Thomas R. O'Donnell

Review panel data finds strong support for the Next Generation Science Standards

In STEM on March 10, 2015 at 7:45 am
Chart showing sentiment toward the depth and breadth of the Next Generation Science Standards among Iowans in an unscientific survey.

Chart showing sentiment toward the depth and breadth of the NGSS among respondents in an online survey.

Often, the loudest voices get the most attention in a debate. For instance, there’s organized, motivated opposition to Iowa’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Common Core State Standards.

But the loudest voice doesn’t always represent the majority.

Data gathered from an Iowa Department of Education team reviewing the state’s science education standards indicates there’s strong, if not overwhelming, support for adoption of the NGSS as a base for revised Iowa standards – the base concepts K-12 students will need to grasp to advance and graduate.

Significantly, much of the support comes from the state’s teachers and administrators – the people who will have to implement the framework while applying their own judgment and expertise.

Even at four forums around the state, where you might expect opponents to come out in force, the number of speakers in favor appears to outnumber those speakers opposed. (Although, at least at the meeting I attended, only a fraction of those present actually addressed the education officials.)

The review team was established under a governor’s executive order, which directed the education department to review all the state’s standards, now called the Iowa Core. Over the last month the review team has gathered comments from parents, teachers, administrators, and others via a survey and the forums.

On Thursday the review team met to review the comments and survey results. After they got them, I got them. Now you can read them, too – if you care to invest the time.

In previous posts, I summarized comments at the first forum, held in Waukee, and provided my take on the NGSS and the views opposed to them.

Opponents have organized against the NGSS and the Common Core, charging they’re a federal education takeover usurping “local control” of education (even though the standards aren’t mandatory and were developed independent of federal agencies). Supporters (like me) say they’ll promote consistency and establish a baseline for what students should know and do to succeed.

Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp Ballard (a former Register colleague) says the review team on Thursday analyzed survey results, survey comments, and comments from forums and submitted letters, seeking common themes that popped up. The team made no decisions, she says, but at the next meeting (date TBD), it will decide “whether the NGSS will be the baseline they’ll work from for their recommendation to the State Board of Education.”

If they vote against the standards, the team will consider what to do next. If they endorse them, the team will consider what changes or additions they want to make, if any.

There’s a lot to consider. There were 2,523 surveys at least partially filled out. (I hesitate to say 2,523 different people filled out surveys, because it was possible to take the survey multiple times. And in a few cases, some crude jokesters filled answered the questions.)

The results are in the spreadsheet here on Google docs. Here are some instructions and tips for navigating the spreadsheet. It’s simple once you’ve tried it awhile.

Now, let’s be clear: This is not a scientific survey. The people who took it were likely to be engaged with education issues, and in fact the majority of survey takers are teachers. But it does indicate that those on the front lines of education have some faith in the NGSS. And the Des Moines Register’s recently released Iowa Poll indicates a majority of Iowans support adopting the Common Core.

About a quarter of the survey respondents reported they’re parents, and the rest are community members, school administrators, area education agency personnel, students, business people and others. Altogether, more than half are directly involved in education.

Through the survey, fewer people actually answered every question than the total 2,500 who started it.

The meat of the survey: 1,807 respondents answered the question “The breadth and depth of the content of the Next Generation Science Standards will prepare students to be ready for college, careers, and other post-secondary options.”

Those who either agreed or strongly agreed: 68.8 percent, with 25.3 percent strongly agreeing. Another 21.4 percent were neutral. Only 9.7 disagreed or strongly disagreed.

You could spend hours wading through comments in the spreadsheet. Most are thoughtful and insightful and as in everything, you can find things to bolster your opinion, either for or against.

Threads that run throughout: too much to be taught; the standards aren’t deep enough; the standards are too deep.

