Richard G. Innes: Common Core won't prepare for science, math careers

February 17, 2014 

Richard G. Innes is staff education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, a Lexington-based free-market think tank.

  • At issue: Jan. 23 Herald-Leader article, "Vote unlikely for bill ending Common Core, science standards"

A recent Herald-Leader article reporting on a bill to remove Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards from Kentucky schools reveals that some policymakers are remarkably uninformed about serious problems with these incomplete benchmarks.

Furthermore, House Education chairman Derrick Graham's assertion that the issues involving these standards are "settled" is far from accurate.

Without serious action to correct glaring deficiencies in these new standards, Kentucky students seeking careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) will be placed at a serious disadvantage.

The science standards were found "deficient" by Graham's colleagues in a bipartisan 5-1 vote during the September meeting of the Kentucky legislature's Administrative Regulations Review Subcommittee — a vote Gov. Steve Beshear unwisely overrode. Beshear's actions did nothing to address the woefully deficient NGSS or fix its most serious problems, which — despite the Herald-Leader article's claims — involve neither evolution nor climate.

A crucial problem identified by the Fordham Institute and others is that its standards essentially quit after the 10th grade. NGSS contain virtually nothing about high school chemistry or physics — essential subjects for students who want STEM careers.

The NGSS' own website admits that students who want such careers need more than these science standards provide. Graham and the governor, who consistently says he supports STEM programs, apparently don't know about this admission.

College professors told the Bluegrass Institute that at least 30 Kentucky school districts don't offer high-school physics — an assertion state Department of Education officials could neither confirm nor deny. Students in those districts' schools who fail to gain access to a rigorous physics instruction can forget STEM careers.

Several factors regarding the CCSS actually discourage schools from offering chemistry and physics instruction:

■ A well-established legal concept called "fair notice" prohibits state assessments from including material not covered by the standards.

■ Thus, there is no penalty for dropping chemistry or physics. A report in Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday's Nov. 1 blog tells about a high school that recently dropped physics without any apparent penalty.

■ Even if schools voluntarily teach chemistry and physics, it won't help state accountability ratings.

■ Without standards, state education leaders have no ruler to monitor quality, even if chemistry and physics are offered.

The Herald-Leader also reported recently on two University of Kentucky chemistry professors who — as a result of recognizing widespread deficiencies in incoming students' chemistry preparation, especially in chemistry-related math — decided to offer an online high school course at their own expense.

If Kentucky had strong science standards, such supplemental K-12 courses would be unnecessary. Neither would schools be dropping physics courses. Ironically, while these professors are so concerned that they are stepping up to fill the breach, the governor proposes throwing more money at K-12 by reducing funding to our state's postsecondary institutions.

Problems are not restricted to the science standards, either. James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University, served on the Common Core State Standards Validation Committee but refused to sign off on the math portion. He claims the proposed math standards include little material from a standard trigonometry course, ignore pre-calculus material and, like the science standards, drop the ball after 10th grade — at least for a student who wants to participate in a STEM path in college.

Milgram argues that failing to challenge the status quo will leave students years behind top countries in STEM-related academic areas.

Reach Richard G. Innes at dinnes@freedomkentucky.com.

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