"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, May 10, 2015

State Standards: Burden of Proof Rests on the State Board

Below is my letter to the State Board regarding the adoption of the NGSS standards for science in Utah.

IMPORTANT: Please make sure you comment on the science standards.  You can see Grades 6 -8 here: http://www.schools.utah.gov/CURR/science/Revision.aspx  The NGSS standards are located here: http://www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-science-standards And (MOST IMPORTANT), the survey can be found here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/SciencePublicReview We were informed last Wednesday (May 6) that even though the comments are set up to discuss specific standards, we are free to include philosophical, process, and other concerns in our comments.  Please comment as soon as possible, as there is only a 90-day comment period. 

My Letter:

Dear State Board Members,

I am asking that you restart the entire process of science standards adoption.  There is a very real, very large deficit of public trust on the issue of standards.  While I appreciate the parent review committees and the public comment periods, it really is the perception that this was a 'done deal'.  The subsequent release of the Fine Arts standards that are identical to the national fine arts standards indicates a desire by either this Board or the USOE or both to completely align everything we do to a national set of standards created by a national set of 'supposed' experts in these fields.  The assumption that national (or broadly-adopted) standards are inherently superior is flawed, as is the assertion that a lack of national (or broadly-adopted) standards will  prohibit individual students to grow up to be successful, educated individuals.  Some high-performing nations have national standards, but about the same number do not. 

Here are some of my concerns and requests.

The most major concern is that of creating uniformity and centralization.  Education is not something that can or should be standardized.  We like to think that there are certain basics that all kids should know, and there may be, but they are very broad and many must keep the individual child in mind.  In point of fact, that is why we have teachers...to customize and personalize this process of every individual.  Our system of education has been extremely successful when we harness the power of the individual, and not try to fit everyone into the same mold.  I realize with accountability measures, this is a very difficult thing to do.  But it doesn't get easier when we buy into the idea that we will be left behind if we don't keep up with the national standards group du jour.   While that may be true, we will never have the opportunity to excel either.  And, I'm afraid, that is the intent.  When we have no risk, we have no chance of failure, but we have no chance of success either.  Centralization removes the flexibility of adaptation and change.  Even if we have the power to change, in a few years, we will lack the ability due to SAT, GED, ACT and textbooks all aligning.  We have to be completely sure that these are the very best standards and that we will NEVER want to change without the rest of the states going along. 

Additionally, adopting national or broadly adopted standards has been touted as allowing teachers greater resources.  I have heard this repeated over many years as justification for national or frequently adopted standards.  We have felt slighted in the past for having had our own standards.  However, I hope you understand that in trying to find non-CC textbooks and materials, right now, it is virtually impossible.   You have to order out-of-print materials and lots of things on eBay.  Common Core was officially adopted by 46 state only 5 years ago.  So, while you may have a lot of materials to choose from that are aligned to CC, they are really shades of gray.  Bright colors and pastels no longer exist.  There are no laboratories of education that are trying different ideas and finding success or failure.  There is no compelling free-market interest to create or to continue to supply textbooks and teaching materials to the small private and homeschool market and the 5 states that didn't sign on to Common Core.  It's a boon for the textbook suppliers--one set of standards equals one set of teaching materials that can be moved around and modified, but, ultimately, stay the same.  (Bill Gates predicted as much, and was quite excited about it.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=323WQrPHslg )  It has been suggested that because of this lack of resources, we MUST align our standards to those of other states.  With all due respect, we will then be hastening the demise of diversity and options.  We are walking directly into that trap and helping set the bait for others. 

At the end of the day, each of you has the burden of proof, as our elected representatives, to explain the following to us, the parents and citizens of Utah, for every set of standards that you adopt. 

1.) What is lacking in our current set of standards?  Please be specific; don't just say 'they need to be updated'.  With all due respect, if our previous standards were based on truth and objective fact, then, unless there have been changes, and science would be one of those areas where I would agree there are probably 'holes', there is no need to throw out the objective truth that we are already teaching.  Can we simply 'tweak' what we have now?

2.) What is the evidence that the proposed set of standards will be able to fill those gaps in our current standards?

3.) Have the proposed standards been either pilot-tested (for how long, what were the demographics, what were the metrics used to show improvement) or, as a baseline, benchmarked against other states or countries that we feel confident have been successful with this particular discipline?  (And what are those metrics?)

4.) Taken as a whole, over the course of 13 years, is there a prevailing worldview that emerges, and if so, is that worldview consistent with the diversity and the values of the citizens of this state? Do we seek to provide a broad, general knowledge, without influencing the attitudes, values, and beliefs of our students? 

5.) What are the pieces that are missing from the current standards?  For example, the NGSS does not address Life Systems, specifically body systems, or Computer Science.  Climate change is heavily emphasized, but electric circuits are briefly mentioned.  While I appreciate both climate change and electric circuits being taught, it appears, at least to me, that there is an over-emphasis of one at the expense of others.  It is usually easier to find problems in things that exist.  It is much more difficult to take the time to determine what isn't even there.  (This concept is why the request to point out the standards one doesn't like doesn't work.  I can point to those I don't like, but I can't point to those that do not exist but should.)

