Ky. Voices: Public input a sham on new science standards

September 30, 2013 

Martin Cothran

Please download mug for Martin Cothran, senior policy Analyst for The Family Foundation of Kentucky, for use in editorial on Monday 6-12 and for archiving.

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Supporters of new state science standards spent the last year making grandiose claims about their process of public input. But after a legislative committee recently rejected the standards in a 5-1 vote, all of a sudden, public input and review wasn't important anymore.

After the legislative rebuke, Gov. Steve Beshear pulled the plug on the public approval process and forced the standards through anyway, dissing the General Assembly and the parents who thought they had a voice.

In fact, the whole process was a sham.

To make matters worse, the day before the vote was taken, Kentuckians were informed by Terry Holliday, Kentucky's commissioner of education, that it didn't matter what anyone had to say about the standards because they couldn't be changed anyway. A nice thing to find out near the end of a process in which people thought their opinions mattered.

Apparently the so-called public input was merely to make Kentuckians feel good about a set of science standards that ignore basic content knowledge of nature in favor of abstract processes that can only be understood in light of more basic knowledge.

But there is little to feel good about.

While most of us think it is ignorance that needs to be stamped out, advocates of the new science standards are targeting knowledge.

The standards are replete with terms such as "use," "analyze," "construct," "develop" and "plan." These are all skills necessary, but not sufficient to science. The standards studiously avoid terms such as "know," "name," "classify" and "describe."

While the standards spend whole sections on weather and climate science, there is no emphasis at all on knowing the types or structure of plants or animals or knowing about the different kinds of rocks and minerals. Human anatomy and physiology are missing completely.

In Massachusetts' science standards, among the best in the country, students are asked to do such things as "Classify plants and animals according to the physical characteristics that they share." There are no equivalent requirements in Kentucky's science standards.

There have always been two purposes in science education: knowing nature and controlling it. The second purpose is dependent on the first. The Next Generation Science Standards Kentucky has forcibly implemented leave out the first part.

Basic knowledge of nature is to science what words are to language, what numbers are to mathematics, or what notes are to music: Ignore them and you will have a hard time learning anything else.

But backers of the standards have a different way of thinking. According to Brad Matthews, a former science educator in the Jefferson County school district (that bastion of advanced scientific thinking), "Science education has moved away from the memorization of many facts and toward understanding how the laws and principles of science are applied."

This is the problem with science education, we are told: students have memorized too many facts. Their heads are bursting with them. There is not enough room in their tiny little brains for an understanding of how these facts should be applied because all the room is currently taken up by facts. There is simply no space in those fact-crowded little heads for scientific applications.

This may be the first time anyone has argued that the problem with our schools is that students know too much.

We need to teach students how to use knowledge, they say, not engage in "rote memorization." They never explain how you can use something you don't have.

Science educators have apparently been infected with the same kind of permissivist philosophy that has affected other disciplines, a malady which causes them to pit basic content knowledge against more advanced knowledge of concepts and practices.

Robert Bevins, a former Georgetown College professor who supports the state's unapproved but forcibly implemented science standards, said before they were voted down that if Kentucky didn't approve the standards, the state would be "seen as a backwater."

The problem is that, under these standards, students won't know what a backwater is.


At issue: Sept. 12 Herald-Leader article, "Beshear to implement new science standards; governor decides to act after legislative panel votes them down"

Martin Cothran, of Danville, is senior policy analyst with the Family Foundation of Kentucky.

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