Reforming the Science Curriculum Yet Again (Part 1)

“Creating new curriculum standards for science doesn’t reform teaching and learning any more than standing in a garage makes you a car or a truck.”*

The top research body in the U.S., the National Research Council, recently released its Framework for K-12 Science Education. An 18-member committee of top scientists and educational experts drawn from the National Academy of Sciences identified key concepts, scientific practices, and ideas that every student should learn by the time they graduate high school. It is intended as a guide for those who are now developing national Common  Core Standards in science (Standards in English Language Arts and Math are already out and 44 states have already adopted both).

As I read the report, two thoughts occurred to me. First, because of overlap in the players who created the Framework and those who are working on new science Standards the Framework is a preview of coming attractions for an intended science curriculum. I say “intended” because once states adopt the Common Core Standards in English and Math–with science next in line– the Standards, hullabaloo over a national curriculum notwithstanding, will not exactly mirror the science content teachers will teach once they close their classroom doors. Moreover, the science that students learn in those classrooms will vary from what the Standards contain and what teachers teach. Finally, what gets tested in national assessments of English, math, and science will differ from what teachers have taught and what students have learned. I elaborate this point of policy-to-practice in this post.

The second thought I had was how familiar the Framework was to me insofar as previous revisions of science curriculum over the past century. I will discuss cycles of science curricula in Part 2.

National curriculum frameworks as an instance of policy-to-practice**

The intended (or official) curriculum is what state and district officials set forth in curricular frameworks and courses of study. Were the science Framework to be adopted in part or wholly as another Core Curriculum Standard by states and districts in upcoming years, parents and school board officials would  expect teachers to teach it; further, they would assume students will learn it. These official curricula increasingly are aligned with state-approved textbooks that teachers are directed to use and state-mandated tests that teachers must administer.

But teachers, working alone in their rooms, choose what to teach and how to present it. Their choices derive from their knowledge of the subject they teach (elementary and secondary school teachers differ greatly in their knowledge of science), their experiences in teaching the content, their affection or dislike for topics, and their attitudes toward the students they face daily. In fact, researchers continually find that teachers in the same building will teach different versions of the same course. Thus, the intended curriculum and what teachers teach may overlap in the title of the course, certain key topics, and the same text, but can differ substantially in actual subject matter and daily lessons. And also students differ in what they learn.

The taught curriculum overlaps with but differs significantly from what students take away from class. Students pick up information and concepts from lessons. They also learn to answer teacher questions, recite, review material, locate sources, seek help, avoid teachers’ intrusiveness, and act attentive. Collateral learnings, in Dewey’s phrase, occur when children pick up ideas from class-mates, copy their teachers’ habits and tics, imitate their humor or sarcasm, or strive to be as autocratic or democratic as the adults. So, the learned curriculum differs from the intended and taught curricula.

And what students learn does not exactly mirror what is in the tested curriculum. Classroom, school, district, state, and national tests, often using multiple-choice and other short-answer  items, do, indeed, capture much–but hardly all–of the official and taught curricula. To the degree that teachers attend to such tests, portions of the intended and taught curricula merge. But what is tested is a limited part of what is intended by policymakers, taught by teachers, and learned by students. Since so many of these tests seek to sort high achieving students from their lower-achieving  peers, the information, ideas, and skills sought on these tests represent an even narrower band of knowledge.

The newly-published science Framework, then, much of which I expect to appear when the Core Standard in science eventually arrives, will be only the initial link in the policy-to-practice chain of intended-taught-learned-tested curricula that characterizes U.S. schooling. The additional links in that chain have to be accounted for because reforming science teaching and learning is far more complicated than standing in a garage and hoping to become a car or truck.


*I made up the quote.

**Much of what follows on four different curricula (intended, taught, learned, tested) is drawn from The Hidden Variable. Citations and references are listed in the article.



Filed under school reform policies

3 responses to “Reforming the Science Curriculum Yet Again (Part 1)

  1. Bob Calder

    Have you seen the diagnostic questions that George DeBoer put up at 2061? I have never seen anything that does such a good job of doing what a test should.

  2. Pingback: Reforming the Science Curriculum Yet Again (Part 1) | Ed News |

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