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The American educational standards movement – now about fifteen years old – has provided the intellectual foundation for reforms in the nation’s K-12 schools. However, science has posed a particularly difficult challenge for the standards movement. The first generation science standards adopted by many states in the 1990’s were terribly flawed in that they were simply enormous collections of facts. Science teachers were forced to race through textbooks and worksheets. Only lip service was paid to the notion that students would gain a deep understanding of any of the big ideas in science or an appreciation for what science is and how it is done. The shortcomings of the states’ science standards were highlighted by comparisons like TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which showed U.S. students being outperformed by students from Singapore and Denmark. A comparison between the first generation science standards from my home state of Florida (implemented in 1996) and those from Singapore and Denmark reveals that the lists of “benchmarks” from these two nations are much shorter than in Florida’s 1996 standards. This allowed teachers from Singapore and Denmark to focus on inquiry-driven lessons that build understanding instead of requiring mass memorization of facts.
Many states are now revising their science standards. In general, these revisions seek to emulate nations and states that are more successful in science education by implementing fewer topics that can be addressed in greater depth. The committees making these revisions focus both on the research on how children learn science best and on the imperative to prepare students for college-level work.
Florida completed the revision process in 2008, approving new standards that will be tested on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test – the state’s high-stakes test - in spring 2012. Of the 61 members of the committee that produced the draft standards, four were professors in the Florida State University Physics Department (Hon Kie Ng, Harrison Prosper, Horst Wahl and myself). The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) asked institutions in the state’s university system to recommend faculty members – both from the Colleges of Education and the “content” (science) departments. Thomas Jordan, coordinator of the QuarkNet program at the University of Florida, was on the committee as well. Interestingly enough, the FDOE staff member who managed the committee, Lance King, had earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from FSU, had taught high school physics and had managed the FSU Physics Department’s outreach programs.
Three of the FSU physicists served on the subcommittee for physical science standards for the high school grades (9-12). They were joined by high school teachers in physics and chemistry and faculty in chemistry from 2-year and 4-year schools. University physics faculties are crucial to the standards process: they are the experts on the field of physics, they are often familiar with the results of physics education research, and they understand what is necessary to be prepared for college work.
I chose to join the subcommittee working on lower grades (K-8) physical science standards because of my experiences teaching pre-service elementary teachers at FSU. This subcommittee included teachers with extended experiences in the classroom and with administration at the school-district level. One of the members, a teacher at an Orlando elementary school, had been named 2008 Florida Department of Education/Macy’s Teacher of the Year.
The subcommittee members were encouraged that a science professor from a research university would be interested in their work. One of their dreams for their students is that they earn Ph.D.’s in science and become successful researchers and university-level educators. Most of the teachers and administrators I have worked with over the years have welcomed and enjoyed my collaboration.
My experience with the Physics by Inquiry curriculum (from Lillian McDermott and the University of Washington) in teaching pre-service elementary teachers and my familiarity with the Physics Education Research literature provided a useful research base for decisions being made regarding benchmarks. On this last point, it must be made clear that I am simply an educator who is aware of the research performed by my colleagues in the Physics Education Research community. Nevertheless, I usually carried a copy of Volume 1 of Physics by Inquiry to the meetings. The folks I worked with respected the research represented in Physics by Inquiry and other work done by the PER community, even though that community’s work is not generally used as a source in the K-12 community. Physics by Inquiry, a college level curriculum, was a useful reference point in the discussions. For instance, some of middle school benchmarks listed in the 1996 standards would have been too challenging for a basic college class.
My presence provided some scientific clout when our subcommittee negotiated with the 9-12 physical science group and the K-8 groups from the life and earth/space sciences. These negotiations became quite gritty at times. For example, the life scientists and chemists had somewhat unrealistic ideas of what middle school students should understand regarding atomic and molecular structure. Having a physics professor point this out was helpful in keeping the discussions constructive.
Scientists often assume that educators and K-12 administrators are less interested in scientific accuracy and integrity than working scientists because of the various demands on public school systems. The educators and administrators with whom I worked on the standards (and on other collaborative projects on which I have worked for years) have been at least as concerned with scientific accuracy and integrity as I am. Without scientific accuracy, there is no science education. In addition, the K-12 educators and administrators I’ve worked with have used the knowledge base on the science of learning in their decision-making. All in all, these K-12 educators have been focused on science.
In the end, the standards approved by the Florida Board of Education on February 19, 2008, were a significant improvement over the first generation standards implemented in 1996. There are fewer topics and a focus on a small number of “big ideas”. An example of a “big idea” in physical science is “Big Idea 10: Forms of Energy”. It states:
So in this respect, the standards revision process was a success.
Nevertheless, the members of standards committee recognized that excellent standards alone are insufficient to transform a state’s educational system to provide a world-class education in science. On February 27, eight days after the Florida Board of Education approved the new standards, 39 of the standards committee members sent a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith calling for a substantial financial commitment to improving science education in Florida. The proposed commitment included $100 million per year for science teacher professional development, an amount comparable to that spent in Florida’s successful effort to improve achievement in reading. As of this writing, the state has mustered only $5 million of federal professional development money to support the implementation of the new standards, and the state’s budget is in free fall.
By now, some readers will have correctly noted that I have avoided the elephant in the living room – the debate over evolution education. The evolution debate consumed an enormous amount of energy and focus. The standards committee members took to calling evolution “the e-word.” In a perfect world, the “e-word” would have been “excellence” instead. The battleground was “Big Idea 15: Diversity and Evolution of Living Organisms”, which reads (after a slight revision by the Florida Board of Education during the clamorous meeting where the standards were approved):
The battle over evolution in Florida has been well documented in the media, including the Orlando Sentinel, the St. Petersburg Times and the New York Times, so I will not go into details here. The battle continued on to the 2008 session of the Florida Legislature after the approval of the State Board, and it will no doubt continue into 2009. It has spread to other states as well, including Kansas, Texas and Louisiana, where the governor (a Rhodes Scholar who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Brown University) signed the anti-evolution education “Academic Freedom Act” into law.
Physicists should care about the evolution debate because it speaks to the integrity of the science classroom as a place where scientific observations are explained exclusively in terms of the laws of nature. I participated in this debate through speaking to the Florida Board of Education February 19 meeting where the standards were approved and to a committee of the Florida Senate considering the Academic Freedom Act. I also wrote several letters to the editor and op-ed pieces on the subject. Such opportunities are open to everyone. I have also been fortunate to associate with the members of the Florida Citizens for Science, a group formed to defend evolution education in our state. The physics community has much to learn from their passion and commitment.
Most physicists do not realize that our field is in the vanguard of science education reform. This circumstance provides both an opportunity and a responsibility to lead, and we must embrace both.
Paul Cottle (mailto:email@example.com) is a Professor of Physics at Florida State University and the Chair-Elect of the Southeastern Section of the APS. In 2002 SESAPS awarded him the George Pegram Medal for Excellence in Education.