Minnesota’s science standards: Vague? Cogent? Challenging?

Joe Nathan
ECM Contributing Writer

Are Minnesota’s science standards “too often…marred by vague, incorrect, or grade-inappropriate material, or … missing key content entirely. “Yes,” according to a study by the Fordham Foundation, a generally conservative group.  Furthermore, Fordham documents that compared to  many other countries, we do not understand enough about science. That’s hurting us now, and will produce more harm in the future.

Fordham acknowledged that “When (Minnesota’s) standards are “on,” they are cogent and challenging.” However, overall, Fordham gave Minnesotan’s standards a “C.” Twelve other states and the District of Columbia earned higher grades.  The District of Columbia, California, Indiana, South Carolina, Virginia and Massachusetts earned “A’s. (The report is at www.edexcellence.net)

Since I’m no expert on science, I turned to four thoughtful Minnesotans for reactions. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, formerly a state legislator and now President and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association, responded first: “An average rating won’t cut it for Minnesota’s students or science and innovation based businesses. That is why MHTA and our foundation have been actively involved in pushing for upgrading of Minnesota’s standards. We support the participation in the “New Generation Science Standards” and continued work to push Minnesota to the top of the list when it comes to math and science.”

Steve Kelley is a former state legislator who now directs the Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Humphrey School. He wrote a lengthy, generally skeptical review of Fordham’s report. Kelly felt the report gave too much power to individuals who reviewed different aspects of state science standards. He also disagreed with several of their criticisms.   I’m posting Kelly’s entire review on our website http://www.centerforschoolchange.org/publications/joenathan/ because people should have a chance to consider his comments.

I also contacted Ed Hessler, who has taught science for more than 30 years at the K-12 and higher education levels. Hessler is Executive Secretary of the Minnesota Science Teachers Association, but emphasized he was speaking only for himself, not the group. Hessler has “considerable regard for several of the reviewers” that Fordham used.  Hessler wrote a long response, also posted on the CSC website. Among other things, he pointed out that the report praised Minnesota’s evolution standards, calling them “complete and well-organized.” Hessler responded, “hurrah for the Minnesota educators who did this good, no excellent work.”

Hessler believes that overall, Minnesota did not spend enough time or resources creating science standards. He wrote, “this leads to the need for polishing this effort …”

Finally, I contacted Charlene Briner, Director of Communications and Chief of Staff at Minnesota ‘s Department of Education. She explained, “We are constantly evaluating our standards….constantly increasing their rigor…” Briner noted that Minnesota is one of the lead states in a new national effort to create “Next Generation Science Standards” we would not have been asked if we did not have considerable credibility.”

Fordham recognized that good standards don’t guarantee effective teaching. But they are an important part of the overall picture. Given Minnesota’s involvement in “the Next Generation” project, it appears state leaders agree in at least in part with Fordham: Minnesotans need more knowledge of, and skill in science.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College.  Reactions welcome, jnathan@macalester.edu

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