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Push for New Science, Mathematics Standards Described at NSF/AAAS Education Conference

With growing concern that U.S. students are falling behind global competitors in science and math, education leaders are developing a new generation of standards to help cultivate a skilled and innovative workforce. Attendees at the annual meeting of the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, organized by AAAS, got an early look at the standards in mathematics and the process for developing a conceptual framework and aligned next-generation science standards.

New mathematics standards were introduced this spring and have already been adopted by 25 states as of mid-July. New science standards are under development and are slated for release in late 2011, and will for the first time include a component on engineering education, speakers said.

In a keynote speech at the Noyce conference, Bruce Alberts—editor-in-chief of Science and a long-time advocate for improved science education—stressed the importance of new, voluntary national science education standards. He told attendees that the term “science education” needs to be redefined, because it currently focuses far too often on memorization of science words.

Bruce Alberts and Shirley Malcom

“We’re losing lots of potential scientists, because science is much more exciting than it seems in the textbooks,” he said.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Noyce program aims to improve K-12 education by improving the quality of teachers. Institutions—mostly universities—receive grants to recruit students and professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and train them to be K-12 teachers in high-need school districts. Since the program began in 2002, it has trained 7700 teachers.

About 475 participants, including recipients of Noyce grants and undergraduate and graduate students training to be teachers, attended the 7-9 July conference in Washington, D.C. The conference is part of a collaboration between the NSF and AAAS, which also includes proposal workshops organized by AAAS for potential grantees and AAAS oversight of the Noyce program Web site.

Voluntary national standards in mathematics and science are considered essential by many advocates in business, education, science, and other fields. They set clear learning goals for students to achieve as they move through the grades, with the expectation that a student graduating from high school would achieve a level of science literacy that equips them to assess science-related issues and, if they wish, allows them to pursue higher education.

Kaye Forgione

The mathematics standards are intended to provide students with a sufficient background “so they can create a future for themselves, whether they go to college or not,” said Kaye Forgione, senior associate for mathematics at Achieve, a non-profit education reform organization. At the Noyce conference, Forgione discussed how the standards can be applied in classrooms.

During the session “Common Core State Standards for Mathematics,” Forgione explained that the newly-released mathematics standards include whole numbers, arithmetic, fractions and decimals for kindergarten through fifth grade. The aim is for elementary students to have a solid foundation in these math skills, so that teachers in subsequent grade levels “don’t have to keep backtracking” to catch students up on skills they didn’t learn the first time, Forgione said.

In sixth through eighth grade, students learn geometry, algebra, probability and statistics. And then in high school, students apply mathematics to real-world problems.

The standards go beyond arithmetic and other basic math skills to include “standards for mathematics practice,” such as problem-solving, persistence, reasoning, precision and other “habits of mind that we want to engender,” Forgione said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. National Research Council has completed a draft conceptual framework for science education standards and on 12 July submitted it for public comment. (The deadline for comment is 2 August.) Once finalized, the non-profit education group, Achieve, will coordinate the use of this framework to develop more explicit standards. The National Science Teachers Association and AAAS are supporting partners in these efforts, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York is providing financial support.

Jean Slattery

Jean Slattery, senior associate in science at Achieve, told conference attendees that they plan to release the new science standards in late 2011 or early 2012. After the conference, she said that three AAAS officials will play key roles in the effort: Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science; Jo Ellen Roseman, director of AAAS’s Project 2061, a long-term science literacy effort; and Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources.

“AAAS is at the heart of this,” said Slattery. “And AAAS will be important as we look toward assessments based on the new standards.”

Voluntary science education standards have been an important issue for AAAS in recent years. Op-eds on the issue by AAAS leaders have been published in U.S. newspapers, and science education has been featured in editorials and special issues of the journal Science.

Slattery told conference attendees that new science standards are needed to respond to developments in cognitive science, rapid advances in science and engineering, the call for internationally benchmarked standards, and to provide a much tighter focus on core ideas—ideas that have the greatest explanatory value in the disciplines of science.

“Science is burdened with a staggering amount of knowledge that is increasing even as we speak,” Slattery said, and schools need to focus on essential knowledge and abilities. Part of the effort to develop new science standards will involve “teasing out the continuum for scientific literacy, college readiness and being capable” in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, she said.

To help with the development of the framework, the NRC established design teams in four areas: earth and space science, life science, physical science and, importantly, engineering and technology. The science standards will thus also “embrace engineering,” Slattery said, “by including standards for the designed world in science.”

Alberts established himself as a strong advocate of science and mathematics education when he served as president of the National Academy of Science from 1993 to 2005. And in his talk at the Noyce conference, he suggested that teachers, researchers and curriculum designers work together to improve science standards.

“We need to make a science out of science education,” he said.

He said that the journal Science is also playing a role in advancing standards by publishing editorials (“Making a Science Education,” 2 January 2009 Science and “Redefining Science Education,” 23 January 2009 Science) and special issues on science education.

Also, in 2009, the magazine launched the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) to encourage development and sharing of free, online science education resources around the world.

He urged the teachers in the Noyce conference audience to be ambitious, to form Noyce networks whose contributions can be stronger than those of individuals, and to realize that education reform requires institution-wide change.

“Each of you should realize how critical your work is for our nation’s future” he said. “In fact, your work is more important than many of you may recognize.”


See a past AAAS commentary about the importance of uniform, voluntary U.S. science-education standards.

Download and respond by 2 August to a draft conceptual framework for the next generation of science standards.

Download the Common Core State Standards for mathematics.

Learn more about the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.