6.) Do the standards seek to obtain compliance of thought, instead of an understanding of the rationale and disagreements involved in controversial or politically charged issues?  This is especially important in science.  If we create a generation of students who believe that all science is not to be questioned, we have failed in our task.  Science is always to be questioned, and refined.  We should be constantly looking for ways to support or to disprove the current knowledge of the day. 

7.) Have you looked at some of the available curricular materials, as well as other states' implementations, to make sure that implementation of these standards, while supposedly wonderful in theory, won't fall flat in the application?  My past experience with the adoption of new standards and 'programs' (over the last decade) has been a trail of grand promises and disappointing results that are always blamed on local districts and teachers.  There has never been, to my knowledge, a set of bad standards.  It's always, we are told, just poor implementation.  With all due respect, if a set of standards can't be implemented successfully in at least 51% of the schools, then they should not be adopted, no matter what the claims and promises.  (Please see item #3.)

8.) Is there enough emphasis on fact and foundational knowledge?  There is a trend to focus on the 'critical thinking' and to not get bogged down into rote memorization.  While I can appreciate and respect that position, it is impossible to have critical thinking about any issue without the foundational, factual knowledge of the subject.  Especially for children in the early grades who have limited abstraction and limited reasoning skills, are we allowing and encouraging those fact-based pieces of information that will form the foundation for greater understanding later on?

9.)  Will these standards strengthen the parent-child relationship or hinder it?  For example, implementing standards that parents don't understand, no matter how great they are supposed to be, creates a rift between parent and child.  This is an unacceptable consequence for an education system that is supposed to be secondary and supportive to the primary role of the parent in educating his or her children.  The more involved parents are, the better the academic success of the child.  That is the number one factor in student success... the parent, not the standards.  We need to keep that in mind. 

Having attended the Provo meeting last night, I heard a lot of promises and things that sounded really good.  I have heard all those things as they relate to Common Core and Investigations Math.  In both instances, the promises did not materialize.  Please do not adopt standards based on promises.  Please adopt standards based on fact, and knowledge, and proof, not just the opinion of 'experts'.  Sometimes 'experts' are wrong or have their own agendas too.   

The burden of proof is not on the people to show that the standards are bad, or wrong, or insufficient.  It is up to you to demonstrate to us that adopting these new standards will provide the opportunity for each, individual student in Utah to live up to their potential, to be free to choose their own direction in life. 

Thank you for all the long hours that you spend in our service and your willingness to listen, even when we disagree.  It is greatly appreciated. 


Wendy Hart
Mother of 3
Highland, UT
Board Member, Alpine School District, Alpine/Cedar Hills/Highland
Business Owner

Additional thoughts on the NGSS.

As mentioned in my last post, the NGSS are controversial because

1) They are rated lower (C) than our current science standards  (B) by Fordham Foundation (who regularly rates standards).  This is important because Fordham is a big supporter of Common Core and all things national standards-like.  I think it's important to note, in the Fordham review, the specific concerns, rather than just the grade overall. 

2) These standards were developed by Achieve, Inc., the same group that gave us the Common Core standards

3) These 'national' standards will allow us to use the same tests for science as a lot of other states; thereby ensuring that Utah no longer has control over what we teach in our classrooms, since the testing will dictate what is taught. The biggest problem with all these 'national' concepts is the idea that there is one single set of standards that everyone, everywhere should be taught and that whomever developed these standards (Achieve, Inc.) is the repository of all that is good and right with education.  Science is science, and we should have no dissent, debate, or discussion.  Furthermore, if parents have concerns with what their children are being taught, it is because, as one U of U professor said, they are 'Luddites'.

4) These standards are touted as being able to guarantee that we are not left behind in Utah.  Just an interesting side note, Utah is one of a handful of states that provides the ACT to all Juniors.  (What that means is that our scores will be lower than those states where students self-select whether or not to take the ACT.)  Of those states that test 100% of their students, Utah scores higher than any of them on the science portion of the ACT.  Utah also has a higher science score than the national score overall, including all those states where only the 'smart' kids decide to take the test.  So, the idea that we are 'falling behind' other states, doesn't seem to add up.  At least not by this measure.  And there is no evidence that these standards will make us even better....None.

and finally..

5) The State of Kansas was recently involved in a lawsuit over these standards on First Amendment grounds because it was alleged that these standards (taken as a whole, not just specific standards) and the required evidence of mastery would prohibit a theistic world view.  And this is where the "Luddite" comment is coming from.  The thinking is that if you oppose these standards, it is because you are a religious zealot who doesn't want your child to understand real science.  It's not that you want to have science left open to what we know and what we don't know without promoting or dismissing one worldview over another.  School should not be teaching religion, but it should not be anti-religious either. If we teach a worldview that prohibits a belief in a Creator, then are we not, essentially, teaching religion?  We are told that with these new standards, our kids will know how to ask questions better.  However, if you read all the materials, you find that the questions our kids will be asking will be limited and directed into a particular worldview.  77% of the population of the US considers themselves Christian.  Why is it necessary to prohibit this worldview in a science class?  Why must any worldview be adopted in science class?  Why can't we just provide for what we know, what we don't know, and teach the scientific method?  And we should NEVER, EVER try to convince children that science is settled, that there is no room for questioning or that there are only a certain set of appropriate questions.  But that's what I see.  We are using the cover of science to manipulate the beliefs and values of our kids, not to teach them how to become scientists or to understand the world around them. 

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