Let’s hear it for proficiency

Back in June, we at Fordham released a critical review of the final Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). As we explained at the time,

…using substantially the same criteria as we previously applied to state science standards—criteria that focus primarily on the content, rigor, and clarity of K–12 expectations for this key subject—our considered judgment is that NGSS deserves a C.

Our review team felt that these new standards fell short in a number of critical areas. Far too much essential science content was either missing entirely or merely implied. Science practices, while essential to K-12 science learning, were given undue prominence. And the inclusion of “assessment boundaries” meant to limit test development would like place an unintended but undesirable ceiling on the curriculum that students would learn at each grade level.

Besides all of that, our expert team was disappointed by what they found, and didn’t find, by way of math, especially in relation to physics and chemistry. “In reality,” they said,

there is virtually no mathematics, even at the high school level, where it is essential to the learning of physics and chemistry. Rather, the standards seem to assiduously dodge the mathematical demands inherent in the subjects covered. There is math available in the Common Core that could be used to enhance the science of the NGSS. No advantage is taken of this.

Since then, the NGSS authors have released an appendix—Appendix L—that is meant to show “Connections to the Common Core State Mathematics Standards [CCSSM].” This document undertook to supply some of the math that was missing from the NGSS proper, and to show places where Common Core math could strengthen the teaching and learning of science in ways that the core NGSS document neglected. In short, Appendix L intended to do what the NGSS should have: link grade-appropriate science and math content.

Well worth doing. But how well did they do it? We asked Johns Hopkins math professor and veteran Fordham math reviewer Steve Wilson to answer that question as part of a thorough analysis of the alignment between NGSS and the Common Core math standards. For that review, Professor Wilson examined both the NGSS themselves and the new Appendix L. He determined that, while the new appendix is a valiant attempt to overcome serious flaws in NGSS proper, the alignment between the science standards and CCSSM still falls short in three significant ways:

First, in several cases where NGSS expectations require math in order to fully understand the science content, that math goes well beyond what students would have learned in classrooms aligned to the Common Core. In other words, the math in the NGSS and the math in the CCSSM are not fully aligned;

Second, Appendix L, while indisputably a welcome instructional and curricular tool, misses several opportunities to build important links between grade-appropriate math and required science content; and

Finally, Appendix L too often makes “superficial connections,” in which grade-appropriate math is presented in ways that do little to enhance science learning.

Given the critical overlap between science and math, as well as the NGSS authors’ intention to align their science expectations with the Common Core math standards, these shortcomings signal a need for caution on the part of states that are serious about implementing the CCSSM while also considering adopting the NGSS.

But those making such adoption decisions have plenty more to consider. While our science reviewers found that NGSS merited a C, a year earlier the same reviewers assigned D and F grades to 26 existing state science standards. There’s ample evidence that U.S. science education needs an overhaul, and any such overhaul must include stronger academic standards for this key subject than most states have been using. (Of course, it needs effective implementation of standards even more than it needs standards; as with the Common Core for English and math, it’s folly to declare that you’re changing your standards if you’re not serious about the heavy lifting that follows.)

Let us remind state leaders, however, that the NGSS aren’t the only alternative and, in the judgment of our reviewers, they aren’t nearly as strong as the best that some states developed on their own. A state with shoddy science standards should also consider replacing them with those of another state that’s done this well.

In order to help states whose standards were equal or inferior to the NGSS weigh the pros and cons of these options, we also released this week a short-form, side-by-side, comparison of NGSS and the current science standards of 38 states—those that our reviewers deemed "clearly inferior" or "too close to call" vis-à-vis NGSS. We also compare them with the standards of three jurisdictions—D.C., Massachusetts, and South Carolina—whose science standards earned exceptionally high marks from our reviewers.

These concise comparisons may prove useful to educators and policymakers in states pondering whether to replace their current science standards with NGSS. Several have already done so. Others are deciding.

Is there another option (besides Xeroxing the South Carolina or Massachusetts or D.C. science standards)? There could be. Call it “NGSS-plus.” Treating Appendix L as an essential supplement to NGSS will help. Then develop more “supplements,” akin to “patches” for flawed computer operating systems and software programs. These could resolve the NGSS-CCSSM differences, add math in crucial places to the NGSS, and turn the opportunities missed by Appendix L into opportunities seized. Such supplements could also supply important additional science content that was omitted from the NGSS—our reviewers’ most important criticism.

We hope someone will consider such supplementation. We also hope that states embarking on the NGSS will do so with their eyes wide open to the challenges and glitches that inevitably will follow.

NB: NGSS aficionados and doubters alike should also be aware of the recently-issued Appendix C (available on the NGSS website), titled “College and Career Readiness.” They will find thirteen wordy pages that read as if they might be intended to refute our review of NGSS. Mostly, they argue against overburdening science education with too much content! In this way, they underscore the importance of our principal criticism.

