Arguments For and Against Content Standards for K–12 Engineering Education
This chapter presents the arguments for and against the development and implementation of content standards for K–12 engineering education. However, to make sense of the arguments, one must first understand the nature of existing content standards for other school subjects. Content standards describe subject-specific knowledge, skills, and dispositions that elementary and secondary students are expected to have mastered at different points in their educational careers. These expectations are usually expressed in grade bands, such as kindergarten–grade 2, grades 3–5, grades 6–8, and grades 9–12.
Ideally, content standards draw on studies in the cognitive sciences showing the development of conceptual understanding. Also ideally, standards support the progressive development of conceptual understanding, dispositions, and skills across grades and make explicit connections between related concepts. Researchers have been working to tease out such learning progressions in science education (e.g., Corcoran et al., 2009), but the committee is unaware of this kind of research in K–12 engineering education.
In reality, however, evidence about the nature and progression of learning is far from complete. Even though more data are available to guide standards development now than were available 20 or even 10 years ago, there are still gaps, especially in school subjects as new as engineering. To address these gaps, standards developers typically rely on the expert judgment of teachers, curriculum developers, and others with direct experience with students in the classroom.
It is important to remember that standards differ from the curriculum, which can be summarized as the scope and sequence of teaching and learning in the classroom. The curriculum is informed by standards. As described in Box 1-1, content standards also differ from program standards, assessment standards, and standards for professional development.
In addition, the implementation of standards in individual classrooms does not always match the vision of the original developers. Sometimes less material is covered than is described in the standards. Sometimes more material is covered. In addition, the material that is tested—which is sometimes synonymous with what is considered important—may be only part of what has been taught.
Historically in the United States, content standards have been developed through a consensus process at the national level by coalitions of organizations and individuals with interests and expertise in the subject area. As noted by Bybee (2009), given sufficient resources, expertise,
and time, content standards can be developed for any school subject. Based on the committee’s experience, the development of de novo, single-subject standards for a K–12 school subject, such as science, mathematics, or technology, requires several million dollars over a period of three to five years.1
These content standards development efforts, however, have generally not been associated with a plan or commitment for nationwide implementation. Instead, implementation of national standards begins when states create their own standards, based to varying degrees on the national documents. Because each state has its own educational system, history, and policies, state standards vary considerably in their fidelity to the national documents, as well as in their alignment to one another (Porter et al., 2008). This variability creates a number of challenges related to the quality, consistency, and rigor of what is taught, learned, and assessed (e.g., Finn et al., 2006) and is a major driver of the current movement to establish common standards for core subjects (Box 2-1).
Common Core Standards
Forty-eight states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have signaled their support for the common core standards initiative (www.corestandards.org), led by the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Draft standards for K–12 English language arts and mathematics, developed by experts affiliated with Achieve, Inc., ACT, and the College Board, were released for public comment in spring 2010. Supporters of the common core approach hope the new standards will increase the rigor and decrease the number and variability of learning expectations for students.
Participating states are also expected to sign on to the development of common assessments, and the U.S. Department of Education has pledged $350 million to help develop them. It is not clear, however, how these assessments would be designed or whether states will agree to use a common set of measures to judge student performance. A central tension in the project is whether the push for consistency at the national level fundamentally infringes on the tradition of state independence in education decision making.
Some have speculated that science will be the next school subject to become part of the common core standards. Because the draft framework for the next generation of science standards being developed by the National Research Council includes key concepts in engineering and technology, it is possible those subjects may also become part of the common core. When finalized in the first quarter of 2011, the science framework will be handed off to Achieve, Inc., which will use it to create new standards. The decision to include science in the common core standards likely rests with NGA and CCSSO.
Education in the United States is a complex system of interacting parts, which in turn is a subsystem of a larger, complex sociopolitical system. Policies at the federal, state, and district levels can influence what happens in the classroom. In addition, business, higher education, and national professional societies also have a stake in K–12 education. Most contemporary theories of education reform suggest that, for standards to have a meaningful impact on student learning, they must be implemented in a way that takes into account the systems nature of education (e.g., AAAS, 1998; NRC, 2002). For example, it is commonly understood that effective standards must be coherently reflected in assessments, curricula, instructional practices, and teacher professional development.
Special Characteristics of K–12 Engineering Education
K–12 engineering education has three important characteristics that must inform standards development and implementation. First, as noted in Chapter 1, compared to other K–12 subjects, engineering has a very small footprint in schools; in addition, almost no undergraduate programs provide training for prospective teachers of engineering. To put it simply, K–12 engineering education is in its infancy, and this has implications for standards.
Second, engineering has strong connections to mathematics, science, and technology, school subjects for which there already are K–12 content standards. In addition, existing standards, particularly for science and technology, exploit their natural connections to engineering. Thus it is reasonable to ask if new engineering standards must include explicit links to these and perhaps other content standards.
Finally, because of the postsecondary, professional track in engineering, some K–12 engineering curricula focus on preparing students to enter engineering schools, sometimes called the “pipeline” approach (e.g., Project Lead the Way, www.pltw.org). However, content standards for K–12 school subjects are typically based on a “mainline” goal, that is, general literacy in that field of study. This raises the question of whether there should be two sets of standards for K–12 engineering and, if so, how they might differ.
