After months of work, an Iowa Department of Education (IDE) review team last week signed off on a recommendation that the state’s schools teach the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as an update to the current Iowa Core standards.
It’s a victory for science advocates over conservative opponents, who don’t like the NGSS’ focus on inquiry over rote learning and inclusion of lessons on evolution and human-caused climate change.
The team of science educators and business leaders will meet again next month to draft a report to the Iowa Board of Education, which has the final say. Opponents are likely to put up resistance again there. One press report indicates some board members may be leery of diving into the evolution and climate science controversies (which really are non-controversies among scientists). Conservatives may try to exploit that hesitation.
The team formally endorsed only a portion of the NGSS document and its decision wasn’t unanimous. Two members voted no.
In fact, one of those two consistently voted against the standards at the team’s March 24 meeting.
His objections and the review team’s choice to adopt only part of the standards, leaving the rest as “supporting material,” provide insights into how the NGSS are structured and what they’re designed to do.
First, some background. The review team was charged with studying revisions to the Iowa Core science education standards. It considered several sets of standards, including some from other states, before choosing the NGSS as a baseline for new Iowa requirements.
In its decision last week, the team essentially stripped the NGSS down to “performance expectations.” All the other material will be available as supporting information for educators to review if they choose, IDE says.
NGSS documents (PDF) say performance expectations (PEs) “are the assessable standards of what students should know and be able to do.” Some states – like Iowa – adopt the PEs alone. (The NGSS site takes notes that the PEs are what students should be able to do after instruction. How they get there is up to school districts and teachers, providing latitude and some local control in the classroom.)
To understand this better, try exploring the PEs on the NGSS website. (I think it works best if you choose a particular grade level and click “apply.” The PEs appear below the search prompts. Watch the video above for more information.)
Each PE has a subject title, like “Matter and Its Interactions” or “Energy.” The actual PE starts with “Students who demonstrate understanding can.” Following that is what students should be able to do after instruction.
Three colored boxes are below each standard. The PEs derive directly from these foundation boxes: Science and Engineering Practices, Core Ideas, and Cross Cutting Concepts. So the PE may read “Develop a model (from the Practice of developing and using models) to describe that matter is made of particles (from the Disciplinary Core Idea relating to Structure and Properties of Matter) too small to be seen (from the Cross Cutting Concept of scale, proportion and quantity).”
The review team recommends omitting the Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas and Cross Cutting Concepts foundation boxes from Iowa’s standards and making them supporting material. An IDE release says the team chose that course because “the performance expectations are easier to understand, especially for teachers in subject areas other than science, and allow for more local control because they are broader than other parts of the standards document.”
The NGSS take no position on whether states should adopt just the PEs or include the foundation documents. But they emphasize that “all students should be held accountable for demonstrating their achievement of all performance expectations.” This is different, especially in high school, from students taking courses only in selected science disciplines, like chemistry or biology.
“The NGSS takes the position that a scientifically literate person understands and is able to apply core ideas in each of the major science disciplines, and that they gain experience in the practices of science and engineering and crosscutting concepts.”
These are the main points that raise doubts in Rob Kleinow, who consistently voted no vote at the review team’s March 24 meeting. Last week, Kleinow, a science curriculum consultant at Heartland Area Education Agency, also voted against recommending the PEs as the state’s new science standards. Abby Richenberger, an eighth-grade science teacher at Burlington’s Edward Stone Middle School, also voted no.
Kleinow says the PEs’ approach of tying one practice to one core idea to one cross cutting theme is too prescriptive.
“I just prefer our current (standard) where we encourage the use of the practices” as students learn concepts. He sees science as a way of knowing based on claims, evidence and reason. “If we’re talking about science for all students, to have a scientifically literate society we’re better off encouraging things where we can integrate questions” based on that approach “instead of mandating these 200-some performance expectations that are narrowly tied” to a single practice, core idea and cross cutting concept.
Kleinow’s other objection stems from the NGSS’s insistence that “all students should be held accountable for demonstrating their achievement of all performance expectations.”
“I think there’s too much stuff,” he says. Kleinow cites the example of the high school-level PE under “Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions.” It says students who demonstrate understanding of the material can “use mathematical representations of Newton’s Law of Gravitation and Coulomb’s Law to describe and predict the gravitational and electrostatic forces between objects.”
Under the NGSS, “this is something all kids are supposed to know,” Kleinow says, “but when I talk to most adults, even many in science, they don’t know how to do that.” The standard says it’s not enough for students to understand and explain the concepts; they have to use math to describe and predict the forces they describe.
It’s “not that people shouldn’t know that,” Kleinow says, but “I’m not sure it’s something we all need to know.”
So what made almost every other person on the 19-member team vote to recommend the PEs as Iowa’s new science standards? Kleinow says he understood that when the current Iowa Core science standards were written, the plan was to integrate inquiry into them, but time ran out.
“There’s a great deal of concern that inquiry is a separate concept” in the current Iowa Core science standards, he adds. Teachers could do a “nature of science” unit focusing on inquiry and the scientific method and then never return to the subject. The Next Generation Science Standards have inquiry thoroughly woven in.
I’m not versed well enough in science education to give much of an opinion on Kleinow’s objections to the practice-core idea-cross cutting theme structure. It could be the NGSS framers were trying to make the standards clear and in the process made them inflexible.
As for the “too much stuff” assertion, it seems strange that a science educator would actually suggest making standards less rigorous, but I see Kleinow’s point. Some things may just not be relevant to or necessary for some students, especially those who have no aptitude for or interest in going to college.
Despite his objections, Kleinow doesn’t believe the NGSS are fatally flawed. “The results will speak for themselves. … Like anything, it’s more of how it’s implemented than when it’s on the page.” If the standards are carried out as intended, they should be effective.
What’s important is creating a scientifically literate society. The NGSS aren’t going to prevent that, he says