Common core science standards: an early warning

While I’ve acknowledged mixed feelings about the common core math and language arts standards themselves, I think the process for adopting these standards stank. Neither teachers nor parents had much time to review these major changes to education policy before they were hastily adopted to meet the administration’s very tight Race to the Top application deadlines. We’re paying the price now as suspicion of the standards spreads and opposition mounts.

Next on the common core agenda is science standards. That the U.S. needs stronger science standards seems pretty indisputable. American students continue to earn dismaying scores on international science tests, even as the demand for graduates adept at math, science and technology significantly outpaces the supply.

Nevertheless, the draft science standards have sparked considerable concern from sources I tend to trust, including the Fordham Institute, which has helped lead the fight for the common core standards.

This isn’t my area of expertise, so I’m hoping readers who know more about science and science education will weigh in. Still, the controversy seems to cut across educational disciplines. Should standards focus on process, or content? While the obvious answer is both, teachers and students don’t have unlimited time. Curriculum implies choices, and the new standards are designed to drive those choices.

So here’s a rundown of the basic concerns raised by the Fordham Institute. Please, please – share your expertise!

    • They went overboard on “scientific practices,” seemingly determined to include some version of such practices or processes in every standard, whether sensible (and actionable, teachable, assessable) or not. This led to distorted or unclear expectations for teachers and students and, often, to neglect of crucial scientific content.
    • At the same time, paradoxically, the drafters left too much to curriculum developers by omitting (or leaving implicit) much crucial science content. This happens because much content is over-summarized; many standards lack the detail that is indispensable for their use in curriculum planning; and essential prior content sometimes vanishes. It may be assumed but nowhere is it explicitly stated.


  • The alignment between the NGSS draft and the Common Core math standards is weak. There are only infrequent and vague references to important mathematics content that is often necessary to support rigorous science standards, especially in physical science in the upper grades. At the same time, however, the NGSS sometimes reference or expect the use of math content or procedures earlier in the grade sequence than the Common Core provides. That means, for states that adopt both the CCSS math standards and the NGSS, students may be unprepared for the math that their science lessons require—even as, in other places, they may possess mathematical prowess that the science standards fail to exploit for the benefit of more sophisticated and complete scientific knowledge.


  1. Utah Science Teacher

    Whatever Utah decides to do, it is totally ridiculous that someone at the USOE decided 7th grade science should be taught in one semester. Look at the current core for 7th grade science and imagine trying to teach it in about 18 weeks. A few of the schools realized this and opted to make 7th grade science a full year class. The only problem is that the CRT scores for those of us teaching it for one semester are compared with those teaching it for a full year. Not really a fair comparison.

  2. Yak_Herder

    Quoting from the Board of Science Educations draft document for the Science Common Core…
    “The overarching goal of our framework for K-12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.”

    I teach both Science and Engineering courses. I recognize what is being said here.

    There are and have been national standards for technology courses for many years. Throughout those standards, the unifying theme and goal is to develop “technological literacy”. That means building an appreciation for and a working knowledge of a broad spectrum of technology withing every student. The perceived benefit is seen to follow along something like this example: Say they are driving a car and it breaks down. They wouldn’t necessarily be able to fix it, but they would at least know have a pretty good idea where the problem lies. They might even recognize warning signs beforehand and prevent the problem. That’s the idea of achieving “technological literacy”.

    When I read the purpose statement for the science standards, I read between the lines and see “scientific literacy”. It’s an admirable goal, but I do not believe it matches what the public expects and what we seem to need.

    If this were music, this would be roughly analogous to “music appreciation”. It’s a fine thing to value and understand music. It is a far better thing to be able to produce it. We don’t send kids to piano lessons to learn to recognize and appreciate Beethoven. We expect them to be able to play his works.

    THAT ability is what our students need; the ability to DO science, not just kinda-sorta-understand how someone else does it.

  3. Suzie

    I very much like Yak_Herder’s comment relating music to science. I think it’s a very accurate analogy. Science is hard and not always intuitive. Same for music. Music requires a lot of hard work to understand, and if you’re going to be good at it, you have to put in a lot of outside-of-class effort. Same with science. People have to realize that science is best learned hands-on and takes a lot of time and repetition for everything to really sink in (also very much like music). How much time and effort does it take for someone to become a proficient musician? We all know that it takes years of hard work and dedication. I’d say that becoming proficient at science is comparable.
    Also very applicable is theory vs. practice. In music, you start by learning how to do it. Once you’re good at that, you learn why it works that way. Can you imagine learning music theory first? It would make no sense whatsoever. You have to learn the practice and the theory at the same time, or at the very least in close conjunction.
    And my last application of this music/science analogy is to show how important labs are. Teach theory without showing the application and you will fail. Music lessons when you only play music a couple times a year? Unheard of, and with good cause. Yet there are science classes where you only have a couple of labs the whole school year. This should not be. Practice and application in science is just as important as it is in music.

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