Thomas R. O'Donnell

Next Generation Science Standards gain attention and near approval

In STEM on April 13, 2015 at 7:25 am

Iowa Department of Education logo

Some interesting things have happened in the month since I last wrote about Iowa educators considering the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

If you’ve been reading along (and you have, haven’t you?), you’ll know that an Iowa Department of Education (IDE) team is studying revisions to the Iowa Core science education standards. After considering several sets of standards, including some from other states, the team focused on the NGSS as a baseline for new Iowa requirements. You can read more about the deliberations and associated surveys, forums and issues in my previous posts.

This followed an earlier IDE task force that reviewed the NGSS and endorsed them as acceptable for Iowa.

The two groups approved the NGSS despite loosely organized opposition from social and political conservatives. They object to the standards’ emphasis on inquiry-based, hands-on science understanding as opposed to rote memorization. But they may object even more to their inclusion of evolution and human-caused climate change as accepted science. Which they are.

In the next month or so, the team will devise a recommendation for the Iowa Board of Education to consider. It meets again on Tuesday, April 14, at the Science Center of Iowa boardroom in Des Moines.

Here are the new developments:

First, Iowa media have finally caught wind of the story your humble correspondent has been exploring for more than a year.

In early March, the Cedar Rapids Gazette carried an article about the delicacy with which some educators are handling the NGSS. It included an account of a Janesville legislator’s one-woman campaign to tank the standards.

Then late last month, Erin Murphy, a reporter in the combined Des Moines bureau for the Gazette and Lee Enterprise’s Iowa newspapers, followed up with another story on the review team’s work. Quotes indicate that at least a couple Iowa Board of Education members are getting spaghetti-spined about evolution and climate change lessons in the NGSS.

After that, a number of other newspapers and TV stations picked up the thread. The scent of controversy – even from a single legislator whose bill stands no chance of adoption –gets attention.

Meanwhile, the review team has pressed on. In late March, it went over the feedback from forums, an online survey, and letters and emails. The group continued to support using the NGSS as a framework for revised Iowa Core standards.

The team discussed whether to work from the entire NGSS document or from a list of performance expectations “which are constructed from the three foundation boxes.” You can find the performance expectations here, with the ability to select which grade levels you want to see. (I’m not sure what the team means by “foundation boxes.” The NGSS website refers to three dimensions outlined in the National Research Council framework for science proficiency; perhaps that’s what they mean.)

You can read notes from the team’s meeting, including documents showing members’ votes as they zeroed in on a resolution, here. (PDF) At its meeting on Tuesday, the team will go over the NGSS in detail “and whether the standards should be adapted based on public feedback or adopted as they are,” An IDE release says.

I’m not sure what’s meant by “adapted based on public feedback,” but I hope the team doesn’t yield to critics’ demands that evolution be “balanced” with “alternative” explanations for biological diversity or to water down lessons about human-caused climate change.

To me, such objections don’t merit consideration. They originate from falsehoods. In science, there is no debate over evolution as the best explanation for the biological diversity around us. There’s also no debate that humans are causing the Earth to warm, with harmful consequences we’re already beginning to see.

Any debate among serious scientists revolves around only the mechanisms and details of each process.

I understand how unwilling conservative may be to discard their long-held beliefs in the face of facts. Conviction that evolution and human-caused climate change are false has become Gospel (literal and figurative) in the conservative tribe. Someone who rejects those views faces probable excommunication. It’s painful and isolating.

At least one conservative already is showing signs of questioning facts the standards review team gathered. Shortly after the last meeting, activist Shane Vander Hart weighed in on the website of Iowa RestorEd, a group opposed to adoption of the NGSS and the Common Core State Standards.

Did the Science Standards Review Team Ignore Public Feedback?” Vander Hart’s post asks. Vander Hart believes the team may have cast aside public input when it chose the NGSS as the baseline for new Iowa standards.

But, as I note in comments on his post (which, to give them credit, Iowa RestorEd approved for release), the preponderance of forum speakers and online survey respondents backed adopting the NGSS. You can see his reply, and my reply to his reply, below.

Iowa RestorEd comments

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