Guest Opinions

There’s a proper way to adopt Idaho’s science standards

Boise High School teacher Ali Ward with her AP environmental science students in February 2017. The Boise school district is one of several that already has contract negotiations in place, a month before the soft deadline.
Boise High School teacher Ali Ward with her AP environmental science students in February 2017. The Boise school district is one of several that already has contract negotiations in place, a month before the soft deadline. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Combine a hot-button topic with misleading information and loose use of words, and what do you get? The result is a painful three-year science standards adoption process.

Focus on climate change distracted from the adoption process. Idaho administrative rules are specific about performance standards. Each level of government has a role. The state defines performance standards. Local districts adopt curriculum and teachers deliver instruction.

My review of the past three years of testimony and standards documents suggests that a breakdown in protocol and procedures has brought us to where we are. One is that the committee, although made up of excellent teachers and leading scientists, might not have understood how each level from state to the classroom has a different role. Second is that the evidence shows the committee might not have reviewed a key document relating to science standards, “How to Read the Next Generation Science Standards.” Having this background would have avoided three years of confusion about performance standards versus supporting content.

Members of Idaho’s Senate and House education committees were correct in raising concerns about the document under review, as the format is unlike that of Idaho’s other academic standards. In fact, the majority of the concerns raised involved the supporting content piece — and rightfully so, because as in science, inquiry leads to content knowledge. Legislating content is problematic as it can be viewed as a form of censorship.

Adding to confusion was the fact that the legislators were led to believe that the proposed standards were not the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), when in fact they are.

NGSS is an improvement over Idaho’s older standards because these combine know and do. Idaho’s social studies standards, another discipline with a huge body of knowledge, follows the same format. Some states consider the performance expectations alone to be the standards. This has been Idaho’s practice. Montana does the same.

Supporting the performance expectations are three foundations (disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts). The Idaho committee renamed the disciplinary core ideas as supporting content and included these in the proposed standards while leaving out the remaining two elements. This has produced a troublesome document.

Supporting content is one piece of curriculum and instruction. It’s addressed at the local level along with the other foundational elements. In fact, failure to emphasize the importance of all three elements is a serious omission that is unique to Idaho’s document. By putting the spotlight on supporting content and neglecting to include any reference to science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts, Idaho’s writers open the door to a series of unintended consequences.

Supporting content does not belong in Idaho Administrative Code. It’s the slippery slope to telling teachers what to teach and it fosters poor teaching practices. Professional development is where the foundational elements for standards should be addressed.

The Legislature can show it trusts teachers and support great science teaching by following determined protocol and procedures. Adopt only the performance standards.

Mary Ollie began working with Idaho science standards in the 1990s when Idaho attempted to implement performance-based education. She taught AP chemistry and physics at the high school level and recently completed nine years of teaching chemistry in community college.

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