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Science  31 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5940, pp. 552-553
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_552

31 July 2009

Edited by Edward W. Lempinen


National Science Ed Standards—The Key to Improved Learning?

The importance of standards. In the Houston Chronicle, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner and Project 2061 Director Jo Ellen Roseman wrote that voluntary national science standards promise economic dividends.

With concern about U.S. science education extending from corporate boardrooms and top research centers to local school districts, a bipartisan coalition of political leaders has moved in recent months to provide new school funding and support for teachers. Now momentum is building behind a proposal that many advocates see as a natural next step: voluntary national science education standards for students in elementary and high schools.

Long a pioneer in innovative science education, AAAS has taken a high-profile role in devising and assessing standards—and, most recently, in supporting voluntary national standards. Top AAAS officials have advanced the argument in scholarly journals and newspaper commentaries and have urged President Barack Obama to embrace standards that define a baseline of science knowledge expected of students.

Shirley Malcom

"The base of those who believe that we have to move to national science education standards definitely has grown broader," said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. "There's a recognition that for life and work in the 21st century, students have to have a higher level of science knowledge and understanding."

The quality of U.S. science education has been a persistent concern over the past half-century. In 1983, the seminal study "A Nation at Risk" warned of shortcomings in science and math education. A major 2007 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, described improvements in science and math education as critical to economic strength and national security.

AAAS's Project 2061 science literacy initiative laid the groundwork for the science standards movement with its landmark 1989 report Science for All Americans, which described a coherent set of ideas in science, mathematics, and technology that all high school graduates should know, and its 1993 Benchmarks for Science Literacy, which set out detailed K–12 learning goals that could be used by educators to develop a core curriculum. In 1996, the U.S. National Research Council published the National Science Education Standards, the result of 4 years of work by 22 science and science education groups, including AAAS, and over 18,000 contributors.

State educators drew heavily from those guides as they developed their own standards, but the results have been mixed, at best.

The most recent national scorecard on science performance found that 34% of American 4th graders and 43% of 8th graders scored below basic achievement levels. On the 2007 Programme for International Student Assessment, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 21st among students in 30 developed nations, just behind Iceland and just ahead of the Slovak Republic.

Jo Ellen Roseman

Such scores suggest that "the majority of U.S. students are destined to graduate from high school without even a basic understanding of core concepts and skills in science," Project 2061 Director Jo Ellen Roseman and Communications Director Mary Koppal wrote in an analysis last November in The Elementary School Journal.

While inconsistent state standards have "resulted in curriculum frameworks and textbooks that are unfocused and ineffective," they said, national standards could focus and strengthen those materials—and help improve student learning.

The National Science Board (NSB), which oversees the U.S. National Science Foundation, came to a similar conclusion. The NSB drafted a broad framework for improving science education that was sent to Obama's transition team in January.

The new administration, it said, "should lead the process of articulating the core concepts and skills that all students should master." State and local educators could then adapt curricula to local needs, while the federal government helps develop assessments to measure students' progress.

Obama has been a strong proponent of improved science education, but the effort also has attracted bipartisan support in Congress and beyond.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers last month announced an effort—involving 49 U.S. states and territories—to create common K–12 standards in English and mathematics. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pledged $350 million "to support states in the creation of rigorous assessments linked to the internationally benchmarked common standards." Some see another opportunity to advance national standards in the No Child Left Behind Act, which is due for reauthorization later this year.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Chris Dodd (D–CT) and U.S. Representative Vernon Ehlers (R—MI) reintroduced their Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for All Kids (SPEAK) Act to encourage states to adopt national science standards.

The plan offered by the governors and state school officers did not include science, but in a commentary first published in the Houston Chronicle, Roseman and AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner cited it as a signal of hope for addressing the general confusion among state standards. And the SPEAK Act, they said, "suggests an effective template for establishing science-education guidelines."

Their conclusion: "Voluntary, nationwide education standards in science, along with reading and math, are the next logical step [in education reform], promising dividends for tomorrow's workforce and for our economy."

Versions of the op-ed were subsequently published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Greenville News in South Carolina, and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska. Each of those states, likeTexas, declined to sign on to the common standards effort developed by the governors and school officers.


AAAS HQ Goes Green, Earns Gold Award

Going green. Innovative projects in energy efficiency and recycling have made the AAAS headquarters a model for the green building movement.

An intensive, multiyear effort to make AAAS headquarters more energy efficient and environmentally friendly has earned the building honors from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The headquarters is the first building in Washington, D.C. to earn gold-level certification in the existing building category through the Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental (LEED®) program. AAAS has also received the Council's Award of Excellence for Operations & Management for an existing building.

The award reflects the association's response to some of "the most important challenges of our time, including global climate change and dependence on nonsustainable and expensive sources of energy," said Rick Fedrizzi, the Council's president, CEO and founding chair. "The importance of retrofitting existing buildings, and the work of innovative projects such as the AAAS headquarters facility, is a fundamental driving force in the green building movement."

In pursuit of an environmentally sensitive workplace, the headquarters has reduced daily water consumption by 39% since 2007, recycled nearly half of all its solid waste in 2008, and now meets 50% of its energy needs using renewable sources such as wind power, according to Robert Zayas, the AAAS building manager.

"The AAAS mission is to advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people," said AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science. "We are therefore extremely proud and honored to be able to demonstrate environmental leadership within our headquarters' facility."

The LEED program provides an internationally recognized, independent verification of a building's performance with regard to energy savings, water efficiency, carbon emission reduction, and other measures of environmental impact. Buildings can score up to 110 LEED points in these categories; buildings that score 60 or more points receive gold-level certification.

Along with improvements in recycling and water usage, AAAS has significantly decreased its carbon footprint and energy use. Operations at AAAS now release much less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—1518 fewer tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year as of 2008—compared with the industry standard for a similar building, according to data available through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program.

As of 2008, the headquarters was using about 96,000 British Thermal Units of energy per square foot (BTU/SF) per year, said Zayas, compared to the industry standard of 162,000 BTU/SF for similar buildings.

Unique architectural features such as ribbons of extra windows, a pair of 10-story notches that cut vertically into the building, and an extensive system of sensors all help to reduce artificial lighting requirements in the AAAS facility.

"AAAS management believes that when occupants and tenants have access to natural daylight and views to the exterior, they may be able to work more comfortably and efficiently," Zayas noted. "We estimate that 90% of all regularly occupied spaces in the building have a direct line-of-sight to the outdoors."

Built in 1996 from a design by noted architect Henry N. Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the headquarters building has received several awards for its design and management. In 2007, AAAS became an Energy Star recipient, an honor recognizing outstanding contributions in energy efficiency from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, the headquarters facility was named "Building of the Year" in 1998 and "Corporate Building of the Year" in 1999 by the Apartment and Office Buildings Association.

The new honors reflect an "ongoing commitment" to environmental stewardship at AAAS, said Phillip Blair, the association's chief financial officer. He called the LEED gold certification "a great tribute to our Board and to staff members who have worked so hard to maintain an environmentally responsible facility."

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