Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why An Educator Is Worried Common Standards Might Squeeze Out Science

Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle said Florida can't overlook science standards.

Florida State University

Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle said Florida can't overlook science standards.

State leaders should not overlook improving science lessons while schools prepare for new English, literacy and math standards, according to a Florida State University physics professor.

Paul Cottle said the state is unlikely to bolster science standards if schools are struggling with the Common Core State Standards scheduled to take effect in the fall of 2014. Florida is one of 45 states which have fully adopted the standards. The standards ask students to know fewer topics, but have a deeper knowledge of those topics.

States are weighing whether to adopt a similar, but separate, cooperative effort to draw up new science guidelines known as the Next Generation Science Standards.

Florida science educators are rounding up support for NGSS. So far, 26 states have said they will consider adopting or have adopted the standards, but Florida is not yet among those states. The Florida Department of Education is accepting public comment on the standards now.

The Common Core standards and accompanying standardized test will be more difficult for students. If schools are already worried about students struggling in reading or math, Cottle said, they’re unlikely to raise science standards as well.

“So they’re going to do what human being do,” Cottle said. “They’re going to double-down on the Common Core. They’re going to try to focus their resources on improving students’ performance – especially the lower-tier students’ performance – in reading and mathematics.”

That could mean Florida graduates seeking to enter science, technology, engineering or math fields — STEM — will be at a disadvantage. STEM-related jobs typically pay a higher salary than other fields, even for jobs which don’t require a college degree.

“The problem is that if you take those resources out of science and put them into reading and mathematics,” he said, “you’re going to make it more difficult for students to pursue careers in science and engineering and other STEM fields.”

Cottle was critical of a review of the new science standards by a Washington D.C.-based education group. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave the science standards a ‘C’ grade in a recent report.

The NGSS often omitted essential science knowledge, reviewers argued.

“The Fordham folks are setting the bar so high that people are just going to give up.”

-Florida State University Professor Paul Cottle

“Pruning and prioritizing can be taken too far, and it does nobody any favors to pretend to omit content from one grade that later turns out to have been essential,” the institute’s Chester Finn and Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote in the review’s introduction. “Yet the NGSS sometimes does precisely that: it never explicitly requires some content in early grades that is then assumed in subsequent standards.”

Florida’s science standards also earned a ‘C.’

But while Florida’s science standards don’t ask enough of students, Cottle argued Fordham believed the NGSS should ask more of students than is necessary.

Cottle pointed to their review of the high school physics standards, particularly that students should be able to express Faraday’s and Ampere’s laws mathematically. Those concepts are too advanced for most Florida high school students, he said.

“What we’re not getting from the high schools are students who really understand and master the basics, like what electrical current is,” Cottle said. “Or how Newton’s laws work for a simple object, like an automobile.

“The Fordham folks are setting the bar so high that people are just going to give up.”

Cottle said he’s admired Fordham’s past reviews of science standards — including a report that pointed out oversights in Florida standards Cottle helped develop. But Cottle worried states might use the Fordham review as a reason to abandon the NGSS.

“We have to keep science in the center of our schools’ programs,” he said. “Saying that reading and math is more important than science is like saying water is more important than food.”

The new science standards require teaching students about evolution and human-caused climate change as early as elementary school — two subjects which could create political opposition. Opposition to the Common Core standards is increasing across the country.

State Board of Education vice chairman John Padget waded into the science debate at last week’s meeting. Florida should adopt California’s or Washington, D.C.’s science standards, he said.

“Florida,” Padget said, “must focus on science, do it fast and get it right.”


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