NSES The National Science Education Standards

In June, 2001, I wrote to the Committee on Education of the American Physical Society. My letter took aim at the National Science Education Standards (NSES) and asked the members of this APS committee to take a public stance against these dumbed down, anti-content standards for science curriculum and teaching. I had expected that at least a few of the members of this committee would agree with my perspective, but this does not seem to have been the case.

At first I only received a reply from one member, who wrote, in part and in essence: "Never have a seen a more profound and disturbing misunderstanding (whether ignorant or malicious) of the intent of any document." Some time later there arrived a detailed reply by two of the addressees: Drs. Fred Stein and Ted Schultz of the APS. I do not reproduce their reply here - it builds upon an article by Drs. Ramon Lopez and Ted Schultz that was published in the September, 2001, issue of Physics Today.

I then wrote to the committee once again to clarify some points of disagreement, and that was the end of it. My two email letters are reproduced below (converted to primitive html from plain text).

Please see my education web page <Links, Articles, Essays, and Opinions on K-12 Education> for related matter.

From braams Tue Jun 19 15:50:50 2001
To: Gelfand@lamar.colostate.edu, Kranek@physics.orst.edu, Lederman@fnal.gov, Rbc@aip.org, Wilsoj@rpi.edu, dand@physics.spa.umn.edu, heller@mnhep.umn.edu, john.mateja@murraystate.edu, khass1@ford.com, kranek@physics.orst.edu, lori.goldner@nist.gov, maronson@umich.edu, otwell@aps.org, p.hickman@nunet.neu.edu, quinn@slac.stanford.edu, rcook@physics.umass.edu, rsaenz@calpoly.edu, stein@aps.org, thodapp@hamline.edu
Subject: National Science Education Standards

(Addressed to: APS Committee on Education: members, past chairs and affiliates.)

Dear APS Colleagues,

I write to you to express my concern about the degree to which we, the community of professional physicists, are aiding the decline of American science education by our tacit or explicit acceptance of the National Science Education Standards [0]. I urge you to take another look at these influential, even authoritative, standards, and decide if you agree with me that they represent a terribly misguided and highly damaging view of what K-12 science education should offer.

The National Science Education Standards (NSES) were developed under the responsibility of the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences. They proclaim a special debt to the Benchmarks for Science Literacy of the AAAS [1]. The influence of NSES may be estimated in a very informal manner by typing the words National Science Education Standards into the Google web search engine. One finds hundreds of references. The Standards are invoked in a positive manner, it seems, by every textbook publisher, by State and local education authorities, by organizations of teachers, by outreach programs at every U.S. government science laboratory, by science museums, by non-profit foundations and by education advocacy groups.

There is, moreover, hardly a critical word to be found anywhere about NSES. It is true that before publication there was a certain amount of controversy over a post-modern slant in the draft Standards, following the AAAS Benchmarks, but this aspect was much muted in the published NSES document and is not the focus of my concern. My criticism of NSES is entirely focussed on the view of curriculum and teaching expressed in the Standards.

In a nutshell, I reject, and urge you to reject as well, the extremist view expressed in NSES that all K-12 science education must be driven by students' experience, and that content-knowledge is subordinate to students' hands-on inquiry. I am convinced that this focus on discovery learning does not represent science, that it ensures that students will acquire almost no content knowledge of any kind, that it leads inexorably to bad teaching, to scientific illiteracy among the general public, and to a degradation of the scientific and technological enterprise in this country.

To avoid misunderstanding I will say that I do not object to the use of NSES as a source of inspiration for a K-12 science project at a science museum or a national lab, and I don't object to discovery learning per se -- it has its legitimate limited role within science education. But as a foundation for science education it is deeply flawed. For an illustration I quote from an email by a New York City science and mathematics teacher, Marvin Rich. District 2 is our local (Manhattan) school district.

I would just like to point out that District 2 has already begun the process in science. All science is to be taught as "Project-Based". ... [T]eachers are not supplied with any materials or plans. They are to develop three projects each year (life science grade 6, physical science grade 7, earth science grade 8.)
Instead of development lessons (with demonstrations and laboratory exercises) most students now simply sit in groups and read trade books -- then they make lovely posters and give a presentation on something they know little about.
--Marv Rich
This degenerate form of education is, I believe, the natural, logical and expected outcome when a school district takes its cues from NSES. I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the education branches of the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences have been taken over by extremists with a political agenda to dumb down our students to the lowest possible level and degrade science and engineering in the United States.

