On July 13, 2021, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, released a Call to Action for Science Education: Building Opportunity for the Future (NAS 2021). Prepared in response to a request by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the report was generated by a consensus committee, consisting of leaders from K–12 formal and informal education, higher education, professional organizations, and consultants. Coming on the heels of a global pandemic, the report is especially timely given the critical role that science and engineering are playing in mitigating the effects of the pandemic and reducing its spread. While there is much to commend in the Call to Action, the document has missed essential elements of a comprehensive plan for the future. This article summarizes one writer’s views of its strengths and weaknesses.
The report’s greatest strength is a compelling case for the need to develop equal opportunities for all students across our K–16 educational system. The committee marshalled very strong evidence of the deep disparities in opportunities to learn by youth of different racial, ethnic, and economic circumstances. Although the call for equity of opportunity is not new, the strength of the argument is to be commended.
Another strength is a set of eight recommendations. Each recommendation identifies important actions that, if followed, will help strengthen science education and eliminate the disgraceful disparities of educational opportunities for a large portion of the nation’s students. The present review does not take issue with any of the recommendations. Rather, it points out weaknesses in the details—and in this writer’s view, very important details—left out of each of the recommendations. These are briefly outlined below.
Certainly, national leaders should raise the profile of science education. Advocacy for increasing the opportunities for all students to engage in STEM across the K–16 spectrum is a critical first step. However, the nature of science education presented in the document is out of date. Emphasis throughout the document is on the traditional disciplines of the natural sciences (biology, physics, chemistry, and Earth and space science), rather than on the integration of STEM fields.
Although a few examples of integrated STEM are given in the vignette about A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC 2012) the Call does not mention the rationale for including engineering as a part of science given in the Framework, nor does it explain how science relates to the other STEM disciplines, even though explaining that relationship was part of the committee’s charge. Although it is indeed important for students to develop scientific knowledge and skills to ask and answer questions about the natural world (science), it is also important for them to develop the capability to formulate and solve problems (engineering). Citing the example of the pandemic, it is important to consider not only how scientists uncovered the nature of Covid-19 and developed a vaccine; but also, how engineers have produced millions of doses in a short time, and shipped them all over the world in cold storage. The same argument can be made for the other complex challenges noted in the Call, including future outbreaks of disease, climate change, food insecurity, and disparities in health and wellness between racial groups. Just as students need science skills to function as responsible citizens and effective workers, they also need engineering skills to define and solve problems that they encounter in daily life and on the job. With its narrow focus on science achievement, the report also ignores two important crosscutting concepts in the Framework: the interdependence of science and engineering and the influence of science, engineering, and technology on society and the natural environment.
The report calls on Congress to modify the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to require accountability of science at the same level as reading and mathematics. It also calls for a system of assessments and indicators that provide information on the progress of schools, districts, and states. The committee is almost certainly correct that the pressure for students to perform well on reading and math tests every year has depressed the amount of time teachers can spend on science, but that does not necessarily imply even more testing is a good thing. A more thoughtful approach to testing is called for, but the committee’s recommendation is too vague to be helpful. For example, Congress could be urged to provide sufficient funding to allow for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to assess STEM every other year as it now does for math and reading. NAEP currently has high-quality assessments in all STEM fields, including hands-on and scenario-based tasks. Using a matrix sampling approach, NAEP does not provide individual scores, but (with sufficient funding) can monitor and compare the progress of states and major urban school systems, as it currently does for reading and math.
Congress can provide incentives, but only state leaders can determine what high-stakes tests will be administered to each student. To raise the profile of science, it will be necessary for states to assess science achievement at the same level as ELA and mathematics. However, the nature of these assessments is critical. The committee recommends that these tests assess conceptual science knowledge and practices and the separate STEM skills. That is not sufficient. The National Science Foundation has already funded banks of model assessment items consistent with the Framework, many of which fully integrate science and engineering practices. Additional state and federal support could enable state departments of education and school districts to scale up the best efforts to date.
