Saturday, May 2, 2015

Why the Next Generation Science Standards are doomed

I really, really like the idea of teaching science to kids. Maybe one day we'll even try it. But the Next Generation Science Standards, as currently written, won't get us there.

The drive behind the standards is economic, not philosophical. It's about children being prepared "to succeed in a global economy," about "essential preparation for all careers in the modern workforce," for fixing our "high-tech trade deficit."

Even so, I had hope--science is science, and a child immersed in studying the patterns of the natural world, learning how to analyze, mastering the logic needed to pull us out of our culture of magical thinking would make for happier children and a healthier culture.

There are at least three fundamental flaws in the standards:

Fundamental Flaw One:
The obsessive need to stick to a tiered script creates an unnecessary and artificial separation of science disciplines in the early grades. The emphasis should be on science practices, not science disciplines. Children should be able to "do" science at the local level.
I get why NGSS is split into "major science disciplines" (though it all boils down to physics), but in its fetish to maintain order in a coherent, tiered system, the lower grades have multiple performance expectations in different disciplines.

This shouldn't matter in a world of bright teachers with autonomy, it does matter in our world of scripts and Federal oversight (aka "testing"). Teachers will be charged with creating multiple units on simple concepts. A child could spend hours in kindergarten studying plants on a windowsill, and only a plants on a windowsill, and gain as good (or better) appreciation of science practices as she will get through a march of BOE-approved commercial materials aligned with the mish-mash of NGSS expectations

Fundamental Flaw Two:Grades 4 through 6 present concepts that require a nuanced background in science to teach well--and most public schools do not have the staff to do this.
Here's an example. The introduction to the 5th grade standards includes a statement that should make every science teacher cringe:

"Students develop an understanding of the idea that regardless of the type of change that matter undergoes, the total weight of matter is conserved. "

I can hear the apologists already--it's just semantics, and the committee acknowledges that "at this grade level, mass and weight are not distinguished." Well, why not? If "mass" is too much for a fifth grader to grasp, why not just call it "stuff"?

(If you teach a child that matter is something that has mass and takes up space and leave it at that, you're teaching religion, not science.)

The biggest hurdle in teaching high school science is getting kids to unlearn what they know to be true. These standards in the wrong hands supplemented with commercial products that allow administrators to tick off a checklist of standard will worsen our students' grasp of science.

Fundamental Flaw Three:The insistence on placing engineering design as part of the heart of the science curriculum confounds (and dilutes) the standards. Science and engineering are related, true, but are very different disciplines--squeezing the two together highlights the economic nature of the standards.
Lumping science and engineering together is like lumping together physical education and ballet together--while ballet is an extension of physical movement, and could be a fine elective in a phys ed class, giving it the same stature as, say, aerobic exercise would skew gym class towards something (fine arts) that it's not.

I'm not opposed to teaching engineering any more than I am opposed to teaching ballet. Heck, if ballet had economic import, we'd all be wearing tutus. But it wouldn't make me a better dancer.

Gonna grab my old slide rule and a pocket protector and pretend I know something about engineering until we come up with something better.


Susan Eckert said...

I like the bio standards for the most part although I feel that good science teachers were always trying to marry content and practices. I thought the standards were more aimed at stressing climate change and evolution (rather than the whole global economy thing) because this country is rather ignorant about both. But the engineering part? Has always seemed strange to me. How do you think matter should be taught to youngins?

doyle said...

Dear Susan,

The preface to the standards and its sponsorship by Achieve make it clear that the driving force is economics, but I agree that the standards themselves do appear to be stressing a few non-economic points.

Which in itself is distressing--we're not going to get folks in the States to "accept" evolution or global warming because of a set of standards, and if there is even a hint that the standards were created (in part) to combat this kind of ignorance (as opposed to helping kids develop a sense of how science works), then I'd add that as a fourth fundamental flaw.

Susan Eckert said...

I'm not really with you on this one, Michael. Why should we have to pussyfoot around evolution (the cornerstone of biology) and climate change anymore? B/c of fear of offending someone's religious/political/ideological positions? If kids in elementary school start looking at evidence of common ancestry, that's a good thing. It's not dogmatic and boring--find a bunch of different organisms and talk about their similarities. Why aren't we dealing with the phenomena of people in this country to deny facts and evidence head-on? In the classroom? With science teachers? Who else is going to do it?

I dunno...I don't have a big problem with the standards like you do. How are they that different from NJCCCS? They just seem more focused on process and evidence and doing things.

Elementary science education is tough. Standards do not a good science teacher make. But they can help.

doyle said...

Dear Susan,

No one who teaches science (the real kind, anyway) is pussyfooting around evolution and global warming. I'm not sure that the standards emphasize evolution or climate change out of proportion to the rest, but I took your points and ran with them.

Evolution is the key to biology, so it makes sense it would hold a primary place.

Susan Eckert said...

Talks about how some states won't adopt the standards b/c of the push toward climate change in MS.

Talks about how a significant number of bio teachers are flubbing the dub when it comes to evo.

To be honest, I think the standards are a little too light on content. I was initially troubled by the assessment boundaries but now I just treat them as the floor, not the ceiling.

I think that's about all I have to say about NGSS.

Thank you for discussing with me.