The NSES document is organized as follows.

National Science Education Standards: An Overview
1. Introduction
2. Principles and Definitions
3. Science Teaching Standards
4. Standards for Professional Development for Teachers of Science
5. Assessment in Science Education
6. Science Content Standards
7. Science Education Program Standards
8. Science Education System Standards
Epilogue, appendix, closing matters

A professional physicist with a peripheral interest in K-12 education might very well, seeing this document, jump directly to the Content Standards in Chapter 6. This colleague of ours would thereby acquire a very incomplete and misleading impression of NSES. The heart of the beast, so to speak, is Chapter 3 and also Chapters 4 and 5, where the mode of teaching is expounded.

I will quote a few snippets from NSES. All the phrases quoted below are emphasized (set in large type) in the original published document.

Learning science is something that students do, not something that is done to them.

Inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experiences is the central strategy for teaching science.

At all stages of inquiry, teachers guide, focus, challenge and encourage student learning.

Skilled teachers guide students to understand the purposes for their own learning and to formulate self-assessment strategies.

Effective teachers design many activities for group learning, not simply as an exercise but as collaboration essential to inquiry.

Prospective and practicing teachers must take science courses in which they learn science through inquiry, having the same opportunities as their students will have to develop understanding.

When teachers have the time and opportunity to describe their own views about teaching and learning, to conduct research on their own teaching, and to compare, contrast, and revise their views, they come to understand the nature of exemplary science teaching.

These quotes were not very selective; I believe that they reflect accurately the spirit of the document, in which knowledge of science is completely subsidiary to students' personal hands-on inquiry. Of course the document does not state explicitly that pupils should be know-nothings, but to all intents and purposes this is the message.

It is interesting to observe how, when the Standards do say something positive about content knowledge, it is in a context where it is made clear that content knowledge is subordinate to hands-on inquiry and personal experience. Here are a few examples, again quoted from text set in large type in the published document.

Understanding and doing inquiry are contingent on knowing concepts, principles, laws, and theories of the physical, life, and earth sciences.

In the middle-school years, students' work with scientific investigations can be complemented by activities that are meant to meet a human need, solve a human problem, or develop a product...

At the epilogue the pathos of this document reaches a frenzy that is too painful to quote. Taken as a whole, the document is simply beyond belief. As working scientists we know science as a coherent body of facts and understanding about the natural world. We know that our understanding is based upon observation, and that science develops by experimental inquiry, logical and mathematical reasoning, and computational simulation. (The latter, by the way, in the time of Isaac Newton as well as in our time.) We know that it is absolutely, utterly hopeless and also useless to retrace by our own hands-on inquiry all the science that we need in our work. We study and learn the theories, the mathematics, and the experimental basis of the science that we use. We also engage in our own experimental inquiry, to advance the frontiers of knowledge.

My vision for K-12 science education is that we transmit to all students a rigorous core of scientific knowledge in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and earth science, together with a historical context of scientific investigation and evidence. We recognize a diversity of student motivation and ability, and aim to enable and encourage all students to develop scientific knowledge to the highest achievable level. We hold this to be important for the students and for the country.

I urge you, APS colleagues of the Committee on Education, to revisit NSES and its progenitor, the AAAS Benchmarks, and to assess the damage done by following NSES as an authoritative guide to classroom practice in U.S. K-12 science education. I believe that the conclusion will be unavoidable that NSES represents a deeply flawed view of science content and science education, and that it constitutes an ongoing unmitigated disaster in its influence on K-12 classroom practice.

Yours Cordially,
Bas Braams
Research Associate Professor
Courant Institute, NYU
Member of APS; primary divisions DPP and DCOMP

[0] National Research Council: National Science Education Standards. National Academy Press, Washington DC, 1995. http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/nses/html/

[1] American Association for the Advancement of Science: Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Oxford University Press, New York, 1993. http://www.project2061.org/tools/benchol/bolframe.htm

