Andy Zucker, Ed.D.’78
Retired Educational Researcher and Evaluator | Teacher | Cambridge
Although it was initially an unpleasant surprise, my colleague Pendred Noyce and I came to see it as a stroke of good fortune that in February, a respected national education journal rejected an article we had submitted about national science education standards. After three months, the editor wrote, without explanation, “This article is not a good fit for our audience.”
The coronavirus was becoming front page news so Penny and I pivoted, revising the article to connect science education standards with the pandemic. When we submitted our piece to another education journal, Phi Delta Kappan, the editors instantly understood that the topic was important. The manuscript was quickly accepted, and the revised article, “Lessons from the Pandemic about Science Education,” appeared May 27.
Our article shows that important elements of scientific literacy are missing from the 2013 U.S. national science education standards, which are called the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The piece also highlights NGSS strengths, such as including climate change as a topic all students should study.
It might seem obvious, especially in this pandemic, that teaching young people about viruses, antibodies, immunizations, and vaccines would be an essential part of developing their scientific literacy. But none of these topics is a priority in the ngss. Nor do the standards mention the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, or any other science-related institution.
Yet the importance of learning about vaccines and immunizations long predates the pandemic. As a recent example, prior to 2020, schools should have been teaching students how the absence of vaccinations in some areas of the United States created the worst measles outbreaks in decades, caused largely by misinformation spread among groups of parents.
At a time when 45% of students say they are online “almost constantly,” misinformation about science is front age news, including misinformation spread by people in the White House, often using social media. However, the ngss does not prioritize teaching students how to find reliable sources of information outside a textbook, let alone how to evaluate the many questionable science-related claims everyone encounters in media. (One of my favorite absurd “scientific” claims, found on Facebook, is that wearing a raw onion in your socks overnight drains harmful toxins.)
As a physician, Penny had been concerned about anti-vaxxer misinformation for years. I became interested in misinformation after blogging about psychology and climate change and learning how misinformation spreads. Together, collaborating with PBS NOVA staff at GBH, Penny and I developed free instructional materials for grades 6–12 science classes called Resisting Scientific Misinformation. This then led us to investigate, write, and blog about science education standards and scientific literacy, resulting in the Kappan article.
Scientific literacy begins with knowing some basic science content and practices but extends beyond that to include the relationship of science to personal and societal concerns. Scientifically literate people make better decisions in their personal lives, such as: Should I wear a mask during the pandemic? If so, when and why? Should my child be vaccinated? Scientific literacy is also vital in a democracy because citizens elect governments that establish science-related policies. For example, why are some vaccinations often required by law?
One aspect of scientific literacy that helps me in the pandemic is appreciating the role of uncertainty. Scientists look for new facts, even if they contradict prior theories. However, scientific knowledge is not based on assertions made without evidence.
The precise meaning of scientific literacy is always open to debate. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic offers Americans a clarifying moment to rethink what elementary and secondary students should learn about science to develop scientific literacy. After all, national science education standards are created specifically to identify appropriate education goals.
But whatever the strengths and weaknesses of national science education standards may be, states and localities are primarily responsible for education under the U.S. Constitution. Each state publishes its own education standards. Some states simply copy the ngss word for word, but many states, including Massachusetts, developed their own standards.
Like the National Science Teaching Association, Penny and I believe that connecting science to personal and societal issues should be a prominent goal in science education, as is true in some states and localities, but not others. In contrast, the main priority of the NGSS is preparing students for college and careers, a very different goal. What do your state science education standards suggest is the primary goal for K–12 science education?
In an era when more people get news online than from any other source, teaching media literacy is essential. Do your state science education standards prioritize students learning to judge what they see, hear, or read in media?
After they leave school, most people continue to learn about scientific topics, including the pandemic, by reading about them. That is one reason that the Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of having students read more nonfiction, including science. But 2015 NAEP data show that 54% of 12th-grade students reported never using library resources for science class. Do your state science education standards prioritize the “literacy” aspect of scientific literacy?
Professor Fletcher Watson, who taught at hgse for more than 30 years, wrote that he made some science education colleagues uncomfortable by prioritizing the word “education” over “science.” His point was that experts need to think broadly, beyond their areas of specialization. Although science educators have some first-rate ideas, one does not need to be an expert to identify many key elements of scientific literacy; that is a task for everyone.
Andy Zucker, after teaching STEM subjects in public and private schools, worked for the U.S. Department of Education and then for several nonprofit education R&D organizations.