Fordham Institute trashes NGSS; review may be a major setback for American science education

The influential Fordham Institute today released a report that is highly critical of the Next Generation Science Standards, giving the standards a grade of “C” and saying that this multistate effort is not as high in quality as the standards many states developed and adopted in the past.  The hit on the NGSS, which is the centerpiece of the national effort to improve science education, may be a major setback for that effort.

Here we will focus on two issues raised in the Fordham report – the science-for-all-students character of the standards, and what Fordham says are the shortcomings in the high school physics standards.

The first issue is one that many teams writing K-12 science standards have confronted:  Do we really write standards that we should expect every high school graduate to meet?  Even those in the weakest 25% of grads?  What happens to higher level science courses – especially chemistry and physics – if we do so?  Will they be dumbed down?  And what about the students who should be preparing for college majors in science and engineering?  Should the standards address them in some way?

Fordham’s answer is that the NGSS should include benchmarks that even the most ambitious high school chemistry and physics courses should include, and that the science-for-all-students goal should essentially be set aside.

Consider this excerpt from the strongly-worded (at one point, the phrase “pedagogical farce” is used) section on “Content Weaknesses and Omissions” in high school physics:

Ampère’s and Faraday’s laws are introduced by implication but never named—and certainly never expressed mathematically:

… provide evidence that an electric current can produce a magnetic field and a changing magnetic field can produce an electric current. (HS-PS2-5)

It will be no surprise that no mention is made of such fundamentally important bases of modern society as the electric generator and motor, whose operation cannot be understood without Ampère’s and Faraday’s laws.

Mathematical expressions for Ampere’s and Faraday’s Laws necessarily involve the use of calculus – beyond the scope of an algebra-based physics course at either the high school or college level.  The benchmark quoted by Fordham on this topic is indeed a very ambitious statement for a science-for-all-students document.  An algebra-based physics course could cite some simple derived algebraic results involving the magnitude and direction of the magnetic field near a straight current-carrying wire, or the electromotive force in a current loop caused by changing magnetic flux through the loop.  But a full statement of Ampere’s and Faraday’s Laws?  Obviously not.

The Fordham report also offered an ominous warning in the era of the implementation of the Common Core standards in math and English language arts:

One more crucial point at the outset: most states already have full plates of education reforms that are plenty challenging to implement, often including the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and math. Before undertaking any major change in their handling of science education, state leaders would be wise to consider whether they have the capacity to accomplish this in the near term, too. We caution against adopting any new standards until and unless the education system can be serious about putting them into operation across a vast enterprise that stretches from curriculum and textbooks to assessment and accountability regimes, from teacher preparation to graduation expectations, and much more. Absent thorough and effective implementation, even the finest of standards are but a hollow promise.

This suggestion to put science on the back burner in K-12 schools until they have raised all students to the math and ELA levels demanded by the Common Core standards is a framework for mediocrity and a recipe for disaster in the nation’s science and engineering pipeline.

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