From braams Sun Jul 8 23:19:38 2001
To: Kranek@physics.orst.edu, Lederman@fnal.gov, Rbc@aip.org, Wilsoj@rpi.edu, dand@physics.spa.umn.edu, gelfand@lamar.colostate.edu, heller@mnhep.hep.umn.edu, john.mateja@murraystate.edu, khass1@ford.com, kranek@physics.orst.edu, lori.goldner@nist.gov, maronson@umich.edu, otwell@aps.org, p.hickman@nunet.neu.edu, quinn@slac.stanford.edu, rcook@physics.umass.edu, rsaenz@calpoly.edu, stein@aps.org, thodapp@hamline.edu
Subject: Re: National Science Education Standards

(APS Committee on Education; members, past chairs and affiliates)

Dear APS Colleagues,

It is apparent that my earlier commentary on the National Science Education Standards did not go down well with this group. I thank Drs. Stein and Schultz all the more for their careful reply, which at least clarifies the extent of our differences. In this brief note I will comment on some aspects of the letter by Drs. Stein and Schultz and the background paper by Dr. Schultz, and present some further clarifications of my own position.

It was disheartening for me to find in the Stein and Schultz letter and the Schultz background paper some disparaging comments regarding the California standards for mathematics and science (0). I have the California Mathematics Standards, the Science Standards and the Mathematics Framework, and recently I also looked at the California draft Science Framework. These are excellent documents as far as I'm concerned, and the people that wrote them can be very proud of their accomplishment (1). In marked contrast to NSES, the California science standards display a fine balance between content knowledge on one hand and Investigation and Experimentation on the other. Also, whereas the content standards in NSES are organized in eight strands without clear prioritization other than that Inquiry reigns supreme, the California standards have a firm focus on the three main science strands plus the Inquiry strand (2). In this connection the CA draft framework contains very sensible comments in the early chapters about the subsidiary role of strands on technology and societal issues within science education, contrasting favorably with the prominent role that these additional strands receive in NSES. The California standards are written in a no-nonsense precise style that any scientist should appreciate. I also appreciate the two-level nature of the CA standards for grades 9-12, having one set of content standards that all students are expected to achieve in the course of their studies and an additional set that all students should have the opportunity to learn. I wish that the APS Committee on Education would see it fit to applaud the high level of learning that is called for in the CA science standards and framework.

In the Schultz background paper, the case for an NSES reform of science education relies heavily on a certain presentation of a traditional approach versus an inquiry-centered approach. I view this as a mistaken dichotomy. We all know that science education in the United States lags well behind the standards of other industrialized countries --- TIMSS is clear about that, and a look at NAEP provides another view of the sorry state of our system. I did not spell out my own dichotomy in the earlier email, but because of my background I place the NSES view of science education in opposition to the traditional goals of a good European science education. Looking back upon my quite ordinary traditional European education I do not recognize anything from the Schultz description of a traditional education, nor, mercifully, do I recognize anything from NSES.

I went through school in the Netherlands, graduating from high school in 1972. I spent what would have been my 11th grade in a decent American high school in a rural university town: Bozeman, Mt. In my K-6 education, science meant life science and a bit of earth science. In high school (grades 7-12) I received biology in grades 7-12, physics in grades 8-12, chemistry in grades 9-12 (maybe starting in grade 8, I don't recall), and earth science in grades 7-10. These classes typically met two hours per week throughout the mentioned years. Of course there was mathematics in all years, I think three or four hours per week. The year that I was in Bozeman I took a good quality 2nd year lab course in chemistry and also a calculus class; my 10th grade Dutch education had already taken me beyond what this U.S. high school offered in physics and I think also in biology. My Dutch high school instruction included lab work in physics and chemistry, but little experimental biology and no earth science field work. I don't believe I ever saw a multiple choice test. The written State high school exit exams in physics and chemistry were each three-hour long affairs involving five or six multi-part questions; definitely not short-response questions either. I don't know if one would describe this curriculum as being a mile wide, but if one does, then it would not also be described as being an inch deep.

This experience shapes my view of what constitutes a decent K-12 science education for a college-bound student. It was not a model education by any means --- I would want to see more substantial science in grades 5 and 6 than I experienced, probably also in grades 7 and 8, and my exposure to earth science was below par across the board --- but it accords fairly well with my reading of the more ambitious part of the California standards (what all students should have the opportunity to learn). Of course, having in hand a caricature of a traditional science education, as in the Schultz background paper, does make it easier to present an attractive perspective on the NSES style of reform.

