What Makes a Standard a Standard?

As we peer down the tunnel towards what those ‘in the know’ have shared will be the adopted Science, Technology and Engineering standards of Massachusetts by 2015, my thoughts have become increasingly drawn to how these new standards – officially titled the New Generation of Science Standards or “NGSS” – will need to be presented to my fellow K-5 teachers already burdened with fresh Common Core standards for other subjects, standards based report cards, and the RTI initiative in our community. The first question I think any teacher (fairly) would ask is:

Why change what we are doing now? What makes these new standards better than the ones we’ve been following for over the past ten years?

Full Disclosure: As a middle school science teacher I shared many conversations with colleagues about how closely and carefully one should (or could) align their classroom curriculum with the state’s. My personal stance on standards was always, “there is plenty of good science out there, but I might as well teach the science they’re expected to learn!” There were also district initiatives to nominate “power standards” that the science teachers as a whole across the grades were charged with to ensure “100% of our students mastered these standards by the time they graduated eighth grade.” Now in a cooperative position charged with overseeing the effective implementation of the complete K-5 science/technology/engineering curriculum, the flat suggestion to teachers to simply ‘just do it‘ doesn’t seem to cut it and a better explanation for why we should align our curriculum with the NGSS seems warranted.

Which brings me to what this post really meant to share from the outset. What makes a standard a standard? Anyone who has taken a glance at the NGSS knows the document format and multifaceted “performance expectations” can be a bit daunting when matched-up with current student expectations. For this reason I appreciated the thoughtful way in which the National Research Council outlined their standards’ design process in the May draft front matter publication.

“An important role of science education is not to teach “all the facts” but rather to prepare students with sufficient core knowledge so that they can later acquire additional information on their own. —An education focused on a limited set of ideas and practices in science and engineering should enable students to evaluate and select reliable sources of scientific information, and allow them to continue their development well beyond their K-12 school years as science learners, users of scientific knowledge, and perhaps also as producers of such knowledge.”

Paraphrased: We can’t teach everything, so its critical that we teach the most fundamental science content and skill set so our students will be able to better explore and understand deeper scientific fields and (more importantly) their world.

The National Research Council continues…

“With these ends in mind, the committee developed its small set of core ideas in science and engineering by applying the criteria listed below. Although not every core idea will satisfy every one of the criteria, to be regarded as core, each idea must meet at least two of them (though preferably three or all four). Specifically, a core idea for K-12 science instruction should:

  1. Have broad importance across multiple sciences or engineering disciplines or be a key organizing principle of a single discipline.
  2. Provide a key tool for understanding or investigating more complex ideas and solving problems.
  3. Relate to the interests and life experiences of students or be connected to societal or personal concerns that require scientific or technological knowledge.
  4. Be teachable and learnable over multiple grades at increasing levels of depth and sophistication. That is, the idea can be made accessible to younger students but is broad enough to sustain continued investigation over years. 

Bottom line: The “performance expectations” or standards that outline what a student should be able to accomplish connect students with how the natural (and man-made) world works, better student investigative and problem solving skills, are learned and developed over time in greater detail, and (maybe most importantly) relate to the students’ lives and society. I add extra significance to this point because, as all teachers know, students buy in when they make the connection between the learning and their lives.

That being said, a revised draft of the NGSS will be published in the fall of 2012. How well our standards actually align to these expectations now depend heavily on our input as educators expected to lead students to achieve them. While I personally missed the opportunity this spring to do so, I don’t plan to make the same mistake twice! Join me won’t you?

While we wait, consider sharing your own opinions on what makes a standard. Would you include additional criteria, or perhaps strip some away to broaden the NGSS’ scope?


About MrMusselman

K-5 Science Specialist for the Burlington Public Schools of Burlington, MA.
This entry was posted in Professional Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

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