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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

Science Standards Not Good Enough

“The average person’s body contains about 100 trillion cells, but only maybe one in 10 is human.” That sentence made the front page of the October 11th Washington Post. And, yes, most of your cells and mine are not the familiar nuclear cells diagrammed in textbooks. Rather, they are microbial cells—bacteria and archaea--that pass on their information buddy to buddy, in a process called horizontal gene transfer. We are just beginning to understand the implications of that process and of the role those 90 trillion microbial cells play in your life drama. “We’re seeing an unprecedented rate of discovery. Everywhere we look, microbes seem to be involved,” says a Colorado University scientist quoted in the Post. Microbiology is today’s revolutionary science; the excitement in the field is palpable. The American Society of Microbiologists now has 38,000 members.
After reading the Washington Post article I decided to see if any of that excitement is conveyed in the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 science education, a document intended to lead to another, which will frame a common core science curriculum for states to use. The assumption is that this well-intentioned blue ribbon committee-effort will change science education in this country and make our children able to compete in a global economy.
I read the 300 page NRC document to see if that is likely. Does it describe good science? Good pedagogy?
In the section on biology bacteria and viruses are mentioned briefly, but archaea not at all. That’s out of date science. Archaea are one of the three forms of life, known as domains, broadly accepted as the base of the evolutionary bush. (At the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, t-shirts for kids now come with the three-branched bush of bacteria, archaea, and eukaryota.)
Something else that’s not mentioned in this document: scientists. You won’t find Darwin, or Newton, or Einstein. If there are stories in science, or a history, it is not suggested here. Which leads to the pedagogy. The report lists endpoints and boundaries for grades 2,5, 8, and 12 in each subject. Those endpoints are not challenging. The good teachers will see the document as dumbed down; ordinary teachers will be constrained by the boundaries. Yes, for low-performing schools they will provide guidance and goals. But, overall, this is not visionary science, it is not exciting science. It does present a mostly sound overview of basic concepts. If things go according to plan, 41 already-hired teachers will use it to produce a common core science curriculum. After that the next step is already in place. It is really worrisome.
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