Science Educators Raise Alarms about Revised K-12 Standards

May 14, 2018

The standards for teaching Science, and History, to Arizona schoolkids are undergoing their first revisions in more than a decade. A committee of 100 educators, parents and community members hammered out the Science document in a year-long process. But the Department of Education made unexpected last-minute changes, shifting from big ideas to vocabulary words and watering down the concept of evolution. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, some experts are alarmed.

Credit National Park Service/S. Sparhawk

If you think back to your grade school science classes and Schoolhouse Rock episodes, you might remember memorizing a lot of vocabulary words.

But science is more than words. It’s about wonder, curiosity and experimentation. The new Arizona Science Standards are meant to encourage a messy, hands-on approach to science. The Department of Education’s revisions [shown in green, here] shifted the focus—backward.

"As a professional, as a science educator, I just could not support teaching students this incorrect idea of what science is," says Lacey Wieser, the department’s former director of K-12 science education. She resigned rather than implement the changes made during an unprecedented internal review.  

"I think the changes really shift from the focus from this idea of science of discipline for helping students make sense of the world, to just really memorizing a body of facts," Wieser says.  

Wieser was alarmed by the addition of so-called “key concepts” to the standards. They look a lot like the old vocabulary terms emphasized in Arizona’s outdated standards from 2004. That’s just what the committee of experts who wrote the new document wanted to get away from. Another troubling change: Department staff deleted or qualified the word “evolution” throughout the document.

Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, says, "We can quite sure, I think, that the revisions are aimed deliberately at softening the treatment of evolution, and thus misleading teachers and students about the scientific standing of evolution."

Evolution has been amply confirmed by science, just like photosynthesis or relativity. Branch says it’s absurd to use ambiguous or tentative language. "These are very bad revisions that were made, they clearly weren’t endorsed by the writing committee, and it’s somewhat disrespectful to them to make these changes," Branch says.

The Arizona Department of Education declined to give an interview for this story. But in a March meeting of the state Board of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas defended the internal review. She said the draft standards for both Science and History were too vague and needed to define expectations for students more clearly. "I’m not going to bring something to this board that I don’t think is in the best interest of our students and the community we should be serving," she said.  

Educators complained the internal review was an overreach of power. Sara Torres, the executive director of the Arizona Science Teachers Association, says, "In the past internal reviews were always done for formatting issues and grammatical edits, and never to change the specific content of the standards."

Even if Arizonans agree on what to teach, there’s the question of how to teach it. Curriculum and textbooks are being written for the Next Generation Science Standards, a recommended set of ideas for teaching science to K-12 students. They were created by 26 states including Arizona. But of the 19 states that have adopted them so far, Arizona isn’t one of them. In fact, the state has chosen to write its own. So schools here might not be able to use national resources. 

Torres says, "I think in the long run, one of things that teachers will need to think about, and curriculum directors, and school districts: finding resources that align to these standards." 

That’s a financial burden, at a time when school funding is under a magnifying glass.

The draft standards for Science, and History and Social Science, are available for public comment until May 28. They’ll be submitted to the Board of Education for adoption this fall.

Flagstaff science teachers are invited to an open house about the draft standards on May 21. It will take place at the Route 66 Starbucks at 5 p.m.