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Nationalized Science Education, Privately Funded and Formulated in Secret: "Next Generation Science Standards" Are Ripe for Criticism

Writing recently in World Magazine, I explained that a new effort seeks to get states to abdicate local control over science education and instead adopt new nationalized Next Generation Science Standards ("NGSS"). The NGSS are ardently pro-Darwin-only, and would withhold from students any information about the scientific weaknesses in Darwinian theory.

In other academic areas, similar initiatives have already scored victories. The National Governors Association launched its own program, "Common Core," to create universal standards for English and math. Since 2010, 45 states have adopted those standards.

A similar push to nationalize science curricula motivated the creation of the NGSS. In covering the release of the final NGSS in April, the New York Times reported they "are meant to do for science what ... Common Core is supposed to do for English and mathematics."1

A more forthright explanation of the motives behind the NGSS, however, may also have been provided by the Times. The standards, we're told, will "combat widespread scientific ignorance."2 How so? Because they "take a firm stand that children must learn about evolution."3

Proponents of new nationalized standards like the NGSS argue that nationalized standards will ensure a higher quality of instruction regardless of state or local policies. Critics respond that the standards weren't developed through a democratic, publicly transparent process. As I noted in World, for example, leading groups skeptical of modern Darwinian theory (including Discovery Institute) were excluded from the NGSS drafting process, but pro-Darwin advocacy groups like the National Center for Science Education, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Science Teachers Association were invited.

More fundamentally, many fear the standards represent an attempt to wrest away local control of what kids learn.

Earlier this year, the Washington Times reported that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $173 million to Common Core. Achieve.org, which spearheaded both Common Core and the NGSS, has itself received over $35 million from the Gates Foundation since 1999.4 Scott Thomas, dean of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, called such funding "an intrusion into the public sphere more directly that has not been seen before."5 While receiving fewer dollars than Common Core, the NGSS effort was primarily funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and received "no federal funds."6

The effort to create national education standards has also been highly politicized. The Obama Administration endorses Common Core, whereas the Republican National Committee charged the initiative "was not subject to any freedom of information acts or other sunshine laws, and never piloted." They fear it "effectively removes educational choice and competition."7

Some observers think the entire approach of top-down educational standards is misguided. "Centralized planning didn't save the economies of Eastern Europe, and it certainly won't save our schools," says Dr. John West, associate director of Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture. "Better education won't be produced by smothering teachers with more regulations; we must recruit and equip talented teachers who can inspire students."

Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss expressed concern that the Common Core drafting process "was done in secrecy," and "few if any classroom teachers were involved." She warned that "[t]elling teachers that they must teach certain things to each child in a specific grade ignores ... individual development."8

Even supporters of nationalized standards have offered similar criticisms. According to a report by the pro-NGSS Fordham Institute, the standards promote a "one-size-fits-all" approach that could lead to a "dumbing down" of teaching. If that weren't enough, Fordham fears that educators who attempt to implement the standards will find them "complicated," "unwieldy," and "confusing."9

Federal law prohibits a mandatory national curriculum, so officially these new standards are merely "guidelines." But Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that such efforts appear to be "another attempt to circumnavigate the constitutional obstacles of federalism."10 Accordingly, the New York Times observed that states like Texas are unlikely to adopt the NGSS because "they represent an unwarranted federal intrusion into the classroom."11

Yet there's a strong incentive for states to relinquish local control and adopt a national curriculum: they become eligible for federal "Race to the Top" grant dollars. Critics charge that the name is a euphemism; it's more like a race toward mediocrity. It remains to be seen whether similar carrots will be offered to encourage states to adopt the NGSS..

References Cited:

[1.] Justin Gillis, "New Guidelines Call for Broad Changes in Science Education," The New York Times (April 9, 2013).

[2.] Justin Gillis, "New Guidelines Call for Broad Changes in Science Education," The New York Times (April 9, 2013).

[3.] Justin Gillis, "New Guidelines Call for Broad Changes in Science Education," The New York Times (April 9, 2013).

[4.] Michal Conger, "Private funding influenced public education policy," Washington Times (February 12, 2013); http://www.gatesfoundation.org/How-We-Work/Quick-Links/Grants-Database#q/k=achieve.org

[5.] Michal Conger, "Private funding influenced public education policy," Washington Times (February 12, 2013).

[6.] http://carnegie.org/fileadmin/Media/Image_Galleries/NGSS_press_release_040913_FINAL.pdf

[7.] "RNC Draft Resolution on the Common Core"

[8.] Valerie Strauss, "The problem(s) with the Common Core standards," Washington Post (March 10, 2010).

[9.] Fordham Institute, "Commentary & Feedback on Draft II of the Next Generation Science Standards," January 29, 2013.

[10.] Peter Wood, "The Core Between the States," Innovations -- Chronicle of Higher Education (May 23, 2011).

[11.] Morgan Smith, "State's Classrooms Are Unlikely to Adopt New Common Science Standards Soon," New York Times (July 27, 2012).