Statue in a block of marble

Science will soon join the short list of K-12 subjects for
which American states, districts, and schools will have the option of using
new, common (aka, “national”) academic standards. Is this a good thing for
American students and teachers—and for the nation’s future? It depends, of
course, on whether the new standards (and ensuing assessments, etc.) are better
than those that states have been devising and deploying on their own.

When those “common” standards are ready, we will review and
evaluate them. In the meantime, we are completing our review of existing state
science standards and planning to publish those evaluations later this year—just
as we did in July 2010 for the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI)
in English language arts and math.

click to read the NRC Framework ReviewBut unlike the Common Core standards, whose authors scoured
the nation and the world for evidence and advice regarding essential content
and rigor in those subjects for the K-12 grades, the drafters of these “next
generation” science standards are beginning with an anchor document—the Framework
for K-12 Science Education
that was released by the National Research
Council (NRC) in July 2011.

At this time, we’ve no idea how the common science standards
themselves will turn out. But we can gauge the quality of the framework
that will undergird it. How reliable a guide is that document to the essential
content of K-12 science? And even if it is
solid on content, how good a job does it do of presenting that content in
clear, usable form?

We set out to answer those questions by turning, once
, to one of America’s most eminent scientists, Paul R. Gross, who has
been a lead reviewer of state and national (and international) science
standards and frameworks for Fordham since 2005.

So what did Dr. Gross find? A lot that’s good and strong,
timely and useful. He gives the document as a whole a more-than-respectable
grade of B-plus and, when it comes to content and rigor alone, he gives it top
marks: seven points out of a possible seven. He terms the Framework “an
impressive policy document, a collective, collaborative work of high quality,
with much to recommend its vision of good standards for the study of science.”
In particular, Dr. Gross finds that the progression of content through the
grades is intelligently cumulative and appropriately rigorous—and not bogged
down by “science appreciation” or “inquiry-based education.”

That’s the good news. But, unfortunately, that’s not the end
of it. Dr. Gross also finds the strong content immersed in much else that could
distract, confuse, and disrupt the priorities of framework users. He finds, in
the Framework’s protracted discussion of “equity and diversity”—especially in
its emphasis on differentiating content and pedagogy—the risk of contradicting
the Framework’s own core mandate, which is to frame the same science
content for all young Americans.

To ensure that the standards this Framework informs don’t end
up suffering from the overreach and sprawl that plague far too many existing
state versions, standards-writers must make some critical decisions about
priorities that were not made by the authors of the Framework itself.

In Dr. Gross’s concluding words, “If the statue within this
sizable block of marble were more deftly hewn, an A grade would be within
reach—and may yet be for the standards-writers, so long as their chisels are
sharp and their arms strong.”

The NRC Science Framework, then, fits into the familiar
category of valuable products that are best used carefully, with due attention
to users manuals, reviewers’ comments, and consumer cautions. Think of a model
train that works beautifully so long as the tracks are properly laid. Picture a
restaurant at which you can eat a terrific meal—nutritious, tasty, balanced,
and economical. If careless, however, you may find yourself neglecting the good
stuff and consuming more than you should of tempting but disappointing fare.

And so we offer this advice to users of the NRC
Framework now and in the future: Select carefully.

Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.