The character of existing schools, the effectiveness of current practices in science and mathematics education, and findings from current research were among the main topics of the workshop, but the committee was eager to build on those discussions and consider possibilities for the future. Near the close of the workshop, they asked the presenters and participants to discuss the implications of the presentations and discussions for implementing the next generation of standards and assessments in the STEM disciplines. The closing discussion also covered policy implications, coming developments in STEM education, and promising areas for future research.
Forty-four states have now adopted the “Common Core” standards1 and many expect their implementation, and the adoption of new assessments aligned with them, to have a powerful influence on K-12 education. But, Steve Schneider pointed out, that idea has been a long time coming. He cited the Smith and O’Day paper (1992) that described the principles of systemic reform, which was a catalyst for a reform effort that engaged states, districts, and schools around the country. The key components of systemic reform were high-quality standards; alignment of curriculum
with instruction, assessments, and teacher support (both preservice and inservice); and encouraging all school stakeholders to play their part—all issues that are still very current today.
In Schneider’s view, a significant challenge to the success of the earlier reform movement was resistance to any kind of federal mandates regarding standards, even though many of the United States’ international competitors have had national standards for many years. Now, in part because of federal incentives offered through the Race to the Top initiative,2 states which together educate 80 percent of the students in the country are adopting new, common standards. It is possible that this change might actually “move the system,” he suggested.
Jere Confrey stressed that the new standards will only be successful to the degree that teachers are well prepared to teach to them at each grade level. If this really happens, she believes, the result would be a meaningful improvement in educational equity and outcomes. She also noted that although the standards were written with explicit attention to learning trajectories, the existing research to support that approach is still uneven, so that in practice, for example, in mathematics, the standards reflect “mathematicians’ best logical guesses combined with empirically based learning trajectories.” It will be very important to increase the empirical base for these going forward, she noted.
She also cautioned that while formative assessment is a powerful and critical tool, the consortia of states that have formed to work on the next generation of assessments have focused almost exclusively on statewide summative assessments. She expects some to incorporate computer-based testing and possibly performance assessment and most to work to assess higher-level thinking skills, but she expressed doubt that there will be the sort of change in psychometric approaches that was highlighted during the workshop discussion of BOLT, for example. The new standards and assessments hold the promise of significant economies of scale that could allow states to explore formative and diagnostic testing and other innovations. “But,” she added, “there is nobody really in charge, and nobody at the federal level can take charge because it would start to not look like state standards.”
Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards
The National Research Council, in collaboration with Achieve, Inc., the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National
2For more information, see http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/index.html [July 2011].
Science Teachers Association has developed a conceptual framework for new science education standards (National Research Council, in press), as Tom Keller explained. A draft of the conceptual framework, which was released in July 2010 for public comment, put forth a vision for science education that makes student engagement the highest priority. It articulates cross-cutting concepts (the “big ideas” of science, such as that matter is made up of units called atoms), core disciplinary ideas in the four major domains of science, and scientific and engineering practices. Jennifer Childress explained that Achieve is going to use the frameworks document to develop specific science standards, and she noted that the implementation of the standards across the participating states will present a significant challenge.
Martin Storksdieck shared a few relevant points from a prior National Research Council workshop.3 States now generally consider several goals that may previously have seemed radical as part of the job. Three such goals are striving for meaningful equity in educational opportunities, focusing on academic rigor for all, and incorporating data into decision making at all levels. However, Storksdieck said, many of the obstacles that have impeded reform in the past remain: lack of capacity and political will to make significant changes and the inherent limitations of some governmental structures are perhaps two of the most prominent ones. Many tradeoffs are necessary in the pursuit of complex changes, he added, so it is important to focus on the incentives that may influence those one wishes to change. These points from the prior workshop are relevant to K-12 STEM education, he said.
With regard to the broad question of what makes STEM education effective, Adam Gamoran observed that definitive answers are simply not on the horizon in the short term. There is promising research in progress that can provide some help to policy makers and school leaders, and other studies will eventually yield findings about the efficacy of different school models and the different approaches taken under each of the different models. Yet neither the research findings that are available now nor even the findings that will be available when the research now under way is complete will support general conclusions about the efficacy of different school models. There will still be gaps in the knowledge base.
One possible reason for that is the significant diversity in STEM education, even within each of the basic school types. Effective schools appear to share fundamental goals—such as seeking ways to “transcend the tedium”
3For more information about the workshop, see http://www7.nationalacademies.org/bose/Large_Scale_Reform_Homepage.html [July 2011]
that is all too often a part of STEM education—but there are many differences among them. It does seem clear, he suggested, that the context in which schools are operating matters. In a practical sense, that context determines the resources that are available to support the school, such as universities, research organizations, or businesses, that can provide direct support and experience for STEM students. And the context influences the policies that shape the school, such as district rules that do or do not allow school leaders and teachers the flexibility they believe they need to be effective.
Teachers matter greatly to schools’ outcomes, Gamoran added, particularly their content knowledge.4 Other discussions highlighted the vital importance of curriculum—particularly curricular focus—as well as a variety of ways of thinking about curriculum and instruction. He mentioned two views: some argue for tight coherence and consistency of the curriculum, while others emphasize the importance of monitoring students’ learning as they develop understanding in a particular domain.
The workshop also revealed several areas where more work is needed, Gamoran observed. Much of the discussion of school types focused on high schools, for example, although grades K-8 are also very important. There was more attention to mathematics and science than to engineering and technology education. These are imbalances that reflect the literature, and they may also reflect the emphasis of current accountability policies. The T in STEM has always been easy to overlook, one participant observed, because it is difficult to define. Is it educational technology? Is it technology as a result of engineering? Technology has not been well incorporated into science standards, and although there are separate standards for it, its place has not been clearly established.
Each of these points suggests fruitful areas for further research and analysis, but committee members ended the workshop with an appreciation for the many creative schools, educators, and others who are already hard at work preparing the next generation of STEM students and workers.
4Researchers have identified the importance of pedagogical content knowledge, specific knowledge of how to teach the material in a particular field, as very important to teacher effectiveness. See National Research Council (2010) for more on this point.