An issue with NSES that I did not address at all in my earlier email is teacher quality and the teaching environment. Much of the superficial attractiveness of the NSES picture of science education stems, I think, from the implicit assumption, throughout the document and especially in the classroom examples, that NSES science teachers will be much better qualified than present teachers, will have plenty more time for class preparation, and will have smaller classes. Even taking those conditions for granted I would view an NSES reform as vastly inferior to what could be accomplished in this same idealized environment under a more content-oriented focus. But we had better not take these conditions for granted. In my earlier email I mentioned the New York City District 2 middle schools ("most students now simply sit in groups and read trade books -- then they make lovely posters and give a presentation on something they know little about.") and the Stein and Schultz letter interprets that as proving that there exist bad teachers. But I don't think that that is quite the issue, and indeed the point of the quotation was not to focus on a single classroom, but rather on a trend throughout a particular school district that has embraced a certain style of reform. My common sense informs me that if one is working with an average teacher population in an average teaching environment and one moves away from textbooks and away from a content orientation towards a single-minded focus on student-centered inquiry, then one should expect an outcome more or less as in the given quote about our local District. I take note that supporters of NSES claim to have evidence suporting a more optimistic view, but I suspect that this evidence will be of an anecdotal nature only and based on experience with a select group of teachers in an intensely guided environment.

I could spend more time on some stated new goals of NSES, repeated in the Stein and Schultz letter and the Schultz background paper: to teach all students to think and act like scientists, to be sceptical and to understand the nature of evidence. As a long-time member of SCICOP, an organization devoted to promoting these attitudes in the general public, I fully support these goals. Unfortunately, NSES appears to be based on the point of view that pupils have very limited power of abstraction and can only learn these attitudes by --- to borrow some language that you will recognize from a different context --- the drill-to-kill approach of interminable exposure to hands-on inquiry. I believe instead in an approach that is focussed on higher-level understanding of the content of science as a pathway to pupils' critical thinking. In addition, of course, I take it as evident that a strong core science curriculum founded on demanding content standards is important for all students and for the country.

Finally I must return to the argument that the content standards in Chapter 6 of NSES, including, among eight strands altogether, content standards for physical science, life science, and earth and space science, invalidate my claim that NSES lacks focus on science content. Of course NSES is a committee document, and it could hardly have come out with no discussion of subject matter knowledge whatsoever. But the emphasis in NSES on student-centered inquiry as the beginning, the middle and the end of science education is overwhelming. I insist that the quotations in my earlier commentary provide a perfectly fair reflection of the tenor of the document. With this focus on inquiry so firmly established the subject matter standards in Chapter 6 don't matter that much anymore. They will not be achieved, and, to top it off, the assessment standards in Chapter 5 are there to ensure that it won't be noticed. It is a depressing thought that the community of professional scientists is standing on the side while this happens.

(0) I am referring to the paragraphs containing the following. Stein and Schultz: "When a group of people opposed to this approach [i.e., NSES reform] captured the process for developing the California Science Standards ..." and "... [an] example is what the traditionalists and textbook publishers were able to do in producing the California Science Standards." Schultz: "Two recent developments in California ... serious retrenchment to the traditional emphasis on arithmetic ... new rewriting of the state's science standards ...".

(1) I don't mean that the California Science Standards are beyond critique, and it still has to be seen how they will be reflected in curriculum materials and assessments. It surprised me that various high school topics that I view as belonging to physics are listed under chemistry in the CA standards.

(2) The eight strands in the NSES content standards are:
- Unifying concepts and processes.
- Science as inquiry.
- Physical science.
- Life science.
- Earth and space science.
- Science and technology.
- Science in personal and social perspective.
- History and nature of science.
The four strands in the CA science standards for grades K-8 are:
- Physical science.
- Life science
- Earth science.
- Investigation and experimentation.
For grades 9-12, the CA standards refer to the four subjects: Physics, Chemistry, Biology/Life Sciences and Earth Sciences, and an overarching Investigation and Experimentation component.

Yours Cordially,
Bas Braams
Bastiaan J. Braams - braams@math.nyu.edu
Courant Institute, New York University
251 Mercer Street, New York, NY 10012-1185

Further (later) remarks:

The draft California Science Framework mentioned above came up for adoption in February, 2002. On that occasion I wrote a supporting letter to Mr. Reed Hastings and other members of the California State Board of Education. The framework was adopted.