Comments Preliminary Draft "A Framework for Science Education.
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National Research Council
RE: Preliminary Public Draft on “A Framework for Science Education”
by David E. Wojick, Ph.D., Co-Director
August 1, 2010
The STEM Education Center (STEMed) is pleased to provide the following comments and suggestions regarding the draft NRC/NAS Science Education Framework document. STEMed grows from a three year effort to catalog, by grade level, the more than one thousand basic concepts presently taught in K-12 science education in America. This catalog is based on detailed analysis of existing state standards for science education. Which science concepts are taught, and in which grades, is now a matter of law in most states.
The purpose of our catalog of core science concepts was originally to develop a search engine that is capable of finding on-line science content by grade level. The prototype of this search engine is operational in beta form at http://www.scienceeducation.gov. However, as a spin-off we have also developed an empirical model of what is taught when in science education today. It is this empirical model of science education that we bring to bear on the draft Framework document. We will be happy to share our model with the Committee. Further information is on our website: http://www.stemed.info.
What should not be taught?
1. We strongly recommend that the Committee consider this central question – “What concepts, that are presently taught, need not be taught?”
We are concerned that the draft Framework repeats a common misconception regarding the present state of science education in America today. It alleges for example, that what is taught often consists of “disconnected facts.” It also repeats the common slogan that today’s science education is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The fact is that today’s science standards are, by and large, carefully and thoughtfully designed. They present science in a systematic and progressive manner.
This common misconception probably occurs because science itself is “a mile wide.” Our research shows that there are well over one thousand core concepts presently taught in the K-12 span of science education. All of these concepts are scientifically important. Moreover, these core concepts are taught in a progressive manner, such that later concepts build on earlier ones. Thus these are few, if any, disconnected facts in the present standards.
It may well be that too many concepts are being taught. Indeed, our research indicates that the rate of instruction is over one major concept per hour, which is a challenging load, to say the least. However, so far as we can tell the Framework document does not address this central issue: What, if anything, should be dropped from the present state curricula? Instead the Committee seems to be asking for significant additions to a curriculum that is already full to bursting, including adding Engineering and Technology. Also, every one of the 1000+ core concepts that we have cataloged falls naturally under one of the Committee’s Core Ideas, as the latter are all encompassing of science. Something has to give.
Progression of Ideas and Concepts
2. We recommend that the Committee strive to integrate its progressions with those that are present in existing state standards.
The central theme of the draft Framework document is that the component ideas, or concepts, of the various sciences should be taught in a logical progression throughout the K-12 experience. Specific progressions for all the sciences are laid out in Chapter 7, where numerous component ideas or concepts are listed. Because these draft progressions provide specific content and grade levels, they are the closest thing to an actual framework for drafting state standards that the document presents. We therefore have focused upon them.
Our basic observation is that similar progressions are already specified in many state standards. We here include one example, namely the so-called “matter strand” progression from the Virginia standards. See our figure "Wojick Progression." It corresponds closely to the first two progressions in the draft Framework. Many states have a similar progression, though they differ in many details.
These existing progressions have been developed over many years, with a great deal of effort and trial by practice. We see no indication that the committee has considered this extensive, existing body of practice. Rather they present their draft progressions as though they were a “new generation” of science standards. This is hardly the case.
The Problem of Spiraling
3. We recommend that the committee give specific attention to the problem of conveying the progressive nature of science strand knowledge in the context of the extensive spiraling of instruction.
We do, however, agree with the Committee that the progressive nature of science concept development may not be taught as much as it could be. There is a disruptive factor built into science education which makes this difficult. We call this factor “spiraling.”
The problem is that there are several different sciences to be covered, and many different K-12 strands of development within each science. The Framework document shows many such strands. This means that no matter how a curriculum is written there will have to be a great deal of jumping back and forth among the many strands of development, if all are to be covered. There is no way around this jumping problem, rather it must be allowed for.
Because of this spiraling among the strands, student frequently find themselves returning to a strand that they have not visited for one or more years. In some cases the jump may be four or five years. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that it may be difficult to maintain a sense of progression in any given strand. This is especially true given that each year’s segment of the strand may be taught by a different teacher.
Inappropriate grade bands
4. We recommend that the Committee give more consideration to the important role of grade bands in science education standards, and develop an approach that is more consistent with present practices.
The progressions presented in the draft Framework document are all based on four simple grade bands: Grades 1-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12. Every component idea or concept is required to be taught in just one of these four bands. None is allowed to be taught in, for example, a range of 1-3, 2-3 or 2-4, or 5-6, etc. That is, most combinations are excluded. However, this is not how science is presently taught.
One the one hand, most state standards specify a specific grade for each component idea or concept, at least through grades 6, or up to grade 8 in some cases. Beyond that there is some flexibility in Middle and High School, due to student choice. In other words, at the state level these bands do not occur, especially in the lower grades of K-6.
On the other hand, any given concept may be taught in different grades in different states. This is primarily because of different ways of spiraling among the science strands. It is not primarily because the concepts are taught in a different order, nor because different combinations of concepts are taught, although there is some of each of these variations. The resulting pattern of practices is shown in our figure "Wojick Grade Bands", in contrast to the pattern specified in the draft Framework document.
Looking across all the states we find that each concept has its own grade band and these occur in many more combinations than the Framework allows. In short, the Framework is either too broad in not specifying specific grades for each concept, as is done in most individual states, or too narrow in excluding many of the grade bands that presently occur among the different states. We note too that there appears to be no discussion of this grade band issue in the draft Framework document, even though it is central to the design of science standards.