGSS website’s page listing the standards’ specifics isn’t working. Once it’s up I’ll add more.

      I did look at them again last night, briefly, and the assertion that physics is omitted seems strange. Even the K-2 standards have students investigating elementary forces — the foundation of classical physics.

      I hope to respond more fully later tonight or tomorrow. For now, I have to get back to my full-time job.

      TO

    • Heather,

      I finally was able to get onto the NGSS website to look again at the standards:

      http://www.nextgenscience.org/search-standards-dci

      As you can see, physical science is a topic for the list of “disciplinary core ideas” in the NGSS, and includes structures and properties of matter chemical reactions, nuclear processes, conservation of energy, and more. The standards have physical science objectives that start in kindergarten and run all the way through high school. How is this a lack of physics?

      Chemistry is introduced. Perhaps there could have been more, but at least when I was in high school, chemistry wasn’t a required course. It wasn’t required for each of my sons; they could have chosen biology, Earth science or physics. (Each took or is taking a little of each, but not all students have to.) I’m rather ashamed to say I never took chemistry. But what I’ve learned since is how much of chemistry is based in physics, and understanding electron interaction will be an assist in understanding energy barriers to chemical bonding, etc. And let’s not forget that physics underlies everything in Earth and space science. Kids will be exposed to physics (and probably some chemistry) through subjects in the other areas.

      You say “how will children successfully enter the science discipline fields of chemistry and physics if their first real exposure to these are not until college?” First, the standards as laid out will introduce them to these subjects. Plus, any child who plans to major in and “enter” one of these fields in college certainly would make a point of taking every high school class in those subjects that they could. The NGSS exposes students to these disciplines and yes, they will discover an interest if they’re paying attention.

      And actually, it’s totally realistic that students can take outside or advanced courses. It’s happening right now. Virtually all high schools offer them. In Des Moines, such courses are available at Central Academy to students from many central Iowa districts. Other schools also offer advanced placement (AP) courses and allow students to gain college credit by taking the AP test. (My older son earned nearly enough AP credits to enter college as a sophomore. My younger son is taking AP European History right now — taught by an Urbandale High School teacher.)

      As for labs: I’m not sure how you define the term, but the idea of designing and conducting experiments is central to the NGSS. If you read the standards, that’s about all you see: Build a model… Design and test a device… Analyze data… These all follow the scientific method. That sounds like a lab to me.

      I also don’t see as much engineering in the standards as you do. There are 12 physical science core ideas, 14 life science core ideas, 12 Earth and space science core ideas. There are three for engineering, technology and application of science. That students may be called on to apply some engineering skills to design experiments is, to me, appropriately cross-disciplinary. (Just this week I interviewed a national laboratory physicist studying shock dynamics. He designs his own high-explosive experiments. His doctorate is in physics, but he’s doing engineering in pursuit of physics data.)

      As for teachers, what would you rather have: a weak teacher without any standards to meet, or a weak teacher who at least knows what it is he or she must teach? I’d rather have strong teachers with standards, but not every teacher is a star and each has his or her weaknesses. If their weakness is science, at least they’ll have some guidance on what to teach. That, I think, is the point Ms. Becker was making: Without standards, teachers with a weak science background will fall back on puff units.

      You assume a lot about Ms. Becker as well, by saying the Department of Education used “their own employees to pose as ordinary members of the public in an open forum.” First, as far as I know, Ms. Becker was the only education employee to speak, so your use of the plural is disingenuous. Second, you have no evidence that her employers put her up to this. Third, who is to say that because someone is a state employee they forfeit their voice in public matters, especially in a matter in which they have years of first-hand experience? I never met Ms. Becker before that forum, but if someone put her up to it, she’s a hell of an actress. Her remarks were passionate and struck me as genuine.

      As I said at the forum, there are surely flaws in the NGSS. If so, fix them. They are not written in stone and Iowa does not have to adopt them whole cloth. You seem to see some good in them. Why not make them work instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

      I completely agree with your opening line about evaluating the standards on the basis of science, not politics, emotion, world view or agendas. (I presume you would include religious affiliation, too.)

      Best,

      TO

  4. […] The panel also is collecting opinions via a survey. If you support the teaching of accurate, evidence-based information in Iowa schools, you must take it now, because opponents are arrayed against the NGSS. […]

  5. […] previous posts, I summarized comments at the first forum, held in Waukee, and provided my take on the NGSS and the views opposed to […]

  6. […] for new Iowa requirements. You can read more about the deliberations and associated surveys, forums and issues in my previous […]

  7. […] written previously about the deliberations and associated surveys, forums and […]

  8. […] some of my previous posts about a 2013 task force that recommended the state consider the NGSS, opposition to the standards aroused by a Department of Education standards review team, results of a survey on the standards, […]

  9. […] should receive the report and decide on adoption this summer or fall. Expect a battle then from conservatives opposed to national standards and especially the NGSS’s approach to human-caused climate change […]

  10. […] seemed poised to take on the panel and the standards. The acme of their resistance occurred at a public forum the review panel staged in […]

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