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Coming Next for Common Standards: Science and Social Studies?


There's a ton of interest these days in the possibility of creating common academic standards across states, as a multistate effort led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association rolls forward. So far, that project has focused on two subjects: math and English-language arts. Over the past couple months, I've also heard from educators and interested parties in other subjects, particularly science, asking "what about us?"

The answer: Your time could be coming soon.

Leaders of major science education organizations have already had preliminary discussions with folks from the NGA/CCSSO effort, known as Common Core State Standards Initiative, about cooperating on science standards. NGA and CCSSO officials have talked in fairly broad terms about eventually trying to forge common standards in other academic subjects. But after getting additional details from some of the people involved, I thought I'd put some of what is playing out behind the scenes on the record. 16huntsville2.jpg

For about three years now, the National Science Teachers Association has been working on creating a new set of science standards. That project is known as "Anchors," and is being undertaken in cooperation with officials from Achieve, as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council, two prestigious scientific organizations, the NSTA's executive director, Francis Eberle, explained in a recent interview. The NSTA, which has 58,000 members, has had tentative talks with Common Core folks about eventually merging "Anchors" with the Common Core, as opposed to producing two different documents, Eberle told me. "The hope is it's not a separate effort," he said. The goal is to bring more consistency to science lessons nationwide, he added, arguing that this would help "re-energize the field."

The AAAS and National Research Council, as many science teachers know, produced their own standards documents in the 1990s, which are widely cited in individual states' standards documents today. NSTA officials say they hope "Anchors" could draw from those documents but also present science in a more focused and streamlined way, placing an emphasis on major concepts in science. (I described the goals of "Anchors" in a story a few years ago.)

Dane Linn, who directs the education division at NGA's Center for Best Practices, confirmed that Common Core officials have had some tentative talks with folks involved in "Anchors." He also said that discussions have been held with various social studies organizations about future standards work in that area.

"We've heard from several states about their interest in moving into other subjects— particularly science—next," Linn said. Discussions with advocates from the social studies community, he added, are ongoing.

While the NGA and CCSSO officials don't want to put off the move into science and social studies for too long, Linn also emphasized that the organizations are determined to make sure that math and language arts are on solid ground before moving on. "We need to demonstrate success in the first two subjects we're focused on," he said.

If you've been following the standards push to this point, how easy or difficult do you think it would be to create multistate standards in science and social studies, compared to those in language arts and math?

Photo of student in science class by Dave Martin for Education Week.


Social Studies is one of the most difficult areas to measure in a standardized fashion, especially nationwide. The judgments that need to be made over what facts of American History are valued over others, becomes one of the most contentious conversations. If you look to states and ask them what series of standards was the most contentious, I would guess it would be anything to do with History. The AZ process, of which I was front and center for, was ugly. In a state with a sizable Latino and Native American population, one of the standard writers defended, in open session, the Eurocentric approach to history in the standards. There was little mention of the history of the people that lived in AZ long before the 'settlement' of the west. I cannot imagine a smooth national process for drafting these standards. If you look at the national standards for Social Studies as a guide, you will see how they are not exactly aligned for an 'easy' assessment as is the goal for the testing companies writing the standards.

Developing national standards in Social Studies will be difficult, especially in today's political climate. This effort will take time, commitment, and tremendous patience to deal with the challenges. With recent protests against the President for addressing schoolchildren about the importance of taking responsibility and controversies regarding healthcare, the economy, and U.S. involvement in the wars overseas, it might be better to proceed gradually with developing standards while so many individuals are feeling uneasy about the future. Over the years, concerns about being politically correct have affected Social Studies education in positive and not so positive ways. I have been in quite a few schools that do not display the American flag and heard of schools that avoid teaching patriotic songs, even the ones about U.S. geography. Once, a parent complained to me about my teaching her daughter the song, "This Land Is Your Land," a song I thought would connect my students to others living all over the United States. To me, the song represented acceptance and appreciation for land without boundaries, but, to the parent, it was about imperialism. The parent and I had a productive conversation about the song, and she was able to view the song from a different perspective. In any event, there are complex issues about this subject that educators will need to tackle as the minority population grows and eventually becomes the majority in this country. Even reflecting on commonalities might not be an easy task.

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