The highest priority actions recommended in Rising Above the Gathering Storm were in the area of K-12 education, and three speakers at the Wisconsin conference discussed initiatives in that area. Helen R. Quinn, professor emeritus at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, described a framework for the development of standards in K-12 science education that could greatly improve instruction in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Tom Luce, the founding CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, discussed two programs with proven track records of success and the prospects for scaling up those and similar programs on a national level. And Michael Lach, special assistant for STEM Education at the U.S. Department of Education, presented some of the initiatives being taken by the Obama administration and described several further steps needed to make progress.
A NEW FRAMEWORK FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION STANDARDS
Based on the success of the common core standards in K-12 math and language arts education, which already have been adopted by many states, the development of standards for K-12 science education was under way at the time of the conference. Helen Quinn described the work of a National Research Council committee that she chaired to develop a framework for those standards.
The goals of the framework were to make possible a coherent investigation of core ideas across multiple years of school and to provide for a more seamless blending of science practices with those ideas and with
crosscutting concepts. The committee’s report, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, which was released in July 2011, laid out a vision for K-12 science education and a way to realize the vision.1 The report specified eight “essential practices for the K-12 science and engineering curriculum.” “If you want a definition of 21st-century learning, this is not a bad one,” said Quinn. The practices are:
1. Asking questions and defining problems
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and information and computer technology
6. Developing explanations and designing solutions
7. Engaging in argument
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
“These practices are what scientists do,” said Quinn, “and we think students have to do them in order to learn science.”
The committee also identified seven crosscutting concepts in science and engineering that students should master:
2. Cause and effect
3. Scale, proportion, and quantity
4. Systems and system models
5. Energy and matter
6. Structure and function
7. Stability and change
These concepts apply across all fields of science, whether earth systems, biological systems, or physical or chemical systems, and are important in engineering as well. They are the “connective tissue that helps students understand how the pieces fit together,” said Quinn.
The document also spells out core ideas for the science disciplines included in K-12 science. The following criteria were used to identify core ideas:
• Have broad importance across multiple science or engineering disciplines, or be a key organizing concept of a single discipline;
1 National Research Council. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2012. Available at: www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13165.
• Provide a key tool for understanding or investigating more complex ideas and solving problems;
• Relate to the interests and life experiences of students or be connected to societal or personal concerns that require scientific or technical knowledge; and
• Be teachable and learnable over multiple grades at increasing levels of depth and sophistication.2
Helen Quinn: “Understanding science and engineering is a tool we use in our lives for making decisions.… All students need an understanding of basic science as deeply and as critically as they need to be able to read and do basic arithmetic.”
For the physical sciences, the core ideas were (1) matter and its interactions; (2) motion and stability, forces and interactions; (3) energy; and (4) waves and their applications in technologies for information transfer. For the life sciences, they were (1) from molecules to organisms: structures and processes; (2) ecosystems: interactions, energy, and dynamics; (3) heredity: inheritance and variation of traits; and (4) biological evolution: unity and diversity. And for the earth and space sciences, they were (1) Earth’s place in the universe, (2) Earth’s systems, and (3) Earth and human activity. In addition, the committee specified core ideas in engineering, technology, and the applications of science: (1) engineering design, and (2) links among engineering, technology, and science and society.
The intent is not that these ideas should be tested or taught separately, said Quinn. Rather, curriculum should be designed to help students develop and expand a coherent network of understanding science ideas across multiple years of study. Students should explore a core idea by engaging in scientific and engineering practices and by making connections to crosscutting concepts.
Implementing the Standards
To implement the framework, key components of the K-12 education system need to be aligned, including standards, curricula, instructional materials, assessments, pre-service preparation of teachers, and professional development for in-service teachers, said Quinn. In particular, “having the teachers know where the learning sequence is going and what their job is in the context of that sequence is as important as having the sequence laid out in the curriculum that they are teaching.”
2 Ibid, p. 31.
The framework is designed to produce standards for all students, Quinn emphasized. Every student should have the opportunity to become knowledgable about science and engineering, whether or not he or she decides to pursue a career in science and engineering. “Understanding science and engineering is a tool we use in our lives, both as individuals and as citizens, for making decisions, … so all students need to have this basis.” The time spent on science in elementary schools has generally decreased as the focus on testing in math and language arts has sharpened, a trend that “is not serving students well,” said Quinn. “All students need an understanding of basic science as deeply and as critically as they need to be able to read and do basic arithmetic.”
Finally, the standards developed from the framework need to be open to revision. “No set of standards is going to be valid forever,” Quinn observed. “We want to know what worked and what didn’t work in implementing this vision of science education, so that next time around we’ll do it even better.” Furthermore, schools and students will continue to change. Education reform needs to be an ongoing and iterative process to adapt to new circumstances and enduring needs.
INCREASING STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT
USING PROVEN METHODS
The United States often falls victim to what Tom Luce, founding CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) called pilot disease. “We start a pilot in one school and then we start another pilot in another. And we do pilots very well, but we don’t do scale very well.”
As a result, NMSI, which was launched in order to implement some of the education recommendations of Rising Above the Gathering Storm, uses proven methods to increase student achievement. In this way, it seeks to help all 55 million children in the K-12 public education system, not just 1,000 students here and 1,000 students there.
