Undermining California’s (and America’s) Competiveness: Gov. Jerry Brown Approves National Science Standards – Fuzzy, Anti-Truth, & Mathless

On Oct. 8, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law SB 300, which approves the forthcoming national science-curriculum standards and lays out the path for California to put them into effect beginning in 2013.

It is hard to think of something that could be more important than teaching the subject-matter of science well. California and American K-12 students need to learn science content that is the most rigorous in the world, and teachers need to teach K-12 science in the most effective way possible.

If Americans are going to create feats of engineering, invent cutting-edge technologies, make scientific discoveries, and work in a scientific-technological workplace, our students will need a science curriculum with a rigor and effectiveness as good as or better than that of top-performing foreign countries.

The brand-new law says that California’s science standards are to be based on those being created under the auspices of the federal government’s National Research Council (NRC) – but are as yet sight unseen.

I see three problems with the policy contained in California’s new law. The first is that the law would replace California’s top-rated current science standards instead of updating them.  The second is that the National Research Council has a history of promoting “fuzzy” science. The third is that the law furthers the nationalization of curriculum that is currently taking place across the country — but under the radar of most parents and taxpayers.

California’s current science-curriculum standards were written under the supervision of nuclear scientist Glenn Seaborg.  Seaborg was a Nobel Laureate in chemistry, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), member of the “Nation at Risk” commission, president of the American Chemical Society, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, discoverer of 10 elements, and adviser to 10 presidents, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton.

Governor Brown wants to discard Seaborg’s standards for pig-in-a-poke standards written behind closed doors by as-yet-unnamed science educators — who are not going to be as knowledgeable and expert as Seaborg.

California’s science standards were given an A-rating (on an A-F scale by) by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  California got 97 out of 100 per cent, according Fordham’s reviewers, and its score was the highest rating of any state science standards in the country.

The Fordham review summed up by saying: “California has produced an exemplary set of standards for school science; there was no question among readers about the “A” grade.”

So the question naturally arises, why not just update the matters that need updating after a dozen or so years. The answer lies in the yearning of Progressive educators for “fuzzy science” and the drive under the administration of President Barak Obama to nationalize the public-school curriculum.

“Fuzzy science” is also called “discovery-based”or “inquiry-based” instruction, though it might better be termed excessively inquiry-based. The notion is that students will make scientific discoveries and construct scientific theories and ideas of their own with minimal guidance.  This view of learning is sometimes called “constructivism.”

Contrary to those who hold this view, it is in fact crazy to expect K-12 students to reconstruct the scientific knowledge that scientists have accumulated over thousands of years. This is a method of teaching that objects to acquiring knowledge based on facts, disdains memorizing formulas and definitions, and resists mastering standard problem-solving techniques.  In essence, inquiry-based instructions is the old Progressive Education approach of learn-through-play and follow-what-interests-the-student dressed up in new jargon.

The NRC has a long record of promoting fuzzy science. In 2000, the National Research Council published “Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards,” which – as the title suggests — promoted “inquiry” as the best way to teach K-12 science.

Back in 1996, the NRC had published the “National Science Education Standards.”  Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said at the time: These standards are “science as inquiry-based learning. And that’s a major revolution.”

Inquiry, as laid out the NRC’s 1996 science standards, may only be inquiry “into authentic questions generated from student experiences.” Hence, such NRC-style inquiry, as physicist Alan Comer wrote, is “very different” from traditional laboratory-based science, in which “students learn to systematically use methods and equipment appropriate to ends determined by the curriculum.”  Here in the NRC’s earlier standards, we see an example in a new guise of the idea that teaching must follow-what-interests-the-student.

One has to conclude that the NRC has a history of proposing science curriculum that is based on discovery-learning and against learning facts and formulas.  This method of teaching is not only wrong-headed; it has never been proven to be better than traditional subject-matter content and traditional teaching methods.

What are these new NRC new national science-curriculum standards that Governor Brown has committed California to? They don’t exist yet and will surely be somewhat different from the NRC’s 1996 standards.  But there is evidence that the same spirit of “inquiry-based” Progressive Education will persist.

University of Virginia biologist Paul Gross has reviewed (for the Fordham Institute)  the new NRC framework for its national science standards. He wrote that the new framework frequently writes about “scientific inquiry” and overlapping concepts. Gross notes that according to the NRC framework students will be taught that inquiry is an aspect of science to be distinguished from scientific facts.

But Gross asks what is “the evidence for [inquiry’s] separability (pedagogically speaking) from facts”? His answer: Such evidence is “thin to nonexistent in modern cognitive psychology.” In its devotion to Progressive Education’s inquiry-based learning, the NRC wants to impose on America’s classrooms an approach that isn’t backed by research psychology.

Gross criticizes the NRC framework for – like the NRC’s 1996 standards – not letting go of the subjectivist, “postmodern” view of how science really works.  The 2011 framework relies on postmodern works of the 1980s and ‘90s that argue that scientists (and science as a community of scholars) cannot discover truth (that is, what really exists and is going on).

Instead, according to postmodernists (whom the new NRC framework references), “truth” is what influential people and power-wielders have imposed on society and enforced as culturally acceptable. The new NRC framework suggests that how-science-works should be taught to students not as a search to find out reliable truth about nature, but instead as power-brokerage and influence-peddling.

Judging by the framework for the new national science-curriculum standards, they will shun the concept of objective scientific truth and will instill Progressive Education teaching methods.  To add insult to injury, the framework also promises teaching of science without using analytic mathematics.

Ze’ev Wurman, who worked on the California Mathematics Framework and the California Standards Commission, reviewed the new NRC science framework and zeroed in on the difficulty:  The framework does not expect students to use analytical math in any K-12 science problem.

Brown University biologist Michael McKeown writes: “Only one formula or equation in [the NRC framework’s] 280 pages? So much for physics at even the simplest level. Chemistry is out. Imagine making solutions, doing dilutions, doing pH changes without basic math skills.”

Why is the NRC science framework (and hence the forthcoming national standards) mathless? Math teacher Barry Garelick suggests that Progressive Educators believe that the quantitative aspect of science is “inauthentic,” so they don’t think it is valuable and won’t include it.

The result is, Wurman says, that the NRC science framework “simply teaches our students science appreciation, rather than science.” It expects America’s students to become “good consumers of science and technology,” rather than teaching them what is necessary for them to be the “discoverers of science and creators of technology.”

Having established that the forthcoming national science standards are going to deprecate mathematics, will be unfriendly to the idea of scientific objectivity, and will be locking in Progressive Education – we can turn to why these standards are “national.” (Previous curriculum standards have been developed and put into effect at the state level.)

What has happened is that some people have thought that America should have a European-style Ministry of Education at the national level, where the national government sets curriculum for all public schools and tests all public-school students.  These people have been working to accomplish this for a long time. They reflexively believe that civic problems are best managed at the national level, and loss of local control is an insignificant price that citizens should happily pay.

These national aggrandizers pay lip service to social science, but the evidence does not show that countries with national curriculums do better that those with regional or state curriculums.

The NRC is part of the federal government, and its creation of the science framework and its sponsorship of the national standards themselves are welcomed by advocates of nationalization of K-12 schooling.  Federally-sponsored national science standards, like the national math and English standards, are a big step toward full nationalization in the European mode.

This nationalization is proceeding apace, under the radar of state legislators, members of Congress, taxpayers, and parents.  It’s important, it deserves to be better known, and it deserves a broad public debate.

-Bill Evers

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register, Santa Ana, California.

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