National science standards to the rescue

Washington University in St. Louis geophysics professor leads the charge in Earth and planetary sciences

Joe Angeles/WUSTL

Michael Wysession, PhD, associate professor in Earth & Planetary Sciences never has a clean desk because he is always studying earthquakes, writing textbooks, or working on the standards that will define what is in the textbooks.

What should every 12th grader know about Earth, the systems that keep it humming, and the impact people have had on those systems since the dawn of agriculture?

It’s a question that a geophysicist at Washington University in St. Louis is trying to answer, and his assessment could well alter the way Earth and space sciences are taught in K-12 classrooms around the country.

In his day job, Michael Wysession, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, conducts path-breaking research on the complex interactions between Earth’s core and its mantle, the massive and sometimes mysterious forces that trigger earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and other so-called “acts of God.”

But recently, Wysession has been up to his elbows in a more down-to-earth and practical project — leading a team of scholars who are helping the nation’s top science agencies develop an educational framework for K-12 science education and to write a set of standards based on that framework that identifies the key scientific ideas and practices all students should learn by the end of high school.

Wysession, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on Earth science literacy and education, was asked to lead the team that wrote the Earth and space science part of the framework and to co-lead the writing of the Earth and space sciences standards.

In 2009, Wysession chaired a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded committee that produced an e-booklet titled “Earth Science Literacy Principles” that summarizes what all Americans should know about the Earth sciences. The author of more than 20 textbooks in the earth and physical sciences, he also authored the video course called “How the Earth Works” for The Teaching Company.

As the debate over the science of global warming grows more intense, Wysession has been charged with defining what may be one of the most crucial elements of the science curriculum. A key focus of his mission is ensuring that students graduate from high school with a solid grasp of the science behind the Anthropocene, loosely defined as the period in Earth’s history during which human activities have had a significant impact on Earth systems.

“We change Earth’s surface faster than any other natural process at this point,” Wysession says.

Recent history of educational standards

The general public may assume that public K-12 schools already adhere to national standards in their curriculum.

That is not the case, Wysession says. While there have been many attempts to define national standards, the deference to states rights in this country has meant that states were never required to adopt the standards.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is typical, he says. The act requires that states assess student skills in order to receive federal funding. However, it does not impose a national standard on the states, which are free to set their own standards.

According to Mississippi’s state standards, Wysession says, in one year more than 90 percent of their students were proficient in a 4th-grade reading test, a score that ranked them tops in the country. But according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered by the Department of Education (whose results are released as “The Nation’s Report Card”) Mississippi was at the bottom of the heap.

President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” switched things up a bit because money provided an incentive to improve. Race to the Top was a Department of Education competition for grant funds that was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

In this competition, states could win points toward education grants for complying with what came to be called the common core; common standards in math and reading that had been developed — crucially — by a state-led movement, organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.

Twelve states eventually won grants in the competition, but only one was west of the Mississippi River, Wysession says, and that was Hawaii. Predictably, states such as Texas and Alaska declined to participate.

Still, 35 states have now adopted the common core, which means, Wysession says, that for the first time in our nation’s history, kids across the country are learning the same math and the same English.

The hope was that the same thing would happen in science, but the money dried up in Washington.

However, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, increasingly worried about declining science literacy in a world where many policy decisions hinge on science, went ahead anyway, trusting that states would be motivated to adopt the standards by the need to remain economically competitive.

Again, crucially, the process of defining the science standards themselves will be led by a group of states, coordinated by the nonprofit educational organization Achieve Inc., which played a similar role for the math and English standards.

The new standards, to be called Next Generation Science Standards, will replace the National Science Education Standards (NSES), a set of guidelines for the science education established by the National Research Council in 1996.

These NSES standards were influential in shaping the science standards of many states, and represented a significant advancement in pedagogy, but have been criticized as having too many factoids that kids have had to memorize.

Framing the new standards

This summer, the National Research Council — the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine — released a framework for K-12 science education as the first step toward defining new science standards.

