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Peddling Panic: Biased Survey Promotes National Science Standards

Guest post by Jack Hassard.

Achieve, Inc. stands to make a lot of money for its work creating new science standards. It might not surprise us, therefore, that a survey they commissioned favors the adoption of these standards. But we need to look at these results with skepticism. Does US competitiveness depend on our rankings on test scores? And will new standards make us better?

This year, Achieve, Inc. commissioned a survey of attitudes toward science education with Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. The pollsters sampled 800 voters using a stratified sampling technique so that they could report results by political party, ethnicity, education level of parents, region of the USA, and urban, suburban and rural areas.

There were essentially two aspects to this survey. The first was to find out what are American voters attitudes toward science education in terms of competitiveness with other countries. The second purpose was to determine the voters attitudes toward the new science standards.

The survey research group based their findings on a national sample of N=800 which was conducted on February 22-26, 2012.

A report of this research was presented at the NSTA Annual meeting in Indianapolis last month. You can view a PowerPoint of the report here.

The results can be summarized as follows:

  • Voters believe a quality science education is critical to our country's ability to compete globally.

  • They are underwhelmed by the quality of science education in public schools today, with most viewing it as lagging other nations.

  • The majority of voters believe it is better for states to have common standards, and they favor developing new science standards that would be more challenging.


The report needs to be interpreted cautiously because the survey questions appear to be designed to lead the respondents to answer questions that are in the best interests of Achieve, and other organizations that benefit from creating a "crisis" mentality about the nature of science and mathematics education. More specifically, groups such as Achieve, and even the U.S. Department of Education have a tendency use hyperbole when reporting international test scores, and make "the sky is falling" claims about America's place in the math and science global "wars." Good grief -- we're in 21st place in science! Or are we? How is this going to effect our competitiveness in the global playing fields?

On this blog we have explored the relationship between a quality science education and a nation's ability to compete globally. There is little evidence that education is the driving force behind a nation's economic competitiveness. Iris C. Rotberg, Research Professor of Education Policy at The George Washington University concluded in her examination of education reforms in sixteen countries that to use student test scores is a not a valid argument to understand a nation's competitiveness. We'll look at this more closely below.

We have also reported on the affect of science standards on science teaching, especially from ground experiences of science teachers in the science classroom. Science education research results question the effect standards have on science teaching. Professor Carolyn S. Wallace, at the Center for Science Education, Indiana State University, suggests in her research that standards are authoritarian statements that act as barriers to student learning. In particular she questions the lack of flexibility for teachers in using the standards, and the fact that standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to achieve them.

The perception of science education in the U.S. and in other countries as well, is driven by rankings of students on international test scores. Could it be a misconception that American students do not perform very well on international tests?

I'll first present the Achieve survey results, and then I'll provide analysis that will raise serious questions about the survey results, as well as why the results do not come close to uncovering America's attitudes toward science and mathematics education.

The Achieve Survey of Voters Attitudes toward Science Education

The Achieve survey sought to answer questions about public attitudes toward science education. The attitudes were divided into two categories, (1) the public's opinion of how to improve America's economic competitiveness with other countries; and (2) the public's opinions toward the new science standards. Note: the new science standards have NOT been released by Achieve, the company that is writing the standards.

Attitudes Toward Science and our Competitiveness Globally

Voters were asked which one or two of the following do they think will be the most important to improving America's economic competitiveness?

  • Addressing America's budget deficit and putting the government's fiscal house in order. (47%)

  • Making sure American students receive a world-class education in math and science. (37%)

  • Investing more in new technology and clean domestic energy. (23%)

  • Reducing taxes and regulatory burdens on American businesses. (19%)

  • Improving trade practices to ensure fair trade with other countries. (18%)

All of the findings reported reported in the Achieve PowerPoint presentation and listed here are based on that one question. Using the data on each sampled voter, the survey researchers were able to isolate how the question was answered by political party affiliation, education, ethnicity and parental status, male vs female,and region of the country. Here are the results.

  • World Class Education. Voters say a world class education in math and science is next most important in improving America's competitiveness with other countries. (37%)

  • Political Affiliation. A quality science education ranks first among Democratic voters, second among Independents and third among Republicans as most important to improving the country's economic competitiveness.

  • Ethnicity. Having a world class education in math and science ranks first among African-American voters, and third among White voters as most important to improving the country's economic competitiveness. There was no data on Hispanic or Asian American voters.

