Thomas R. O'Donnell

Why you shouldn’t fear the Next Generation Science Standards

In STEM on February 25, 2015 at 7:23 am
A man lights a cigarette. If local schools can dictate what science is taught, what's to stop a North Carolina school from teaching that cigarettes aren't unhealthy?

If local schools can dictate what science is taught, what’s to stop a North Carolina school from teaching that cigarettes are safe? Credit: Nightsongs via photopin (license)

This is the last week Iowans can provide comments to an Iowa Department of Education panel that is reviewing the state’s science teaching standards.

As I’ve written before, the panel reviewed several sets of standards before deciding to consider the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as a basis for Iowa’s revised guidelines. The panel had one open forum on February 11. The last two are this week: tonight in Dubuque and Thursday in Sioux City.

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.

Through all this, I’ve puzzled over one question: Why do people fear standards?

To me and many other people, facts are facts. They’re the same from state to state and classroom to classroom.

Newton’s laws and Maxwell’s equations are no different in California than in Alabama. Two plus two equals four no matter where you are.

Every kid in every state should have the best education as possible. Standards help assure that.

Standards also help arm students for the future. Some NGSS critics say the standards lack content. It may seem that way because the standards place less emphasis on rote learning and more emphasis on inquiry, investigation and exploration.

The goal is to teach kids to think like scientists and learn on their own. That’s important, because the only thing we know about the future is that it will be different. We can’t teach students everything; there’s just too much and what they need to know will change. We can only give them the tools to learn, to find the facts and to draw conclusions from them.

The bogeyman many conservatives have raised is some kind of federal indoctrination program that tracks every student like a bar-coded product. While I share some privacy concerns, it’s necessary to gather some data to see whether education reforms are working. Safeguards are needed – and can be devised – to keep individually identifiable information out of the hands of researchers and bureaucrats. But parents and teachers should have that information, just as we parents now get grade reports and test scores so we know how our children are doing.

Some parents object to the NGSS and the Common Core State Standards because of the testing involved. I also have questions, but I haven’t examined the facts, so I’m not prepared to address them.

As for indoctrination, I hardly think a framework of standards is something to fear because, well, it’s based on facts. And standards help ensure those facts are supported by solid academic research. That means evolution as the best explanation we have for the biological diversity around us, not creationist pseudoscience that starts with an agenda to “prove” evolution is false.

It also means teaching human-caused climate change as the best explanation for why our planet is heating up and for why we’re seeing more frequent major storms and other phenomena.

But what do standards for “local control,” the rallying cry of the conservative opposition?

First, I have to point out that states can choose to adopt the standards or not – although I agree the federal government is probably encouraging adoption – so “local control” starts there.

Plus, teachers and schools will always have great latitude to teach in a way that best suits the children in their classrooms. My son teaches in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, a desperately poor and overwhelmingly minority community. The techniques he uses and the content he teaches are vastly different from what’s necessary and wise in mostly white, mostly middle-class Iowa.

Nonetheless, standards insure that kids in Jefferson Parish have a shot at an education as good as that in Red Oak, Iowa. They’re the minimum every child should know to be good citizens, productive workers and, hopefully, wise parents.

Also, community school leaders and parents, working together, still set the budgets, hire the right teachers, set schedules and dictate teaching practices suitable for their students. But local control can’t mean wasting class time teaching pseudoscientific fallacies.

Suppose teachers taught children that the research connecting smoking and cancer was bunk and that tobacco isn’t harmful? It sounds unlikely, but the tobacco industry waged a long campaign to create controversy around the tobacco-cancer link (much as the fossil fuel industry is generating a “debate” over climate science). If standards are set locally, it’s not unlikely that school boards in tobacco-dependent North Carolina would insist teachers cast doubt on the established science behind tobacco and cancer.

If you think that’s unlikely, check news reports. Attempts have already been made to write human-caused climate change out of the NGSS in the coal-producing states of Wyoming and West Virginia.

It seems to me that some people want to use local control as a means to keep their children from questioning things their parents have told them. Answering your child’s questions is uncomfortable (it’s made me squirm, for sure), but it’s part of raising inquisitive children who think on their own. And if the parents can’t defend their positions, maybe they should rethink them.

You’ve probably heard it said that “parents are the first, best teachers” of their children. There’s certainly wisdom behind that. As parents, we all want to and should pass on our values: a religion (or lack of one), a willingness to contribute to the community, an attitude of kindness and respect toward others, love of country and more.

But when it comes to teaching physics, chemistry, calculus, and other subjects, most parents aren’t experts. I gave up checking my son’s math homework when he was in eighth grade. He’d gotten beyond my abilities.

And frankly, parents can just be wrong about some subjects. It’s not that they’re dumb. They just don’t teach this stuff every day and it’s been decades since most were in, for example, a biology class – decades in which the science has changed drastically.

The NGSS aren’t perfect. If there are identifiable weaknesses, strengthen them. If some concepts are missing, add them. They aren’t written in stone and Iowa doesn’t have to adopt them whole cloth.

But let’s not toss them out through fear hiding behind questionable assertions about local control.


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

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

  3. […] I’ve written previously about the deliberations and associated surveys, forums and issues. […]

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