The Argument for Engineering Content Standards
The feasibility of developing standards depends on two things: (1) time, money, and expertise to accomplish the task; and (2) agreement on the fundamental concepts that underlie the stated learning goals. As to the former, the committee agrees with Bybee (2009) that human and capital resources are not a barrier to standards development. With respect to the latter, one aspect of the study was to review efforts to identify the core content of K–12 engineering. Based on this review, discussed in Chapter 3 and elaborated in an annex to that chapter, the committee believes there is enough agreement about most of the major ideas to suggest that a consensus could be reached through thoughtful, collaborative deliberation.
But the potential value of content standards—in any subject—is not in their development but in their implementation. As a tool for policy change, standards can provide a coherent intellecttual framework for reform that can be used in different ways by various groups. For instance, standards can provide guidelines and goals for course designers and teacher educators, even it they do not actually work together. Standards for K–12 engineering education, for example, could inform revisions of existing engineering curricula to align them more closely with essential
concepts and practices in engineering and to reflect current findings based on cognitive science. Standards could also inform the creation of new instructional materials and shape engineering teacher education programs.
For a subject new to most K–12 classrooms, standards can also make a statement about the importance of that subject for students and for society at large. Thus standards for K–12 engineering education could help create an identity for engineering as a separate and important discipline in the overall curriculum on a par with more established disciplines. This was an important goal, for example, of the technology education community when it developed the Standards for Technological Literacy (ITEA, 2000). Ultimately, standards have the potential to expand the presence of high-quality, rigorous, relevant engineering education for K–12 students.
In working on this project, the committee collected and reviewed information about standards and standards-like documents for precollege engineering education developed by other nations, including Australia, England and Wales, France, Germany, and South Africa (DeVries, 2009; also see Appendix B). Our efforts to draw meaningful inferences for education in the United States were hindered by differences among educational systems and difficulties in finding data on the extent and impact of standards.
The Argument Against Engineering Content Standards
Perhaps the most serious argument against developing content standards for K–12 engineering education is our limited experience with K–12 engineering education in elementary and secondary schools. Although there has been a considerable increase in the last 5 to 10 years, the number of K–12 students, teachers, and schools engaged in engineering education is still extremely small compared to the numbers for almost every other school subject.
For standards to have a chance of succeeding, there must be a critical mass of teachers willing and able to deliver engineering instruction. Although no precise threshold number has been determined, based on the committee’s experience with the development of standards in other subjects, 10 percent seems a reasonable minimum. Based on the projected size of the teaching force in 2010 in the U.S. K–12 educational system, this would represent about 380,000 teachers (NCES, 2008), a figure orders of magnitude larger than the estimated K–12 engineering teaching force.
The most recent data available indicate that 40 states have adopted or adapted the Standards for Technological Literacy. Of these, 12 require students to take at least one technology education course (Dugger, 2007). It is not clear, however, whether these state standards include the engineering content of the national technological literacy standards. More important, the committee could find no reliable data indicating how many states assess student learning in engineering. Without the pressure of an assessment, particularly an assessment with consequences tied to student performance, teachers may have little incentive to teach engineering.
Another concern is mixed results for nationally developed consensus standards, which have demonstrably influenced the content of state education standards and curricula (e.g., DeBoer, 2006), but have had varying impacts in different states. Overall, this has led to well documented problems of a lack of coherence among standards, instructional practices, assessments and accountability, and teacher professional development (NAEd, 2009; Rothman, 2003). Even when standards influence the content of a curriculum, the material that is actually taught—the enacted curriculum—is influenced much more by teachers’ beliefs and experiences than by standards (Spillane, 2004; Weiss et al., 2003).
The underlying assumption of standards-based educational reform is that student learning will be positively affected by standards-related changes. However, the evidence on this point is inconclusive. For example, in a meta-analysis conducted by Harris and Goertz (2008), the authors note that standards that succeed in changing what is taught may do little to change how classroom instruction is delivered. For this reason, they conclude, the impact of standards is frequently not as decisive as advocates hope.
Another concern is that we may not know enough about the teaching and learning of engineering at the K–12 level to develop credible standards. There appears to be a growing convergence on the central importance of the design process in K–12 engineering education; a handful of core ideas, such as constraints, systems, optimization, and trade-offs; and the importance of certain nontechnical skills, such as communication and teamwork. However, almost no research has been done, and there is relatively little practical experience to guide decisions about when specific engineering ideas or concepts should be introduced and at what level of complexity. In addition, opinions differ on how engineering concepts connect with each another and with concepts in mathematics and science. Indeed, standards that encourage separate treatment of engineering may make it more difficult to leverage the connections between engineering, science, and mathematics, potentially reducing the positive effects of engineering on student interest and learning in these domains.
Finally, the prospects for the successful implementation of content standards for K–12 engineering education must be considered in the context of what most educators believe is an overfilled curriculum. Obtaining stakeholder buy-in for a separate, new “silo” of content may be very difficult in this environment, especially because it would probably require eliminating some existing elements of the curriculum to make time and space for engineering.
As a K–12 school subject, engineering is distinct both in terms of its recent appearance in the curriculum and its natural connections to other, more established subjects, particularly science, mathematics, and technology, which already have content standards. Although the main ideas in K–12 engineering education are largely agreed upon, data based on rigorous research on engineering learning at the K–12 level are still not sufficient to develop learning progressions that could be reflected in standards. Even if much more were known about engineering learning, there are legitimate questions about the wisdom of promoting an entirely new silo of content for the K–12 curriculum.
For these reasons, the committee argues against the development of standards for K–12 engineering education at this time. Instead, we suggest other approaches to increasing the presence and improving the quality of K–12 engineering education in the United States. These are discussed in Chapter 3.
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