  • Competing Globally. Voters are virtually unanimous: Improving the quality of science education in our public schools is important to our country's ability to compete globally. 84% - 97%

  • Grade of Science Education. The majority of voters would grade the quality of science education in our public schools - whether nationally or in their own area - a "C" or below.

  • International Ranking. Indeed, most voters say the quality of science education in the United States ranks behind other countries. 56% say behind all countries; 13% ahead

These results are based on the assumption that a nation's economic competitiveness depends on a world class education in mathematics and science.. In this scenario science and mathematics standards are the basis for what is taught, and what is tested. Student's academic performance (test scores) on high-stakes content tests, state wide, nationally and internationally are used to answer the question, Are your state's standards world class?

Analysis of Achieve's Take on Global Competitiveness and Math and Science Education.

The survey and the results published by Achieve are based on the myth that the United States is not competitive in the global market place because our students don't perform at high enough levels achievement tests.

The truth is that the U.S. is very competitive, and has been for decades.
As a result of basing their thinking on test scores, politicians and think tank types have convinced the public that American schools are a failure, and the one kind of reform that will help us "race to the top" is driven by just one fact: we must raise test scores, and they must be raised every year.

The United States is economically competitive as reported in the World Economic Forum's 2010-2011 Global-Competitiveness report, and as reported by Iris Rotberg in her book Balancing Change and Tradition in Global Education Reform. According to the World Economic Forum report, the U.S. is one of only 35 countries in the world that are at the highest stage of development--the innovation-driven economy.

The United States now ranks fifth in the world in global competitiveness. This ranking has fallen one position, from a higher 4th to a lower 5th in the last year. At this time, the U.S. economy is the largest in the world. However, the World Economic Forum researchers have concluded that the U.S. economic competitiveness has weaknesses. The report reads that the weaknesses include the business communities' criticism of the public and private institutions, that there is a great lack of trust in politicians, and a lack of a strong relationships between government and business. And the U.S. debt continues to grow. (World Economic Forum Report, 2011 - 2012., p. 14, extracted February 15, 2012).

According to the World Economic Forum, student test scores on international tests in reading, mathematics and science were not related to the weakening of the U.S.'s ability to compete. Period.

In the context of a nation's economic competitiveness, using student test scores is not a valid argument to understand a nation's competitiveness. Organizations, and the government, starting with Sputnik 1947, and continuing forward to today have resorted to making education, teachers, and schools the scapegoat for any failings that might befall the nation.

But as Iris C. Rotberg concludes from her research, national competitiveness is too complicated and impacted by other variables (other than education):

Other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness.

The results provided by Achieve on voters opinions toward mathematics and science education are biased. The results were intended to provide statistics that would support their point of view that there should be a single set of standards for all American students, regardless of where they live, and and to show that voters think that American mathematics and science education is not world class. The kind of questions asked by survey researchers were biased in favor of this point of view.

Attitudes Toward the New Science Standards
Although the voters have never seen the new science education standards (they have not been released yet by Achieve), the voters were asked questions about the standards. They essentially were asked if they thought it would be better for all states to have the same standards, or would it better for each state to have its own standards. Here is what the voters thought.

  • Common Standards? As we have seen before with English and math standards, the majority of voters say it is better for states to have the same standards at each grade level in science, with 62% to 36% favoring state standards.

  • Rural America. Rural Areas are almost evenly split on having same or state standards (52%- 47%)

  • New Science Standards. Currently, a group of states are developing a new set of educational standards for science for students in grades K through twelve (Actually it is Achieve that is developing the standards). These new standards have been set to internationally competitive levels in science. This means that students may be more challenged by the material they study. In addition to learning science content, students will be required to apply their knowledge and understand how science concepts fit together. Knowing this, do you favor or oppose implementing these new standards for science? Achieve claims 87% support new standards, but it is actually 54% strongly support. 19% oppose the new science standards.

The basic question that was used to query voters opinions about science standards was: Do you think it is better for all states to have the same standards at each grade level or is it better for all states to have their own standards? Even though none of these voters has seen the new science standards (they have not been published), 62% favor the same standards for all students. The only exception to this was an even split among rural America voters. The survey researchers asked voters if they favored implementing the new standards, and of course, as predicted, they strongly support this idea at 54%.

