Minnesota’s science standards: Vague? Cogent? Challenging?

Are Minnesota’s science standards “too often… marred by vague, incorrect, or grade-inappropriate material, or…missing key content entirely. “  “Yes,” according to a study by the Fordham Foundation, a generally conservative group.   Furthermore, Fordham documents that compared to  many other countries, we do not understand enough about science.   That’s hurting us now, and will produce more harm in the future.

Fordham acknowledged that “When (Minnesota’s) standards are “on,” they are cogent and challenging.”  However, overall,  Fordham gave Minnesotan’s standards  a “C”. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia earned higher grades.  The District of Columbia, California, Indiana, South Carolina, Virginia and Massachusetts earned “A’s. (The report is at www.edexcellence.net)

Since I’m no expert on science, I turned to four thoughtful Minnesotans for reactions.   Margaret Anderson Kelliher, formerly a state legislator and now President and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association responded first: “An average rating won’t cut it for Minnesota’s students or science and innovation based businesses.  That is why MHTA and our foundation have been actively involved in pushing for upgrading of Minnesota’s standards.  We support the participation in the “New Generation Science Standards” and continued work to push Minnesota to the top of the list when it comes to math and science.”

Steve Kelley is a former state legislator who now directs the Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Humphrey School.  He wrote a lengthy, generally skeptical review of Fordham’s report.   Kelly felt the report gave too much power to individuals who reviewed different aspects of state science standards.  He also disagreed with several of their criticisms.   I’m posting Kelly’s entire review below because people should have a chance to consider his comments.

I also contacted Ed Hessler, who has taught science for more than 30 years at the K-12 and higher education levels.  Hessler is Executive Secretary of the Minnesota Science Teachers Association, but emphasized he was speaking only for himself, not the group. Hessler has “considerable regard for several of the reviewers” that Fordham used.   Hessler wrote a long response, also posted on the CSC website.  Among other things, he pointed out that the report praised Minnesota’s evolution standards, calling them “complete and well-organized.”  Hessler responded, “hurrah for the Minnesota educators who did this good, no excellent work.”

Hessler believes that overall, Minnesota did not spend enough time or resources creating science standards.  He wrote, “this leads to the need for polishing this effort …”

Finally, I contacted Charlene Briner,  Director of Communications and Chief of Staff at Minnesota ‘s Department of Education.  She explained,   “We are constantly evaluating our standards….constantly increasing their rigor.. “ Briner noted that Minnesota is one of the lead states in a new national effort to create “Next Generation Science Standards…we would not have been asked if we did not have considerable credibility.”

Fordham recognized that good standards don’t guarantee effective teaching.  But they are an important part of the overall picture.  Given Minnesota’s involvement in “the Next Generation” project, it appears state leaders agree in at least in part with Fordham: Minnesotans need more knowledge of, and skill in science.

Another Reaction to Criticism of Minnesota’s Science Standards

Steve Kelly is former chair of the Minnesota Senate Education Committee. He now is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Humphrey School, University of Minnesota

Hi Joe,

I hope you are getting reactions from folks with more expertise than I have. For example, Mike Lindstrom and Sally Standiford just led a SciMathMN project on creating frameworks from the standards. They worked with a lot of teachers on how to convert the MN standards into more detailed teaching guidance and would have a sense of how the practitioners feel about the clarity and specificity of the MN standards.

I first have a methodology question about the Fordham approach. You will know as much about this issue as I do. Although all the states, so far as I know, use panels of teachers and academicians to develop the standards in each discipline, Fordham assigns a single reviewer to each discipline. So if one person doesn’t like your style, you’ve got trouble. The single reviewer approach does give you rater reliability across the states but at some cost.

Looking at the credential of the reviewers, I see wide variability. Goodenough and Lerner taught only at the college level and, so far as I can see from their bios, have no experience in designing or delivering K-12 curriculum. The Schwartzes have taught at the K-12 level but not at the college level. These variations could generate differences across the subject matters being reviewed. In addition, I’ll note that Richard Schwartz was asked to review both physics and chemistry, even though his background is entirely in chemistry. Given our approach to what it means to be highly qualified, Minnesota likely would not have had him develop the physics standards, we would have used physics teachers. So I’m not sure why he is qualified to review physics standards.

One reason I note that is that physical sciences was one of the most harshly reviewed areas for MN. And I don’t get some of his criticism. On page 99 he says that the standard on energy transfer is not related to the benchmark on how electricity can produce magnetic force. That looks like a transformation of transfer of energy to me, but I’m a lawyer. Perhaps he was also involved in the clarity and specificity review. The one concrete example is that we should have used an equation instead of the sentence the standards do use. Standards have to work for multiple audiences, including parents. I think the MN statement is superior to the proposed alternative. Why does Schwartz get to have the last say? We appear to get marked down for not requiring kinematics before high school or the kinetic molecular theory at all. This strikes me as an experienced teacher who formed his own idiosyncratic opinion of what is important being in a position to spread his views through the Fordham Institute with no peer review. I did not see that the Fordham had used peer review to act as a check on the opinions of these reviewers.