Like many of the other recommendations, this one is vague. Specific recommendations could include addressing the most egregious disparities, such as providing free digital learning opportunities so that all high school students have the opportunity to take courses in biology, chemistry, physics, Earth and space science, and engineering. However, the deeper structural issues that underlie the disparities should be addressed as well, including the method of funding schools primarily with local property taxes, guaranteeing that poor communities will inevitably have under-resourced schools.
This is also an excellent recommendation. By bringing all stakeholders to the table, local alliances have the potential to not only expand the pathways, but also to increase the number of on-ramps—opportunities to capture students’ interests in STEM fields—and ease the transition between learning environments inside and outside of the classroom. A missing piece in the Call to Action is a recognition of the immense value of afterschool and summer programs to spark interest in STEM fields by providing safe and engaging activities that are not focused on covering standards and achieving higher test scores. At present the language of the report is entirely focused on science in school. For example, building a high-quality workforce for teaching STEM should include learning opportunities for facilitators of afterschool and summer programs, not just for classroom teachers.
This recommendation mentions STEM Learning Ecosystems, which is a robust network of 94 local alliances encompassing 1,870 school districts, 850,000 PreK–12 teachers and informal educators, and more than 40 million children and youth. The network infrastructure has been funded by private philanthropy, with the goal of achieving better and more equitable STEM learning experiences. It would be helpful to identify this network and recommend that public funds be used to strengthen and expand the network nationwide. Also, rather than calling for attention to “science education specifically and to each of the STEM disciplines individually,” it would be more consistent with the intentions of leaders in 44 of the states that have adopted or adapted science standards based on the Framework, that focus instead be on integrated STEM, rather than maintaining existing silos.
The recommendation that state leaders create “STEM Opportunity Maps” is an excellent plan, similar to the maps of STEM needs and resources being created by leads in all 50 states of the Mott Afterschool Network, with support from private philanthropy. Although the inclusion of learning opportunities outside of school time is implied by this recommendation, it should be stated specifically.
Creating such “report cards” is also an excellent recommendation, similar to Vital Signs that are annually updated by the Education Commission of the States. This final recommendation leads to a further comment on the report. Several well-chosen vignettes vividly illustrate the priorities of the Call to Action. A small number of additional vignettes that illustrate the recommendations and connect them to current efforts would also be welcome. These might include, for example, the Stanford NGSS Assessment Project (SNAP), the STEM Ecosystem Network, the STEM initiative of the Mott Afterschool Network, and Vital Signs, as well as efforts by some states to begin to level the playing field by adopting different approaches to funding schools. Where major efforts already exist that reflect the essence of the recommendations, they should be illustrated, at least as examples and proof points, if not as a targets for increased support.
The National Academies’ 2021 Call to Action for Science Education is welcome. As indicated by this brief article, it is already sparking discussion. Reports of the Academies’ consensus committees carry great weight, and as such their recommendations deserve the attention of the entire field of educational practitioners and researchers. They also deserve critical comments and feedback, which is the purpose of the current article.
To summarize, the report proposes eight recommendations that have promise for raising the profile of STEM education. The report does an excellent job of documenting and prioritizing the need to transform our country’s system of education to be more equitable across all geographies and populations of students, including people of color and women. However, it fails to support the integration of STEM fields that has been embraced by educational leaders in 44 states, gives too little support for the unique contributions of afterschool and summer STEM learning experiences, misses the opportunity to call out existing examples of the efforts that exemplify the report’s recommendations, and perhaps most important, it does not address America’s system of educational funding that underlies the educational disparities between poor and wealthy communities.
Cary Sneider (email@example.com) is a visiting scholar at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.
citation: Sneider, C. 2021. Guest editorial: A critical review of the National Academies’ 2021 call to action. Connected Science Learning 3 (4). https://www.nsta.org/connected-science-learning/connected-science-learning-july-august-2021/guest-editorial-critical
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS). 2021. Call to action for science education: Building opportunity for the future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26152.
National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A Framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
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