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Science Standards Win OK in First State With Rhode Island Vote

UPDATED (May 24, 2013)

Rhode Island has become the first state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, after its state board of education on Thursday voted unanimously to approve them.

It is one of the 26 "lead state partners" that helped to develop the standards in collaboration with several national organizations. At least two other states, Kentucky and Maine, have signaled that they would likely vote on adoption this spring, and many more may well follow suit later this year, including California and Kansas.

"Rhode Island is proud to be the first to forge a new path for science education as both a leading state in the development and the first state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards," said the state's education commissioner, Deborah Gist, in a statement today. "The new standards will make sure our students are exposed to rigorous science content and that they learn critical and contextual thinking skills needed to be prepared for college, career and life in the 21st century global economy."

The K-12 standards, more than three years in the making, went through two rounds of public comment before they were issued in final form last month. Two of the central tenets of the standards are providing a greater emphasis on depth over breadth in science education and asking students to apply their learning through the practices of scientific inquiry and engineering design.

Peter McLaren, a science and technology specialist at the Rhode Island department of education, emphasized his state's deep involvement in crafting the standards from day one.

"First of all, we were part of it from the beginning," he told me. "We were part of the development. Being a lead state partner was not a passive role. We had a strong voice."

His state's 36-member review team provided detailed feedback on multiple versions of the standards. That team included many K-12 teachers and school administrators, as well as college professors in science and education, and even representatives from a zoo and the state chapter of the Audubon Society.

McLaren, who was himself a member of the 41-member writing team for the standards, said he sees great value in states having common standards in science, especially with the ability to team up and share resources.

"Right now, there are 50 sets of standards, each of them unique," he said. "There is real power in being able to talk the same talk across states. That is huge."

However, the standards are not being universally welcomed. Some critics, for instance, say the priority they place on science and engineering practices risks overshadowing the core content students should learn. Also, the standards' treatment of climate change has drawn criticism from some conservatives.

Last week, in fact, a state Senate Republican in Kansas inserted a provision into a budget bill that would have prevented the use of state dollars to implement the science standards (as well as the common core), but budget negotiators have since stripped out that language). Also, the chairman of the Senate education committee in Kentucky (another lead state) yesterday published an Op-Ed raising concerns about how the standards treat evolution and climate change.

How many states ultimately choose to adopt the standards remains to be seen, of course. Most, if not all, of the lead states in crafting them seem likely to do so. In addition, some other states tracked the development of the standards closely, and may eventually sign on as well.

Meanwhile, back in Rhode Island, the focus now turns to the daunting task of implementing the standards. In fact, Rhode Island and others have already begun laying the ground work, as I reported recently.

McLaren said his state will move slowly and deliberately.

"We are going to go with a four-year timeline," he said. "All of the systems are going to be affected by this: professional development, instruction, curriculum, assessment, preservice [education], materials and resources. ... Nobody wants to rush in."

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