A person who identified him/herself as a science educator whose stake is “The best interests of students” agreed with the statement, but added this:

… In the end, science standards are only as good as the science teachers in classrooms. Tragically, Iowa has diminished requirements for teaching science. For instance, science teachers holding an “All-Science Endorsement” are in a very poor position to promote the noble ends that the NGSS address. And the State permitting elementary teachers to teach up into Middle School is a travesty! Neither group of teachers possesses the science content understanding or understanding of the nature of science and technology to promote the conceptual understandings (as opposed to mere recall of information) that appear in the NGSS.

(I edited some reprinted comments for brevity, but otherwise left them as is – poor grammar included.)

Another person, identified as a teacher, wrote:

Totally disagree. Not enough of the natural sciences, i.e., biology, chemistry and physics. Too much emphasis on environment and the world around us …

A parent who strongly agreed wrote:

By using cross-cutting concepts, the NGSS tie science to other subject areas in a way that brings all the subjects to life, and inspires in students a passion to learn — and practice — science. By encouraging a hands on approach, the standards inspire students to explore subjects deeply as well, which is supported by the rigorous, internationally benchmarked standards.

A parent who disagreed said:

Much of what is propose for children flies in the face of established learning theory and brain development research. The reality is that the standards’ creators have laid out a set of expectations for America’s children that are grounded only in an antiquated conception of education and their personal preferences. And their followers, bedazzled by the standards length and breadth, illusion of depth, and elitist aura, have fallen into line as if lured by the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

A respondent who reported working in higher education strongly agreed and wrote:

… I am getting these ill-prepared students now. It is my reasoned judgment, having taught at the post-secondary level since 1993 – that a change occurred in the level of preparation I observed in the incoming Freshman classes. Ability to conceptualize, write in full sentences and even enthusiasm to tackle more challenging intellectual endeavors declined. It is not difficult to attribute those observation, in part, to the “No child left behind” programs. Many of us at the College level believe that it was a de facto “dumbing down” of the curriculum.

And there were a few like this, from a parent:

It emphasizes certain THEORIES as facts and promotes the liberal agenda over true scientific facts, study and research.

Another survey question sought comments on strengths of the NGSS. Some 941 commenters (most of them teachers) cited the standards’ consistency, rigor, hands-on and inquiry-based nature, specificity with flexibility, clarity, and comprehensive coverage.

A teacher:

I think NGSS provides consistency to our society. All kids are learning what is “essential” for them at the next level. I think much research has went into NGSS including developmental aspects of the brain and what is appropriate for students at all levels.

Another parent and teacher said:

The content prepares students to be able to step into programs of higher learning in science, should that be their choice. The content SHOULD result in a general population that is more aware of thinking in science–SHOULD dispel ignorance and therefore many beliefs and practices that are potentially harmful due to a general lack of science knowledge.

Another parent said an NGSS strength was

Precise explanations of what students should know and be able to do. They are being adopted nationally, so lots of materials will be correlated to them. It is impossible to meet the standards without some hands-on, inquiry-based activities, which will push a lot of districts to better science. …

There was this from a parent:

Sorry but at this point in time I do not see too many strengths with any standards developed in conjunction with Common Core. We will end up with a generation of kids that do not go to college because we have killed the fun of learning.

And of course, a scant few comments like this:

I don’t see any strengths.

The survey asked for comments regarding concerns respondents have regarding the NGSS. Some of these echoed statements made in the section about breadth and depth: fears there won’t be enough class time to get through the concepts or there won’t be resources or training to teach them. Others thought they were too rigorous or complex.

A few respondents feared Iowa would fail to adopt the standards or water them down. Some comments pointed out issues I think haven’t gotten enough attention, like a school board member who said a concern was:

Effectively rolling it out to the community that they understand what the standards are and that these are the minimum of what is taught, not the maximum.

And from a higher education worker, whose concern is:

That people will think the Performance Expectations are THE standards and all they have to do is get students to do those very specific combinations of practices, DCI [disciplinary core ideas] and crosscutting ideas. The point of the standards is that students will gain an understanding of all the DCI, all the science and engineering practices, and all the crosscutting ideas and could demonstrate understanding or be assessed through any combination of them. I worry that narrowly defined curricula will be developed that target ONLY the specific Performance Expectations in the NGSS, rather than considering the NGSS holistically. …

About their concerns, a parent wrote:

None. My only concern is that those who have a narrow, ideological opposition to a couple of the standard areas will have undue influence on the adoption process. As a lifelong Iowan proud of my state’s leadership in education, I urge decision-makers to fully embrace and adopt NGSS asap!

