How well do schools across the nation teach science? How good are state standards that guide science education in the nation’s schools in grades K-12?
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute sponsored and published a study this year, the first since 2000, which went a long way toward answering those questions. And for the most part, the grade isn’t good.
Nationally, 24 states got failing or nearly failing grades in science education. Nine more were graded as mediocre.
The study looked at state education standards in science and included several criteria for judging their effectiveness. Several questions were considered.
Do the standards contain clear and fair expectations by grade level for students? Are they organized in a sensible way, both showing logical progression from grade to grade and easily navigated so teachers, parents, and the public can understand?
Is there an appropriate amount of science content? Are the expectations specific enough, yet set high aims that will equip students with the science skills they need for college?
Are the standards appropriately serious, or do they incorporate pseudo-scientific fads or politics?
The National Academies of Science have called on Americans to get serious about science education. However, Chester E. Finn, Jr., one of the study’s sponsors, said, “Few state standards can fairly be described as serious.”
“At a time of increasing anxiety about our children's readiness in math and science, U.S. science education is under assault, with discovery learning attacking on one flank and the Discovery Institute on the other,” he said.
Discovery learning is a fad that tries to allow kids to discover scientific principles on their own without building the foundation or providing the core of scientific knowledge to build on.
The Discovery Institute is a pseudoscientific religious institution that seeks to manipulate science education in public schools by forcing them to include the concept of intelligent design in the science curriculum.
“The good news is that, despite the well-funded and politically-motivated attack on the teaching of evolution, most states have held firm and continue to instruct students in the fundamentals of evolutionary biology,” wrote Paul R. Gross, author of the study.
So where does Indiana stand in the teaching of science?
It’s good news for Hoosier science students, at least as far as the state standards are concerned.
Indiana was one of the handful of states garnering an A grade for its science standards. Indiana placed fifth overall, behind only California, Virginia, Massachusetts, and South Carolina.
The review of Indiana’s science standards included comments that said they seemed far more realistic than many about what could be expected of children at any given age. They were also called a genuinely useful resource to teachers, not just a public relations or political exercise
Of course, having good standards does not necessarily mean a good science education at all schools. Teachers need to follow those standards. But the standards lay the foundation.
“We all know that great standards don't guarantee a good education for a state's students, but weak standards make it much less likely,” Dr. Finn said.
Thankfully, Indiana has some of the strongest science standards in the nation. It’s up to individual school districts and science teachers to make sure adequate benefits are reaped from those standards.