The idea behind the framework is that students should gradually deepen their knowledge of core ideas in four disciplinary areas over their school careers, rather than acquire shallow knowledge of many topics.

Even the choice of disciplinary areas may raise some eyebrows. The four are: life sciences, physical sciences, Earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology and the applications of science.

Earth sciences and engineering have barely been part of the K-12 curriculum before.

Importantly, the framework strongly emphasizes the “practices” of science — helping students learn to plan and carry out investigations, for example, and to engage in argumentation from evidence — and not just ideas or facts.

The overarching goal of the framework, according to the committee of experts appointed by the NRC to oversee its drafting, is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have the capacity to discuss and think critically about science-related issues, and the skills to pursue careers in science or engineering if they want to do so — outcomes that existing educational practices are not achieving.

The National Science Teachers Association and the National Research Council presented a web seminar, July 26 to explore major new components of the framework. The webinar is still accessible online.

Earth sciences as an example

Wysession is particularly pleased with the new prominence of the Earth sciences. As things now stand, he says, only 7 percent of Americans get any Earth or space science in high school.

The NRC decided to put Earth sciences front and center because of “the rapidly increasing relevance of Earth science to so many aspects of human society. … Only in the relatively recent past have people begun to recognize the dramatic role humans play as a geological force.”

Another hallmark of the framework is the priority given ideas rather than facts. “We tried to cut down on the volume of facts students would have to memorize,” Wysession says.

“If you’re going to be a geologist, yes, you need to know minerals,” Wysession says, “but at the K-12 level, what’s important is understanding how minerals form, where the stuff comes from, why it is there in the first place and what happens to it in the long run.

“So there’s going to be a big shift toward more big-picture thinking, more systems thinking, observing, being analytical — in short, thinking instead of memorizing,” he says.

Also remarkable is the blending of the traditional science disciplines, all of which show up in one guise or another in the Earth sciences core.

This reflects a unification of the sciences that has been under way for some time. “In our department,” Wysession says, “we have some geologists, but we’re mostly geochemists, geophysicists, geobiologists, or even biogeochemists.”

The traditional disciplines, he says were defined in 1892 by the Committee of Ten, a group of educators chaired by Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard University. That division of disciplines is 120 years old, he says, and science has changed.

While the framework includes only a few broadly defined core ideas — only three in Earth and planetary sciences — it is designed to ensure that students’ knowledge of these ideas deepens over time. The framework specifies how students should understand each core idea at the end of grades two, five, eight and 12.

This reflects an effort to build into the standards new research on what are called learning progressions.

Ideally, Wysession says, the entire framework would have been based on research about how competence typically develops in a particular subject area, tracing the path children follow as they move from naïve ideas to a more sophisticated understanding.

“The field is so new,” Wysession says, “that we couldn’t find research-based learning progressions for every topic, and at times we had to rely on our own experience as teachers.”

Figuring out how to include climate change in the framework proved generally vexing, Wysession says. “We wanted to put it into middle school, where it is currently taught, but when we looked at what is actually required to understand climate change, it didn’t make any sense.

“To understand climate change, you need to understand cycles of Earth’s orbit and axis orientation, solar dynamics, El Nino and ocean dynamics, the chemistry of the atmosphere and the physics of radiation.”

“It’s a tall order,” he says, “but we think we can get there by grade 12.”

The odds of adoption

The standards should be finished next year, Wysession says. The hope is that states will adopt them directly, though some may use them as the basis for their own standards.

Wysession hopes the science standards do as well as the common core for English and math. Within two months of the release of those standards, 27 states had adopted them.

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education , was ecstatic. “This has been the third rail of education, and the fact that you’re now seeing half the nation decide that it’s the right thing to do is a game-changer,” he told The New York Times.

Unlike the math and English standards, the science standards don’t come with a pot of money, but this does not mean there is no economic incentive for their adoption.

“Corporations are putting huge pressure on state governments to improve education so that they can be competitive,” Wysession says. “To get out of the economic doldrums, we need students coming out of schools who are prepared for jobs in science and technology.”