Fortress Florida: For the sake of the state’s students, educational leaders should look to national experts instead of gazing inward

Last week’s results for 8th graders in science from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were not good news for Florida.  Sixteen states made significant improvements, but Florida was not one of them.  Instead, our state remained stuck below the national rates in scale score and percentages of students at the basic, proficient and advanced achievement levels.

Nevertheless, the state’s educational leadership keeps looking inward – to the same institutions and ideas that haven’t worked yet – for the solutions to the sluggish performance of Florida’s students in science.

If we are to succeed in helping our students compete with the world’s best in science, we need to take a radically different approach.  We need to look outward to engage the leaders in science education from the nation or even the world.

Last week’s meeting of the Florida Board of Education provided two examples.  The first (and most obvious) was the discussion about the standards the state uses to guide science instruction in its K-12 schools.  In 2008, the FBOE adopted a set of standards that we know, in retrospect, was hurriedly assembled by an underpowered and understaffed committee (and no member of that committee was more underpowered than I was in my work on the K-8 physical science standards).  These standards were trashed in a recent review by the Fordham Institute as being poorly thought out and full of errors.

We know that our committee was underpowered and understaffed because we can now see what it takes to do a great job.  The National Research Council deployed a large group of the nation’s experts in science and science education and gave them the time (nearly two years) and resources to assemble a “framework.”  Then the framework was handed off to Achieve, the arm of the National Governors’ Association that has assumed leadership in the standards movement, which composed a fabric of standards that is fitted snugly to the framework.  The first public draft of the resulting national standards, called the “Next Generation Science Standards,” was released last Friday.  The sophistication of the draft is breathtaking.  The physical science standards for middle and high school levels seemed a bit overambitious to me on first reading, but the coherence and cross-referencing of the standards were beyond question.  I’ll be looking forward to hearing from people with expertise in the life and Earth sciences with their comments.

Nevertheless, the FDOE leadership has been holding the national science standards process at arm’s length.  Florida was not among the 26 states that signed on with Achieve as “lead state partners”, despite the fact that Florida has assumed a leadership role in the corresponding efforts in math and language arts to establish and implement the Common Core Standards.  At last week’s SBOE meeting Commissioner Robinson’s report said that the FDOE would pursue a puzzling two-pronged strategy on science standards:  both to “Improve weaknesses identified by Fordham in Florida’s current science standards in the areas of chemistry and physics” and to “Thoroughly review and analyze the National Next Generation Science Standards draft as they are released, including submission of Florida comment as in the public comment review process, and prepare for adoption as part of our legislatively authorized standards adoption process in 2013-2014.”

Indeed, the FDOE continues to push forward on a project to tinker with the existing state science standards, despite the fact that the national standards will be available for adoption by mid-2013.  The FDOE Office of Mathematics and Science sent an e-mail to those working on the tinkering project shortly after last week’s FBOE meeting congratulating them and urging them to continue.

The only thing that is clear from these data points is that while 26 states are “all in” with the Next Generation Science Standards project, Florida is not.  The state education leadership is still relying on its own leaders – the ones who managed the production of the state’s present flawed standards – to make decisions on whether to abandon their own project and jump on board with the nation’s best and brightest.

The SBOE also viewed a presentation from the state’s Digital Learning Group, which was established by the board in March.  Among the Group’s recommendations was this:  “The legislature should fund a pilot project wherein some of the best teachers in Florida collaborate in the development of highly enriched digital interactive content in several essential courses which are taught state-wide.”

For such a project, the bar should be set very high:  The resulting virtual courses should be as effective as the very best classroom courses in promoting deep student learning.  This is a very, very tough problem, and success will require the leadership of the nation’s experts on learning in the subjects that are chosen for the pilots.  There is no acknowledgement of that truth in the recommendation, and in fact it seems to imply that Florida’s classroom teachers can handle the project.  Once again, the state seems poised to look exclusively inward when confronting a critical educational challenge.

The FDOE-supported CPALMS system, which is intended to supply the state’s teachers with “teaching tools and resources” and which recently received $10.5 million from Florida’s Race to the Top award fund, provides yet another example of a state educational organization keeping its eyes focused inward.  At least in my field – physics – the national experts in the Physics Education Research community have done this job about as well as it can be done, and based their work on decades of research about how students learn science.  The product, called “comPADRE”, is a collaboration of the National Science Digital Library, MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) and the PADs project.  Sponsors include the National Science Foundation, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Astronomical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and the Society of Physics Students.  (Take a look at the main comPADRE portal at http://www.compadre.org or the K-12 comPADRE portal, called “The Physics Front”, at http://www.compadre.org/precollege/ )  Yet you cannot find a mention of comPADRE on CPALMS, which is dedicated to collecting materials only from Florida’s own teachers.

It seems likely that other science disciplines have their own comPADRE equivalents.

As the new NAEP results demonstrate, this approach – with the educational leadership keeping its collective head down inside of Fortress Florida – isn’t working.  And there’s no reason to believe that it will work in the future.  It’s time to look outward, to the national experts who are blazing the trail for the states that are beating us in K-12 science.

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One Response to Fortress Florida: For the sake of the state’s students, educational leaders should look to national experts instead of gazing inward

  1. Pingback: Florida’s science standards: “clarification” exercise nears completion in preparation for July 16-17 State Board of Ed meeting « Bridge to Tomorrow

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