From the Newsletter of the American Astronomical Society
Astronomy and the New National Science Education Standards: Some Disturbing News and an Opportunity
The National Research Council's "National Standards in Science Education,' released in January 1996, is the latest and most comprehensive set of national standards for science education in grades K-12. Required by the adoption of national educational goals through President Bush's America 2000 and President Clinton's Goals 2000 programs, voluntary national standards are a relatively new strategy for improving the quality of education in the United States. National standards in social studies, mathematics, and science have already been published. Receiving major funding from the Department of Education and the NSF, the National Research Council, at the request of the National Science Teacher's Association, organized the creation of "National Standards for Science Education."
Previous science education standards outlined in Project 2061's "Science for All Americans" and "Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy" and in the NSTA's "The Content Core" have concentrated on defining the specific knowledge needed for scientific literacy. The new NRC standards include not only content requirements defining scientific literacy, but also standards for student assessment, teaching, teacher development, and program and system performance. But while the aims, breadth, and general quality of the new standards are impressive, the standards are seriously flawed with respect to their treatment of astronomy education. Their greatest shortcomings are the shallow, empirical treatment of astronomical topics and the categorization of all such subject matter under one discipline called "Earth and Space Science."
Briefly, the only content standard requirements relevant to astronomy (topics that should be taught at each grade level) in the new standards are as follows:
(From Table 6.4, "Earth and Space Science Standards")
K-4 Objects in the Sky, Changes in the Sky 5-8 Earth's History, Earth in the Solar System 9-12 Origin/Evolution of the Earth System, Origin/Evolution of Universe
Note that no astronomy outside the solar system is listed for grades 5-8 and even the mention of the solar system minimizes the astronomy point of view. Apparently even the idea that stars shine from nuclear energy was deemed too abstract to teach before the 9th grade.
Furthermore, stars as they exist are not explicitly mentioned. Other content standard categories in the new Standards include "Science as Inquiry," "Physical Science," "Life Science," "Science and Technology," "Science in the Social and Personal Perspectives," and the "History and Nature of Science." Perceiving that the fundamental concepts of astronomy were not appropriately integrated into the standards of physical AND earth/space science, an AAS focus group recommended in 1995 that additional topics be added to these minimal requirements under the heading "Physical Science." The focus group was Chaired by Mary Kay Hemenway, AAS Education Officer, and consisted of members of the AAS Education Advisory Board, the AAS Education Policy Board, and the three AASTRA site directors.
The AAS focus group's 1995 recommendations and requests for change were basically to redefine the standards as follows, in order to put some physical thought and some modern topics in the listings:
Astronomy Standards (From Recommended "Physical Science" Standards)
K-4 Motion of sun, moon, planets
5-8 Stars and how they shine 9-12 Nature of Galaxies/Universe
Astronomy Standards (From Recommended "Earth and Space Science" Standards)
K-4 Objects in the Sky, Changes in the Sky 5-8 Earth's History, (Earth and) The Solar System
9-12 Origin/Evolution of Earth System
Some specific suggestions from the AAS focus group's content recommendations were:
K-4: Add the relation of light and stars; comparison of motions of
terrestrial and celestial objects.
5-8: Add stars as sources of energy, heat and light; role of gravity in guiding solar system motions; Geological properties of earth compared with other planets.
9-12: Leaping to origin of universe in context of earth sciences/planetary systems is shallow; in physical sciences, add role of gravity in driving evolution of physical universe and concepts of gravitational, kinetic and radiant energy. IN GENERAL: The astronomy standards lack any mention of how astronomers gather data and infer the nature of objects which cannot be touched directly.
Unfortunately, as the first chart shows, none of the major recommendations made by the focus group were incorporated into the final draft of Standards. There were no re-classifications of astronomy subject matter under "Physical Science," nor were any new topics added. Some minor changes, such as including professional scientists and labs in lists of teaching resources for the general public, were made. Finally, there was considerable objection by the focus group to the way in which an important standard for the inclusion/exclusion of material was left undefined. In this case, the focus group requested clarification of a sentence in the introduction praising teachers who make science "relevant" to their students -- as opposed to those whose courses are "simply. . . preparation for another school science course" (p. 12). Without defining what "relevant" should mean, the focus group feared this phrase might allow teachers to exclude certain subject matter from science curricula on the basis of their personal concept of what was "relevant" to a student's life -- and one could argue for the "irrelevance" of many aspects of astronomy.
All in all, the astronomical community has much to regret in these standards. The minimal content standards for astronomy could lead to large amounts of material being left out not only from curricula but from textbooks, too. The appeal of astronomy to the imagination has not been used to draw students to the physical sciences. The intimate relationship between physics, chemistry, math, and astronomy has not been stressed. Now that the standards are promulgated, it is up to us as astronomers and educators to provide interesting material in various forms so that teachers choose to teach it under the rubrics adopted. We must now make the most of our opportunities.
The National Science Education Standards are available for sale from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, Box 285, Washington, DC 20055. Call 800-624-6242 or 202-334-3313.
This is a longer version of the content standards that apply to astronomy, aside from the straightforward physics ones (like gravity):
Changes in the Earth and Sky -- Objects in the sky have patterns of change/movement; ex. solar motion, lunar motion and phases.
Earth in the Solar System -- Solar system has nine planets, their moons, asteroids, comets; sun, an average star, is central. Solar system objects are in regular, predictable motion; motions explain the day, year, phases of moon, seasons, and eclipses. Gravity keeps planets in orbit around sun; gravity holds us to earth and causes tides. Sun is major source of energy for phenomena on earth's surface; cause of seasons.
The Origin and Evolution of the Universe -- Basics of big bang theory. Light elements clumped into stars; galaxies are gravitationally bound clusters of stars, form most of visible mass in universe. Stars produce energy from nuclear reactions, primarily fusion. Processes in stars lead to formation of all elements.
Jay M. Pasachoff
aided by Jason Lorentz, Williams '96