One program it has promoted is called UTeach, which is training the next generation of K-12 science and math teachers by enabling undergraduates to study the natural sciences and mathematics and simultaneously earn a teaching certificate in those subjects in four years rather than five years. Pioneered at the University of Texas at Austin, UTeach has now been implemented in 33 universities. This replication process is supported by four-year competitive grants of $2.2 million per university awarded by NMSI, and by resource and support materials provided by the UTeach Institute.3 “Pretty
3 Additional information about the UTeach program is available at the NMSI Web site (www.nationalmathandscience.org/programs/uteach-program) and the UTeach Institute website (uteach-institute.org/).
soon we’ll be producing 10,000 new teachers a year who are trained in the content,” said Luce.
The second program is the Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program (APTIP), which is designed to provide opportunities for students across the country to take Advanced Placement (AP) math and science courses in high school. When African American or Latino students complete and score a passing grade on an AP course during high school, their college graduation rates go from about 15 percent to more than 60 percent, Luce observed. Furthermore, the AP program is uniform across the United States, enabling high-level college preparation no matter where a student lives.
Pioneered in 10 Dallas schools in 1996, the program has produced “dramatic results,” according to Luce. A typical urban high school undertaking the program has 95 percent free and reduced-price lunch enrollment. Yet in the participating Dallas schools, AP passing scores in math, science, and English have increased 11-fold over the past 15 years, and 33 times as many African American and Hispanic students are passing AP tests in those subjects. The program has now been extended to 350 high schools across the country, and the existing teacher corps is being provided with professional development and incentives for completing that training.4
Tom Luce: “…we do pilots very well, but we don’t do scale very well.”
“Rising Above the Gathering Storm has produced concrete implementation of its recommendation across state lines, across school district lines, across political jurisdictions,” said Luce. “I can take you to any state in the union and show you a successful school with any kind of population.” The challenge now, he said, is to standardize successful programs like UTeach and APTIP and replicate them across the country. “We don’t need another report. We need an implementation plan.”
EDUCATION INITIATIVES AT THE
DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
K-12 education is “incredibly important” to President Obama and his administration, said Michael Lach, special assistant for STEM Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Lach stated that the Obama administration has allocated far more resources to STEM education at the Department
4 Additional information about the APTIP program is available at the NMSI Web site (www.nationalmathandscience.org/programs/ap-training-incentive-programs).
of Education than has any other administration.5 The President also has expressed his support in less formal ways. He hosted the first astronomy night at the White House and the first annual White House Science Fair. He has invited the winners of math competitions and robotics tournaments to come to the White House, just as standouts in sports and entertainment receive such invitations.
Michael Lach: “We’ve really pushed to make sure that STEM education is not a standalone piece but is embedded into all of our work.”
At the same time, improving STEM education is not just one person’s job or the job of the federal government, said Lach. It is everyone’s job, including state and local leaders, education administrators, teachers, the business community, and scientists and engineers. “It’s going to take all hands on deck working together to make this happen.”
Improving STEM education also requires attending to the entire education system, said Lach. Many of the reforms of recent decades have tried to treat science and math as each being in its own silo. But education is too interconnected to treat science and math separately. “It has to be part of how we deal with school funding. It has to be part of how we recruit, hire, train, and contract with teachers. It has to be part of how community groups, museums, and after-school providers all fit into the system. We’ve really pushed to make sure that STEM education is not a standalone piece but is embedded into all of our work.”
The best example of this integration, said Lach, has been the Race to the Top competition. Launched in 2009 with American Recovery and Re-investment Act (ARRA) funds, the competition has created incentives for states to change the fundamental premises of their education systems.6 For example, one priority in the competition was for comprehensive statewide plans that focused on STEM. But states were not told to develop a new STEM education system. Rather, the competition directed states to show how and where math and science were embedded throughout their education systems.
5 For an overview of Department of Education K-12 STEM spending, see Executive Office of the President, President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future. Washington, DC: September 2010, particularly pp. 24-28.
6 Through the end of 2011, Race to the Top had awarded over $4 billion in grants to 18 states and the District of Columbia. For additional information, see www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/index.html.
Science and math do have several unique aspects, Lach noted. First, they are sequential, in that they require some concepts to be learned before other concepts. This can be a problem where school districts and states have high mobility rates. When students move from one region to another where math and science education is not coordinated, they can waste time and resources repeating material or trying to learn missed concepts.
Also, many parents are not comfortable with math and science. “It’s still okay for someone to go to a cocktail party and make a joke that balancing a checkbook has too much arithmetic involved,” Lach said. Given such attitudes, it will take extra effort to teach students the basic concepts described in math and science education standards.
Finally, students, parents, and society in general need to be motivated and inspired to learn math and science. Many students are proficient in math and science but say that they are not interested in the subjects. According to Lach, “a lot of kids have the chops to do this work but, by middle or high school, have been turned off and think it’s not for them. So motivation is particularly important.”
Education remains fundamentally a state- and local-level activity in the United States, Lach pointed out. The federal government provides just 4 to 5 percent of the total funding for K-12 education, which means that coherent regional plans are incredibly important. Similarly, the help offered K-12 schools from business, higher education, and philanthropy should be coordinated, according to Lach. Colleges and universities also need to focus on the most effective ways to get knowledge to the people who need it, whether teachers, administrators, or parents. “And please, in the standard Calculus 101 class, where the professor gets up and says, ‘Look to the left, look to the right—one of you is not going to be here at the end of the semester,’ and they say that with all the pride in the world, as if that’s a good thing, that kind of culture tells people that [math and science] are only for some, not for all.… We have to work together to put that aside.”