The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has issued “The State of Science Standards 2012“ report (a PDF is here) and the results are not encouraging. Only one state, California, was given an “A” for its science standards; an A- was given to four states (Indiana, South Carolina, Virginia). Ten states (including Alaska, Oregon and Wisconsin) received an F.
My own state of New Jersey, who has many highly-ranked public schools, scored dismally, receiving a “D” for science standards that are summed up as “vapid” due to having “bare-bones content” that is “largely overshadowed by the supplemental materials, which introduce non-sequiturs, misleading statements, and full-on errors into the standards.” In contrast, the report commends the authors of California’s science standards as knowing what was “important to cover” with all due rigor and explaining what should be taught “in cogent prose.”
Standards for science are deficient in most states for four reasons:
(1) They undermine evolution: For instance, Louisiana’s 2008 Science Education Act pushes a “pro-creationist agenda” that purports to protect “academic freedom” while actually “allowing for the introduction of creationist teaching supplements.”
(2) They tend to be vague: One of New Jersey’s standards for fourth graders — “use outcomes of investigations to build and refine questions, models, and explanation” — contains “virtually no specific content” to the point that it is “impossible to determine what students should actually know or be able to d0.”
(3) They are weak in integrating scientific inquiry: Many states’ standards inadequately instruct students about the history and evolution of science and about key concepts such as theory and hypothesis.
(4) They fail to emphasize the link between math and science: “Few states make the link between math and science clear—and many seemto go to great lengths to avoid mathematical formulae and equations altogether”; as a result, many standards contain a “clumsy mishmash of poor writing that could much more easily and clearly be expressed in numbers.”
As the report observes in its introduction, Americans have linked science education to our national security and economic competitiveness since Sputnik went into orbit in 1957. A 2011 survey found that 74 percent of Americans consider the STEM areas — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — to be “very important.” But the belief that science education is important has not at all been matched by “strong scientific achievement.” Rather, the US continues to rank low on international assessments of scientific achievement including the PISA (fifteen-year-old Americans ranked twenty-third out of sixty-five countries; Shanghai’s students took the #1 spot).
Of course, just having highly-rated standards for teaching science does not necessarily translate into solid science instruction in the classroom. But the Fordham Institute is right to say that “the United States is doing little more than talking about the importance of getting science education right.” Given the acknowledged importance of the STEM areas, the Fordham Institute’s report makes it too clear that the US has a really long way to go if it wants to be competitive in a world economy in which technology, innovation and, yes, science are fundamental.
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