Furor over science standards is much ado about nothing

The clamor and furor over Idaho’s proposed science standards is much ado about nothing. But unfortunately it is a grand demonstration of what happens when citizens do not read past the headlines and when groups grab opportunities to advance their ideologies.

Did the Idaho legislature tell teachers they could not teach about climate change? Nope.

Did the Idaho Legislature leave out five of the proposed science standards? Nope. Actually only one performance standard for middle school science was left out. Only one!

The “much ado about nothing” uproar was centered on one standard and four other items – supporting content. However the misinformation spread far and wide would have one believe that Idaho was retreating at warp speed into the stone-age.

The proposed rule the 2017 House and Senate education committees had before them was a document containing the Science Content Standards. This document contained a set of performance expectations which define what students should know and do. These are the “standards.” However the document also contained something else – supporting content.

Supporting content is a series of statements. And this is where the discussion went south. A series of statements on what to teach to meet the performance expectations (standards) is viewed with concern by many as legislating what to teach and sets one on a slippery slope. How to implement the performance expectations, including “what” to teach should be decided by Idaho’s many locally controlled school districts. Deciding on supporting content is best left to the curriculum development process and designing instruction.

There are some good reasons for separating the performance expectations – the standards from supporting content. Among these are that in Idaho, standards are legislated. A review of other Idaho Content Standards describes performance expectations and does not include supporting content. How to implement standards by defining supporting content is micromanaging and should not be done by the Legislature. Another good reason for leaving supporting content out is that science is ever changing. The content may change tomorrow.

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What is a solution to Idaho’s science standards stand off? In my opinion, it’s quite simple. Adopt the performance standards as these are well written. However, provide some flexibility to organize the performance standards by topic rather than discipline core ideas as it’s a more user friendly format.

Leave the supporting content out. If school districts and teachers would like to use the supporting content as a resource or as inspiration, these are easily available. In fact, I recommend looking beyond the supporting content to include science and engineering applications and the big ideas (cross cutting concepts) as these are important to consider in designing instruction.

I will conclude by saying that I personally do not think that standards should be legislated. This is a bad practice from years of outcome-based education that cannot go away too soon. However, I don’t think Idaho is ready to let go of this approach. In the meantime, we can move forward with a better choice than what was presented to the 2017 Legislature. Focus on the performance standards and leave the implementation and choice of supporting content up to the local districts.

Written by Mary Ollie.