Every few years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development compares the academic attainment of kids around the world — and the 2009 survey had some disquieting news for American students. Out of 65 nations studied, the U.S. placed 23rd in science and just 31st in mathematics. The news, however, wasn’t uniformly dire. There were states within the country that not only had high proficiency levels compared to their peers from other states, but on a 2007 international science assessment, topped almost every other region in the world bar Singapore and Taiwan. The two states were Massachusetts and Minnesota, and the answer to their success is a rigorous set of science standards.
Any other state wishing to emulate the success of MA and MN have a ways to go. A recent report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute described science curricula in some parts of America as falling somewhere between mediocre and awful.
Several states present evolution as unsettled science—“according to many scientists, biological evolution occurs through natural selection,” say New York State’s standards. Wishy-washiness is also creeping into the way schools teach climate change, as some parents pressure teachers to “balance” the conclusions of the majority of scientists against the claims of a tiny but vocal clan of skeptics. We can’t have a scientifically literate populace if schools are going to tap-dance around such fundamentals.
Currently, 26 states are working together to develop a new set of science standards — called Next Generation Science Standards — that will be available to all 50 states starting in 2013. A preliminary copy released last year lists both evolution and human-driven climate change as a set scientific finding rather than an unproven hypothesis. It’s unclear at this point if the final draft, which will be released this fall, will preserve this certitude.
The standards are based on recommendations from the National Research Council and were funded in part by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In addition to tackling shortcomings such as those mentioned above, they put new emphasis on engineering, which is crucial to our country’s economic competitiveness, and stress the process of science as much as the content.
Although not without critics, outlines of the new standards have won over some powerful voices supporting the improvement of science education. Carolyn Wallace, a science education researcher from Indiana State University , found most of the science-focused standards she’s been subject to during her experience teaching science in secondary schools to be “too authoritarian.” She found little of that in Next Generation as she discovered that the standards leave room for teachers to be flexible with how they approach the material. Her concern was with the fact that the amount of material that the standards mandate should be covered in each year might be overwhelming and unrealistic, and others share the same concern.
Harold Pratt, however, thinks that this is a feature rather than a bug with the new standards. If the U.S. is to climb out of the science proficiency hole, schools will need to dedicate more time to teaching the subject. Some districts finding themselves under the gun of the math and reading requirements of the No Child Left Behind have backbenched science education, and the adoption of the new standards will go some way towards reversing that trend.