Someone working in higher education commented:

It will be rejected based on some elements within the approving entities finding political and religious reasons to reject this sound educational project. Science is science. It is evidence-based, rich with data that can be verified. No leaps of “faith” involved. It is, or it is not. We have tools to measure what formerly were considered to be unexplainable “phenomena” – the stuff of mythology and “origin stories”.

But a few parents were bothered by what they saw as a “political agenda” or a “lack of critical thinking” or “indoctrination,” meaning students are being taught, you know, facts.

… Definitions and the scientific method are central to science. Otherwise, it will get hijacked by the establishment and used to promote political agendas as has proven to be the case in some fields such as climatology. Also, dogmatic teaching of only one origins model gives the false impression that science has proven a historical event which is outside the realm of the scientific method. It would be ideal to share the strengths and weaknesses of all origins models so the student will think for themselves and be led by logic rather than by indoctrination.

This is the classic creationist “teach the controversy” approach (though within science, there is no controversy) to “origin models,” i.e., creationism or intelligent design – for which there is no scientific evidence.

Similarly, there were a couple of “indoctrination” cries:

The blatant indoctrination of our children that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is a FACT when it is NOT! Also that these standards have not been field tested ANYWHERE! I am sick of my kids being used as guinea pigs! … Another thing is the teaching of evolution as a fact and not a theory. There are just so many things wrong with NGSS, we should not be even considering them!

Most survey respondents opted to stop here, but 242 went on to comment on specific standards content for groups of grades, with only perhaps a couple dozen commenting on any one standard across all grades. Generally, teachers made comments that were rather specific to the subject. If you have expertise in one area or another, they may be interesting to read. You can find them deep in the spreadsheet.

The units covering global climate change and weather got some of the more interesting comments. It’s surprising to find people who identified themselves as teachers saying things like:

Global Climate change is being blamed on CO2…there is no proof of that!…these are supposed to be SCIENCE…not dream land of politics!

Of course, there is proof. The greenhouse effect was postulated more than a century ago and there’s been nothing to disprove it since.

The evolution standards also got a few similar comments, like this from a parent:

Eliminate because of evolution aspect which is not shared by everyone or add intelligent design to explain gaps in fossil record.

Comments like these were not the norm, however. For each discipline sub-idea respondents addressed, the overwhelming majority endorsed keeping it with no change in wording.

Meanwhile, about 43 people spoke at one of four forums held in Waukee, Ottumwa, Dubuque and Sioux City. Education staff parsed the comments from each speaker and classified them as positive or negative regarding the standards and related subjects. In some case, they didn’t determine whether the comment was positive or negative and instead just noted whether someone had mentioned it.

If I’m reading this right, 20 people came out obviously in favor of the NGSS and 10 obviously opposed. Most of the negative speakers appeared at Waukee, which also had the most speakers at 14; Ottumwa had 12, Dubuque 10, and Sioux City seven (four of whom were in favor and only one definitely against, kind of surprise for northwest Iowa). Nineteen spoke favorably of NGSS content while six spoke negatively.

A few speakers gave the department written copies of their remarks and a few letters came in. The activist group Climate Parents also gathered around 300 signatures from Iowans supporting NGSS adoption. (I say around 300 because there at least a couple of duplicate signatures.)

If you want quick summaries of what each speaker said, the DOE has compiled notes from each meeting. Those and the written comments and letters are below.

You can skim through these and see for yourself what Iowans said about the NGSS.

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

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

  3. […] to the standards aroused by a Department of Education standards review team, results of a survey on the standards, and the panel’s approval over the objections of one […]

  4. […] whether the review team had ignored public input when backing the standards. (They didn’t, as I wrote in an examination of comments from forums, written communications and an on-line […]

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