by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
The first draft of North Carolina’s K-12 Science Standards was released last month. Over the past several months, a Data Review Committee has been meeting with public school officials and stakeholders and following the procedures and processes, outlined the developing academic standards provided within the North Carolina Standard Course of Study: Internal Procedures Manual.
How did the standard writers do? On the plus side, reviewers get a lot right. Taken in their entirety, the Science Standards are acceptable to most. Reviewers left much in place. In fact, 70 percent of those who responded to the public school and stakeholder surveys favored keeping the existing standards. On the negative side, some of the proposed standards reflect a hard-core environmentalism that make it difficult to meet the criteria for developing academic standards outlined in North Carolina General Statutes 115C-12(9C).
So, what did we learn from the new standards? As mentioned earlier, the overall sentiment of reviewers was that the K-12 Science Standards were serving students well. Reviewers did not recommend removing any of the standards for K-2, grades 3-5, and the K-12 Science Standards.
However, suggested improvements were made. Revisions to two Life Sciences standards were requested as well as “general concerns about the overall 21st century verbs and explanation of the standards.” In fact, according to the Data Review Committee Report “it is believed that many of the adjustments could be accomplished simply by ‘unpacking the standards’ and providing a better way to teach and understand the standards and ensuring that teaching is at a developmentally appropriate level.”
It would have been perfectly acceptable had the revisions ended there, but they didn’t. Writers added a new strand with the gauzy title “Earth and Human Activity.” One standard in fourth grade science asks students to “Understand changes caused by human impact on the environment (page 16 Draft standards).” To that end, among other things, students “are asked to explain how humans can adapt their behavior to live in changing habitats” (page 16, Draft Standards). Another standard asks seventh grade students “to understand the reciprocal relationship between the atmosphere and humans” (page 27).
Good standards are clear, rigorous, measurable and have objectives that are the same. These are not. What does monitor mean? Who does the monitoring? What does the good health of humans mean? What does human impact mean? Examples seem to imply that human impact is always negative. Is it? The standards are vague and overly ambitious in scope.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. An eighth-grade science standard proposes to “Understand the environmental implications associated with the various methods of obtaining, managing and using energy resources” (Page 31, Science Standards). To meet this standard, students are asked, among other things to “Engage in an argument to explain the environmental consequences of the various methods of obtaining, transforming and distributing energy” or “Analyze and interpret data to illustrate the relationship between human activities and global temperatures since industrialization.”
The worst of this type of thinking is found in standards for K-12 and Earth and Environmental Science (see pages 40-41 of K-12 Science Standards). Students are asked to analyze and interpret data to explain past climate trends or to explain how carbon cycling influences various ecosystems. Under the strand: ‘Earth and Human Activity,’ students are asked to “Evaluate How human consumption patterns impact Earth’s systems.” In addition, students are asked to analyze the ways that humans use water and their impacts to water quality and availability” and “to evaluate the benefits and trade-offs of using non-renewable or renewable energy sources for electricity production and transportation fuels.”
So, what’s wrong with these standards? They are not called into question because humans don’t have impact on the environment. They do. They are questioned because the proposed standards lack the safeguards to ensure that teaching will be fair and comprehensive. Students are asked to understand the environmental implications associated with obtaining, managing and using energy resources. They are also asked to evaluate how human consumption patterns impact the earth’s systems (See page 41, Draft Science Standards). Wouldn’t it be better if students were also asked to explore the real-world economic consequences associated with such actions? Students are asked to interpret data to illustrate the relationship between human activities and global temperatures since industrialization. The question implies this is a settled scientific question. It’s not. Isn’t it better for students to explore all sides of a question instead of parroting an answer that is far from a settled? Yet in too many areas the standards and objectives seem to only mirror one side of a topic or question.
In places, a progressive environmentalism infects the science standards. It lacks balance, foments alarmism and conflates problems to which government intervention or action is always the solution. Noticeably absent from these standards is any reference to the economic costs associated with environmental policy or the public trade-offs necessary to address these issues.
The standards also ignore the role technology has played in the environment or remedying environmental or energy problems.
The standards also ignore the role technology has played in the environment or remedying environmental or energy problems. Too many standards concentrate only on the negative impacts of man’s activities and ignore the positive impacts man has made to the planet and his environment. Balance is sorely needed as well as a more realistic view of environmental problems. Government should not be seen as the default mechanism to address our problems. The fact is not all problems require government action. Truth be told, government action — or inaction — also contributes to environmental problems. These realities also need to be part of this discussion. The preference for government monitoring and regulation is misplaced and lacks justification.
So how do we develop good academic standards? North Carolina General Statutes 115C-12 (9C) lay out six characteristics for evaluating academic standards. They include rigor, specificity, sequentially, clarity, focus and measurability.
High school standards have two additional requirements; relevance to pursue postsecondary education or gain employment in the modern economy and alignment with minimum undergraduate requirements for admission to institutions of the University of North Carolina System.
Sadly, these qualities are absent from many of the proposed standards. They are not clear or rigorous. They ignore relevant research and knowledge. They also fail to reflect the complexity of natural processes and their varied interactions with the human environment. When this happens, we don’t have good academic standards, nor good education.
NC DPI talks frequently about the importance of public feedback for this process to work. The Data Review Committee Report states “Public comment on the first draft of the Science Standards will be accepted until December 18th.” Great.
Why a link to submit public comments cannot readily be found on a website or in any of the relevant documents is a question only NC DPI can answer.