In short, they’re going to have to think, act and learn like scientists.
That’s the gist of proposed new Michigan standards in science that are aimed at turning around the dismal performance of students in the subject. More than 80% of elementary and middle school students failed the science portion of the MEAP the last time it was given in 2013. Meanwhile, the state’s goal is for 85% of students to be proficient in science by 2022.
The Michigan Department of Education is holding community meetings to gather input on the standards, and hosts one Tuesday in Detroit. The discussion — which will also cover proposed changes to social studies standards — will shape a final recommendation that likely will go to the State Board of Education in October.
The standards reflect research that provides greater clarity about how kids learn, said Robby Cramer, executive director of the Michigan Science Teachers Association, which supports the standards.
“The world is changing and we have to change with it and we have to change how we teach,” Cramer said.
But not everyone is convinced the new standards — a slight adaptation of the nationally created Next Generation Science Standards — are the answer.
A Republican lawmaker earlier this year introduced legislation to halt them, saying they take away local control. And Melanie Kurdys of Portage, cofounder of Stop Common Core in Michigan, a group formed to oppose previous efforts to update math and English language arts standards, said the proposed science standards aren’t strong enough and MDE should adopt even tougher ones.
“I hope they will step back and reconsider the way they’re headed,” Kurdys said.
So what’s going to be different with the new standards?
Think less focus on textbooks and basic activities, as well as on memorization of facts and figures, and more focus on projects and activities that get kids thinking in depth about science, said Linda Forward, director of the office of education improvement and innovation at MDE.
“There’s a lot more hands-on activities, a lot more getting your hands dirty, trying things out, taking the core ideas and scientific and engineering practices and putting them together,” said Brian Peterson, a fifth-grade teacher at Musson Elementary in Rochester Community Schools.
Take a popular balloon rocket experiment, he said. Nowadays a teacher might give students the basic materials (a balloon, string, straw and tape), then step-by-step instructions. Under the new method, a teacher might provide kids with different sizes of balloons, different lengths of straws, and different materials for string, then turn them loose.
The kids design their own balloon rocket — then defend why they made the material and size choices they did. The emphasis is on the process, not ensuring the balloon rocket is perfect.
“It’s getting them to think critically,” Peterson said. “They’re the engineer. They’re in control of their learning and it’s not just reading from a book.”
That doesn’t mean textbooks go away. But they become a reference point, Forward said.
The new standards have been years in the making. Michigan was one of more than 20 so-called “lead states” that were heavily involved in that national effort, with people such as Joe Krajcik, director of CREATE for STEM at Michigan State University, serving as a lead writer for the physical science portion of the standards. Many Michigan teachers also sat on review teams.
Michigan adopted the final product, but added some of its own standards — many of them focused on things that make the state unique, such as its lakes.
“Michigan was great at giving feedback, really rich feedback,” Krajcik said.
Rep. Tom Hooker, R-Byron Center, introduced legislation earlier this year to block the adoption of the new standards. His bill was sent to the House Education Committee, where it has since sat. Hooker, a former teacher, said he hasn’t read the standards yet, but his main concern is that they were developed at the national level.
“The problem you have is when you start moving from local control to state control to national, and even international, control. You have a lot less ability to meet the needs of young people,” he said.
Kurdys points to a 2013 report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that gave the Next Generation Science Standards a C grade for quality. A year before, in a state-by-state analysis, the institute gave Michigan’s own science standards a C. Meanwhile, states such as Massachusetts received an A- for its science standards. Kurdys thinks Michigan should just adopt the Massachusetts standards.
“If the goal of changing is to have better standards, why not pick the best?” Kurdys said.
Forward noted that a report commissioned by the MDE didn’t concur with Fordham’s assessment.
For some, the proposed standards are refueling the debate over the controversial Common Core State Standards in English language arts and math. Michigan is among more than 40 states that adopted the standards, but it’s also one of a number of states where lawmakers tried to block implementation of them.
Forward said the MDE has been reaching out to key lawmakers in an effort to be transparent and answer questions about the standards.
“Our team has been tireless in reaching out to the legislators,” Forward said.
Krajcik said the fact that many teachers gave feedback during the development of the standards shows “they’re ready to step up and do this.” But he acknowledges that it will take time, training and resources to help teachers adapt. Some have already been moving in that direction.
Krajcik himself began his education career as a high school teacher in 1974 and said today “is one of the most exciting times in science education.”
He said he thinks the new standards will nurture a creativity and curiosity about why things happen, helping kids explain and predict phenomena.
The standards for the first time include engineering concepts. And Krajcik said they’re putting science front and center, after years of taking a back seat to the emphasis on reading and math.
“Often, a lot of kids see science as a foreign language,” Krajcik said. “In this new approach, they don’t. Kids will say, ‘You know, I can do this. I can make sense of this.’ You actually see kids become more empowered.”
Cramer said the standards will help grow the number of people “who are very skilled and ready for all these high-skilled jobs that are available now and are going to continue to be available in Michigan when they’re ready to enter the workforce.”
But it goes deeper than that. When they’re adults, no matter what their career, they’ll need to sift through debates about scientific issues and form their own opinions. “We want all students to be very knowledgeable and to be able to make wise decisions about issues in Michigan that are science-related. We need that kind of voter.”
Much of the change involves expecting more critical thinking of students. In the old standards, a lot of the language revolves around explaining, describing, identifying, classifying, demonstrating concepts. But in the proposed standards, the language is more specific.
For instance, third-graders learning about forces and interactions would be expected to “plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object,” middle school students learning about chemical reactions would be expected to “analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred,” and high school students learning about engineering design would be expected to “design a solution to a complex real world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.”
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