Back-to-school season is officially upon us and for many families that means new school supplies and backpacks and recalling where they stashed the warmer clothes. But if you're a public opinion pollster, back-to-school means it's time to dust off your old education surveys and see if anything’s changed from last year.

With three polls released this week (AP-NORC, PDK/Gallup, and Education Next),  trying to draw broad conclusions can be tricky given what, at times, seem to be fairly contradictory answers from the public. Some commentators have focused on what the data seem to show regarding hot-button policy issues such as testing or vouchers.  But that’s only the tip of the survey iceberg. Consider also:

Common Core: This one is pretty easy to sort out across the rival polls: If you ask an American about the Common Core, chances are they will tell you they haven't heard of it. If they claim otherwise, there’s a good chance they are either lying or severely misinformed. 

That’s not a knock on the standards themselves or their backers. John Q. Public will learn more as CCSS morphs from a wonky D.C. political issue to an active reshaper of their local schools and state report cards.

Education Next flags the near-doubling of opposition to the standards, but the jump from 7 to 13 percent is far from a tectonic shift considering that support also climbed slightly from 63 to 65 percent.  The polls consistently showed that those who know about the CCSS generally like them.   

Charters: Like the Common Core, the public is both very supportive of charter schools and also significantly ignorant of many of their basic attributes—even though they’ve been around for more than a decade in lots of places.

Spending: Education Next showed that the public has very little concept of how much of their money is going to their local schools—the average respondent estimated $6,177 per pupil nationally when the actual number is upwards of $10,500.  While both AP-NORC and PDK/Gallup measured support for boosting per-pupil spending, that may be partially due to misinformation.  

While Education Next also talked to a lot of big spenders, that support for more dollars dropped by 10 percentage points when they were supplied with the accurate information. Education Next found a similar result when asking about teacher pay.

The biggest takeaway from these surveys is that when it comes to education reform, the more the public sees, the more it likes. That said, public-policy bandwidth is limited so we also have to ensure the information out there is actually accurate.

Michael Brickman is Fordham’s new national policy director; he previously served as Gov. Scott Walker’s education policy advisor. Follow him at @brickm.

“No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.” This is carved into a massive stone wall on the FDR memorial in Washington, but it could have been the preface to this slender, timely, punchy book by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann. These authors make a persuasive case for improving the academic achievement of U.S. students—and thus America’s human resources—so that the nation thrives well into the future. Schools are where human capital gets built, they argue, and the acquisition of essential skills is better measured by standardized tests than by years spent in class. Equating 2009 NAEP data with 2011 PISA scores, the authors found that just 32 percent of U.S. students were proficient in math, earning a ranking of thirty-second in the world. More than half of Korean and Finnish students were proficient, while Shanghai topped the list with 75 percent. U.S. schools aren’t even educating their top students well: Just 7 percent scored at the advanced level in math. But they also highlight a few bright spots in this dark cloud. In Massachusetts, with its strong standards and commensurate accountability measures, 51 percent of students were proficient and 15 percent advanced in math. And in the South, where governors have pushed for school accountability for almost two decades, five states made the list of ten highest growth states. It is possible for the U.S. to improve the trajectory of its long-term economic growth, write the authors, “if we could replicate the performance of top-performing states across the nation.” While they point to educators’ intransigence as the biggest obstacle to reform, it might be more constructive to identify the conditions that led to successful reform-driven coalitions in those top-performing states. The country’s future wealth could depend on it.

Source: Eric A. Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, July 2013).

British author and director of research at the Centre for Market Reform of Education, Gabriel Sahlgren brings us back to Economics 101 with the contention that there is one root cause of all problems afflicting education today: a lack of proper incentives for quality. He argues that the strongest system would be built on a functioning, choice-heavy education market. From there, his argument proceeds rationally: Readers are treated to a thorough explanation underpinning school choice as it relates to competition and quality. Sahlgren evaluates an impressive body of research, covering studies that are cross national (such as Hensvik’s 2012 finding that school competition eventually leads better-qualified individuals to become teachers), large scale, and small scale. And he uses all of this to arrive at his ideal education market, which includes, among other things, vouchers, closures of failing schools, for-profit schools, and better information and accountability systems. From 10,000 feet, much of this seems like old news. But as one parachutes into the grass below, Sahlgren proves himself to be a refreshingly realistic proponent of market-based education reform. He acknowledges the meager gains that many choice programs have produced (which he attributes to programs borne of political compromise and ideology) and repeatedly warns politicians that implementing his reforms could prove politically treacherous. For Sahlgren, reform is all or nothing. He’s not wrong. But, then, he doesn’t have to get elected.

SOURCE: Gabriel H. Sahlgren, Incentivising Excellence (England: The Centre for Market Reform of Education Ltd., 2013).

Is it all just politics in the Badger State? Have you ever heard of the Common Core? Mike and Brickman talk dairy, while Amber hashes out the latest Education Next survey results.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. breaks down why Fordham does not support implementation of the NGSS.