In the comments on my previous post, there’s an important update from George Soule, a communications director at the Carnegie Foundation, and I updated the post to reflect his clarifications.

In chatting with him, he had a useful explanation of how the science standards process differs from that which applied to the Common Core standards in English language arts and in mathematics. Forty-eight governors have committed to using those standards, which are well on their way to final adoption. He’s allowed me to quote part of his reply:

The conceptual science framework effort is proceeding very differently from the recent Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative to develop common K-12 mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) standards. The CCSS were possible in large measure because states had been working together for years to develop internationally-benchmarked, college- and career-ready standards in math and ELA. Since the content areas were well developed, and states were accustomed to working together on math and ELA standards, it was possible for 48 states to take their efforts to the next level and agree to sign on to a process in which they would create common standards that they would consider adopting once finalized (and which, as of today, 24 states have done so).

The development of next-generation science standards is proceeding in a very different manner in large measure because the field is in a very different place. That?s why the first step?the NRC?s working with the science and science education communities to get the science right?is so important. Achieve will then?working with state policy leaders, higher education, K-12 educators, the science and business community and others?develop next-generation science standards that reflect the Framework. All of these stakeholders will be critical to the effort. And though this process is separate from the Common Core State Standards Initiative, all stakeholders can expect that there will be many opportunities for feedback, review and discussion just as there were in the CCSS process.

There is interest in many states in revising their science standards and the standards developed in this process will create a solid foundation for states in those efforts. The goal of this process is to create excellent K-12 science standards. Whether individual states decide to adopt them or whether they become ?common? state standards will ultimately be up to the states to decide. For now, first things first, we have funded an effort to encourage the science and science educator community to comment on the draft NRC conceptual framework so we get the science right and have a strong foundation from which to develop next-generation science standards.

Some of that is from this blog post at Achieve, a group created by the National Governors Association, US Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, and others to promote education reform. They have played a key role in organizing the Common Core standards and in creating this new framework for national science standards.

A few other things to note about this process. While George is right that there has been less convergence among national science standards, there is a general sense, as reported here by Education Week, that science standards would be the natural follow-up to the ELA and math standards. State officials I’ve spoken with at conferences generally indicate that they wish they’d waited to revise science standards until after this process completes, in hopes that they could simply adopt the national science standards. People like this idea.

The other big factor at play is that the next big federal education bill will probably include science next to math and reading in the testing and “Annual Yearly Progress” regime introduced by No Child Left Behind in 2001. Doing that right will be tricky, but vital. As it stands, schools are measured (and therefore funded) based on their students’ performance in math and reading. That means that schools have every incentive to

  • teach to the test
  • focus on math and reading
  • downplay other fields

Adding science to the assessment regime will be good to the extent that it will bring the focus back to science education. It will be bad to the extent that many of the standard tests out there are not great about assessing science as a process, rather than a simple recitation of facts. If the assessments are good, then this could work out fine. For the tests to be good, the standards will have to be good. And that is why it’s so good to see that the framework developed by the NRC is so focused on science as a process, as a social phenomenon, and as something embedded in history. If that focus is reflected in the standards and in the tests, this could do real benefit to science education.

The standards are also encouraging because they introduce evolution early and often, introducing evolutionary concepts in kindergarten and running them throughout the curriculum. Unfortunately, human evolution is basically omitted, a disappointing trend my NCSE colleagues have documented in many state standards as well (Mead & Mates, citation below).

I’m a bit worried by the way the standards define evolution, though. Here’s the opening of that strand:

Biological evolution explains both the unity and diversity of species. Biological evolution results from the interactions of (1) the potential for a species to increase its members, (2) the genetic variation of individuals within a species due to mutations and recombinations of genes, (3) a finite supply of the resources required for individuals to survive and reproduce, and (4) the ensuing selection by the environment of those organisms better able to survive and reproduce. Organic evolution, and the net result of speciation minus extinction, has led to the planet?s biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

The numbered points are the definition of natural selection, not of evolution more broadly. There are other evolutionary processes, and students need to learn what they are and why natural selection is not the same as evolution writ large. To distinguish, as the last quoted sentence does, between “organic evolution” and “the net result of speciation minus extinction” is artificial as well. I’d rather see the focus on evolution as descent with modification. This makes a discussion of evolutionary trees and of biodiversity easier to motivate, and allows the processes of evolution flow naturally as the sources of “modification.”

If they want to see how this can work nicely, the NRC need only consult the most recent Kansas science standards, or others given an A in Mead & Mates (2009) “Why Science Standards Are Important to a Strong Science CurriculumEvolution: Education & Outreach 2(3):359-371 doi:10.1007/s12052-009-0155-y.


  1. #1 Cheryl Shepherd-Adams
    July 15, 2010

    Thanks for the clarification, Josh.

  2. #2 CK
    July 25, 2010

    Thanks for blogging about this. It’s quite possible that I’m missing something but this post and the previous one don’t seem to be listed under “Education” in Science Blogs. The development of national science standards is an important project which deserves at least that level of attention in my opinion.

    Another small point: “the standards define evolution”? Are you talking about the draft framework? If so, this is an opportunity to encourage people to send comments.

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