Here is a question that was NOT asked: Are standards effective in helping student learn, and do teachers have the freedom to act professionally and decide which standards are appropriate for their own students?

Analysis of the Science Standards in the Context of Achieve's Survey Results
Standards-based reform has dominated mathematics and science education for many years. After the National Science Education Standards were published in 1996, states rushed to develop their own set of standards. There was variation in science standards among the states. However, the current group of reformers not only want to drive education with standards, but with a single of set of standards in each subject area and each grade level. The Common Core State Standards in mathematics and reading/language were recently published by Achieve. This year, Achieve will publish a common set of science standards.

According to research published by Dr. Carolyn S. Wallace, a professor at the Center for Science Education, Indiana State University, science standards are barriers to teaching and learning in science. She makes this claim in her 2011 study, published in the journal Science Education, entitled Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience.

The purpose of Wallace's research was to uncover insights about the science standards that have been used over the past decade and a half that have posed barriers to science teaching and learning.
She puts it this way in her research study:

I synthesize research from educational policy, science education, curriculum theory, critical inquiry, and my own experiential learning from a particular case in the state of Georgia to analyze the effects of authoritarian standards language on science classroom teaching. I argue that curriculum standards based on a content and product model of education (A. V. Kelly, 1999), have been incongruent with research from cognitive psychology, science identity formation, language use, and science as inquiry. (emphasis mine)

One of the key aspects of her study is her suggestion "that there are two characteristics of the current generation of accountability standards that pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning in science."

  1. The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fits the needs of their students.

  2. The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to achieve them.

And then she adds that these two barriers are reinforced by the use of high-stakes testing in the present accountability model of education.

Dr. Wallace took a year away from teaching at the University of Georgia, and was hired as a full time science teacher in south Georgia high school. Dr. Wallace spent the 2005 - 2006 year teaching biology in a south Georgia high school, and weaved her personal experiences in the classroom into the research study. One point she made was that where she taught, the school "managers" posted teachers' testing results publicly, and they were used for discussion. As she points out, this was coupled with threats of "increased scrutiny, which as she stated leads us to policies of control, normalization, and the notion of a "good" and "bad" school and teacher.

Wallace suggests that standards need to allow for more democratic participation, flexibility, and plurality for teachers. Teachers need to be the professionals who determine what makes for successful learning performance--in the context of local communities and cultures.

Her second democratic principle would firmly enable teachers to do more inquiry-based activities. This is especially important in that in this case, teachers would have options to engage student in "open-ended reasoning processes and performances. Done in a context of engaging students in local inquiry would help students "exercise their own thinking skills with the goals of fostering intellectual independence and developing a science identify."

One of the barriers that standards reform presents is the way in which students are assessed using high-stakes tests. Instead of tests that are context-based, these tests measure discrete knowledge and facts primarily though multiple choice tests. Wallace alludes to research by Songer and colleagues on assessments being developed within the context of learning progressions. Until we either ban high-stakes tests, or change them so that teachers are ones that are involved in their development, we will have made very little progress.

The questions that Achieve asked about the science standards were overly simplified, and did not uncover attitudes of the voters that was based on any knowledge of the standards. How could they? They still are not available for review.

My view is that the standards movement is not in the best interests of students; it's in the best interests of the organizations and individuals behind the standards movement. Who are these organizations, and how close are they to what really happens day-to-day in the classroom? Many critics of the standards movement point to the idea that is a corporate led movement by a very elite group of wealthy individuals that really don't want to have an open discussion on the merits of common standards. Authoritative demands were issued by the US Department of Education in its Race to the Top Fund insisting that if states did not adopt the Common Core State Standards as part of their proposal for funding, then it could have negative impacts on the assessment of the proposal. Last minute deals were made in a number of states to accept this demand.

What do you think? Is the survey on voters' attitudes toward science education is a valid picture of voters opinions? Are the new standards likely to improve learning?

Jack Hassard is Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. He is author of The Whole Cosmos Catalog of Science, Science Experiences, Adventures in Geology, The Art of Teaching Science (2009), Second Edition, Routledge, and most recently, Science As Inquiry (2011), 2nd Edition, Good Year Books. Specialities include science teaching & learning, global thinking & education, geology, web publishing, blogging, writing, and antiquing. This post originally appeared at his blog, The Art of Teaching Science.

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