Educators step lightly around political points as state considers new science standard

Department of Education gathers input on 26-state 'Next Generation' benchmarks

Teacher Darius Ballard asks review questions to his students at the end of an environmental science class at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Teacher Darius Ballard asks review questions to his students at the end of an environmental science class at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

A proposed new standard for science instruction in Iowa schools for kindergarten through grade 12 would provide more real-world applications to lessons, educators said last week. But political controversy around those standards means officials and teachers are treading carefully as they look toward the future of Iowa science instruction.

The Iowa Department of Education this month has been collecting input on the Next Generation Science Standards, which it is considering as a possible replacement for the current Iowa Core science standards.

The new benchmarks focus more on critical thinking, problem-solving and overarching concepts, educators and state officials said, and they give teachers clearer goals for science lessons.

“There has been a shift away from viewing science as just a whole bunch of facts or procedures that have to be memorized,” said Mark McDermott, a former teacher and University of Iowa professor who has been working with teachers to implement the new standards.

As an example, the current Iowa Core science standards state that students must understand and apply the knowledge of the structure of atoms, said Prairie Point Middle School science teacher Meg Washburn. The new standards, by contrast, require making predictions about substances based on atomic structure.

“The Iowa Core is very broad, so teachers have to interpret a lot,” Washburn said.

The new standards, educators said, make sure all teachers are providing the same material and all students are learning the same concepts.

Washburn said that’s particularly important for students who move from one district to another as well as for college applications.


“If we went back to having each school district decide what’s important, we wouldn’t have the ability to say to a college, ‘This is what a kid from Iowa knows,’” Washburn said. “We can say, ‘This is what students are learning. And this is what they’re learning whether they’re at Prairie” or any other school.

That same uniformity, however, has been met with political opposition in other states — and, to a lesser extent, in Iowa.

In Wyoming, state legislators last year blocked funding to implement the standards, amid concern over what schools teach students about climate change.


The standards were developed by education and science experts from 26 states — including Iowa — and have been adopted by 13 states, according to the education technology company Academic Benchmarks, which tracks adoption of the standards.

State Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, is one of eight sponsors of a bill that would prohibit the Iowa’s Board of Education from adopting the Next Generation standards.

The bill doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, Salmon said — it’s stuck in a House education subcommittee. A similar bill last year was referred to a subcommittee and eventually withdrawn.

But Salmon said she’s concerned that the standards miss some key math and science concepts, present evolution as scientific fact and shine a negative light on human impacts on climate change.

Also a concern, Salmon said, is the idea that people from outside the state have a hand in what’s taught in Iowa classrooms.


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“When you start trying to control the education of a child from a distance, from far away, you are not going to be necessarily serving the needs of that child,” Salmon said.

With that in mind, the state is gathering extensive public input on the standards. A group of Iowa science experts from education and business first recommended the standards, said the Department of Education’s Iowa Core consultant, Brad Niebling. The public input from an online survey and four forums this month will go to a “review team” of educators and other stakeholders this coming Thursday, Niebling said.

Once that group makes a recommendation on the standards, the state Board of Education will hold a final vote on whether to adopt them.


Meanwhile, some schools already are working to implement the new benchmarks. The Cedar Rapids Community School District has added earth science as a graduation requirement for next year’s ninth-graders, in an effort to fulfill the Next Generation standard for that subject, said Washington High School principal Ralph Plagman.

At Prairie Point, teachers are working to align their curriculum to the standards, Washburn said. At the same time, she said, teachers are careful about how they approach topics such as evolution.

“It’s definitely something that you sort of keep in the back of your mind,” Washburn said, adding that she does not currently teach biology, where the topic comes up most often. “I don’t doubt evolution for a second, at all, but I don’t want to offend anyone.”

But teachers said they don’t feel pressured to instruct students in any specific way.

“I don’t believe I’m being forced to teach anything,” said Jon Eganhouse, a science teacher in the Midland School District, at the Dubuque forum. “I think I’m being guided to teach something, and I still have a lot of control of my classroom.”

Washburn agreed.

“It’s not like we’re changing what we call a proton,” she said. “It’s just like, ‘Hey, everyone should probably know what a proton is.’”



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