Thomas R. O'Donnell

The Des Moines Register catches up on the Next Generation Science Standards: a critique

In STEM on May 6, 2015 at 7:05 am
Cover of Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum.

Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum.

It’s taken months, but the Des Moines Register finally caught up with deliberations over Iowa’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

On Sunday, reporter Mackenzie Ryan did a big takeout on the Iowa Department of Education (IDE) study of the standards, which would replace the current Iowa Core standards in science. It ran across the top of the front page – and as a former Register reporter, I will say you can’t do better than lead the Sunday paper, which has the biggest circulation of any day of the week.

There’s even a video on line of Ryan discussing the story and visiting a West Des Moines engineering class. (The class has more to do with Project Lead the Way, an initiative to coax more students into engineering, than with the NGSS, but never mind.)

So the Register focused a lot of attention on the issue – one that your faithful correspondent and others have reported on for months. That fact, and the fact that it was a rather weak story (as I’ll detail below), has me scratching my head about why editors thought it deserved such prominent play. Perhaps there wasn’t anything better to run.

First, for background, check 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, and the panel’s approval over the objections of one member.

The Register covers a lot of this ground, but a bit superficially and with a little too much focus on the “controversy,” including the headline calling the standards “hotly debated.”

That goes too far. I’ve come to the conclusion over the last few weeks that opposition to the standards has been weak – despite my fears. They certainly weren’t “hotly debated.” If anything, they were lukewarmly debated.

In the end, most of those who spoke at four statewide forums favored the standards. Those who took the survey also favor the NGSS by a big margin.

All the stories Iowa media have done on the NGSS have quoted one legislative opponent, Rep. Sandy Salmon, a Janesville Republican. She’s offered a bill to block their adoption for at least two sessions, and it hasn’t gone anywhere. In the Iowa Legislature, she’s virtually alone on the issue, and media should note that.

Even Iowa RestorEd, a conservative group fighting the NGSS and the Common Core State Standards, has paid little attention. It hasn’t posted anything about the NGSS in more than a month.

All this leads me to conclude that in the end, the NGSS have been largely noncontroversial in the state and generated only token opposition. Yet the Register headline and a fair amount of the story focus on the “controversy.” I get that, and as a reporter I’ve been just as guilty of emphasizing disagreement more than it should have been.

Within the science and education communities, however, there is no controversy over teaching human-caused climate change and evolution. Both are fact. The Register story fails to note this and just calls them “controversial topics.” Today, any story in any medium that covers climate change and/or evolution must note that they are not controversial to scientists and educators. Failing to do that fuels belief there are two legitimate sides to the debate. There are not.

There’s also a critical error in the story: It describes an NGSS survey as “contracted by” the IDE. It later says, “A facilitator contracted by the Iowa Department of Education surveyed about 2,500 people” this winter.

Both make it sound like the department hired people to call Iowans and seek their opinions. In fact, it was a simple SurveyMonkey poll anyone could take – and had to seek out voluntarily. Thus, it was not a scientific survey based on a representative sample and should be taken with a grain of salt.

(My take is that the survey is an indicator of who is most motivated and organized: NGSS proponents or critics. And supporters came out strongly, with more than two thirds of those who took the survey agreeing that “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.” Only 9.7 percent disagreed.)

I also would have preferred that the story spell out more explicitly that formulating the NGSS was largely a grassroots effort, with participation from 26 states, including Iowa. The federal government was not involved. That’s important to understanding that the NGSS are not a federal takeover.

And the article never really clearly spelled out the process IDE has gone through to consider the standards, including that it’s part of a review Gov. Terry Branstad ordered. The team chose the NGSS when considering whether and how to improve or replace the current Iowa Core science standards.

OK, I’ve beat up on Ms. Ryan – whom I have not met – enough. What I liked in the article was the account of objections from the conservative Fordham Institute. I also appreciated that she talked to review team member Rob Kleinow, a science education consultant at Heartland Area Education Agency, who consistently voted against the NGSS. Kleinow raises some legitimate questions – ones I scooped Ms. Ryan on last month. And she talked to other team members for their take. Kudos.

Fordham, the Register story says, laments the fact that states establish strong standards on paper, but don’t put them into practice.

My response: How is that the standards’ fault? It’s the fault of the local schools – boards, superintendents, principals and teachers. They decide how standards are implemented – and that wouldn’t change if Iowa adopts the NGSS.

If Fordham believes standards must be implemented better, that seems to argue for more local control and more standardization, to ensure educators teach what the standards say.

I doubt Fordham wants that.

  1. Interesting argument in a subject close to our hearts.

  2. Great post! I appreciate your ongoing coverage and analysis of this issue. To me, the most telling quote in the article is by Rep. Sandy Salmon:

    “The focus is on promoting the politically controversial topics of climate change, which is a highly debatable topic, man’s impact on the environment, and evolution as a scientific fact,” said Iowa Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville. “Those things are woven throughout the standards.”

    Like you wrote, the controversy is a purely political one, not scientific. Which is exactly why students need to learn the evidence about “man’s impact on the environment” at school, as one part of a high quality, comprehensive science education. That would go a long way to increasing scientific literacy, and hopefully increasing the number of legislators who understand and support science.

    The climate science content in the NGSS was written and peer-reviewed by scientists and science educators, and represents the scientific consensus on climate change. The American Meteorological Society said climate science “is as sound as other NGSS subjects such as earthquakes and the solar system.”

    We (Climate Parents) are circulating a petition to the Iowa State Board of Education in support of the standards. I encourage fellow NGSS & climate science supporters to sign and share! Here’s the link:

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