One last point, Fordham has its own biases, as do their reviewers, that show up in various places. Page 4 and 5 of the introduction discuss the Framework for science standards published last year by the National Research Council. Their panel included experienced and recognized scientists and educators. It was also subject to external peer review as well as public comment. Fordham takes one guy, with a solid seeming resume and asks him to look at the Framework. He said, ” that the Framework may have paid too much attention to engineering and technology, as well as to “science process” skills.” Here’s a biologist criticizing the whole effort to integrate science and engineering because it has too much engineering. I have a bias in favor of science process skills because treating science as a body of content totally misrepresents what scientists do and the kind of problem-solving and exploratory skills we want our children to have. I am a big fan of the Framework. It sees science and engineering as creative activities, which they are. If the process of converting it to standards is undermined by Fordham because they have a bias against science process, which one of us is right?

I don’t know if this is helpful and, as I said, there are people with greater expertise, but this is how I’d evaluate the Fordham report card. I wouldn’t put much credit in it and I wouldn’t tell policy makers to go back to the drawing board. At least not until we see what comes out of the effort to draft common science and engineering standards based on the Framework.

Hope you are doing well!


A Second Comment about Minnesota Science Standards.

Ed Hessler has taught science at the k-12 and post-secondary levels of education for more than 30 years. He is the Executive Secretary of the Minnesota Science Teachers Association. However, the statement below reflects only his views, and not necessarily those of anyone else:

I talked with John Olson, Science Specialist MDE who is much closer to the standards than me. I had nothing to do with them so please weigh very carefully what I say. I’m also in the same position as you. I don’t have time to read the report carefully enough to respond thoughtfully. I do have considerable regard for several of the reviewers (Lerner, Gross, Goodnough).

I need to make clear that I’m writing this as an independent citizen, perhaps uninformed, too so keep that in mind. While I am the executive secretary of MnSTA, I cannot speak for the organization.

I could not help but think about our grades over time. The slope has become slippery! The standards with the dreaded Profile of Learning were given an A (something that Acting Commissioner Yecke could not bring herself to acknowledge), the next set received a B and the current standards, a C. This downward trend appears to be national.

The first thing I looked for was biological evolution and found no comments about our standards on evolution except perhaps indirectly: no mention that evolution applies to humans; after all we are living organisms subject to three independent facts: replication, variation and natural selection. Given these evolution is inevitable. It was unsurprising to find how prevalent the so-called “strengths and weaknesses” argument is nationally. In the end, I note this remark: “The high school evolution section is complete and well organized.” So, hurrah for the Minnesota educators who did this good work, no, excellent work.

With respect to humans, though, I don’t think that teaching human evolution is easy since there is a need for background as well as familiarity with concepts that take time and require information to develop. Whenever I think about this I’m reminded of Neil Shubin’s lovely book, “Your Inner Fish” which integrates developmental biology, phylogenetics, paleontology, morphogenetics, etc. It convinced me that teaching physiology in high school, once a fairly standard practice is a good idea but such courses would need revision. But what a story about human evolution! It is followed though by the question–perhaps it is only mine–how to do this well enough for young learners to understand the story given the scope of a general biology course.

The Edge question this year was along the lines of “What is your favorite, deep, elegant or beautiful explanation.” It provides me a lens on the teaching of human evolution. University of Minnesota–Morris biologist PZ Myers noted the profound effect that a sentence in “On Growth and Form,” a classic in biology by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson had on him and his view of science. Thompson wrote “Everything is the way it is because it got that way.” This means that to understand something you must first understand how it got that way. In doing science this means paying attention to process and history.

I suspect that John may say something about the organization of our document and concerns about confusion by reviewers, e.g., the division into standards (big ideas), benchmarks (learner outcomes) and the inclusion of examples (ideas only). It would be great to have had a conversation with the review team to ensure that there is a common understanding but then a document also should have that clarity.

I think John may say something about the development process. In Minnesota this has been a community effort and it is possible that this contributed to the comments about clarity and specificity as committees raced against time to finish. Mismatches with examples were a likely outcome. This was a volunteer effort and like an engineering problem, one of design under constraints with consequences following. For me this leads to the need for polishing this effort which would have included enough soak time for iterations of this current edition. There wasn’t time or resources.

You probably know that Minnesota is involved in the Next Generation Science Standards which will influence the next edition of Minnesota standards and perhaps improve the discussion on the value of two levels of science standards: national or state and what developing state standards requires. The national group will have the time and resources that states don’t have.

What I see in the review is the lack of time allowed in developing current standards to link them logically and developmentally in the way say that the Atlas for Science Literacy did (Project 2061) as well as the resources to do that. This would have led, at least I believe this, to less unevenness. More than once I’ve been struck by the amount of work as well as its quality that the committee did in taking us this far in such a short period of time. It would have been interesting to have had the time to consider the appropriate “mathematization” of the physical science standards given research that Sadler and Tai (Science 317:457-458, 2007) which shows that what counts in terms of future success in science is mathematics.

Take these notes with a huge grain of salt.