Change is coming: The impact of the next generation science standards

The impact of the Next Generation Science Standards

08/21/2013  |  By REMY DOU
STEM Education
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For science teachers everywhere, change looms on the horizon. Inquiry-based learning strategies have begun to replace traditional lecture-driven courses, and more teachers see the benefit of student-led research projects. Academia now touts data corroborating the positive impact of these methods — the kind that involve students in genuine scientific practices — across K-12 science education. 

Many claim the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will bring about more changes like these for all students. Although arguably the most effective K-12 science standards currently in existence, their impact on the classroom cannot be accurately predicted because of the challenges that implementation creates.

For better or for worse, the U.S. Constitution’s silence on education effectively leaves its care under the auspices of state and local districts. For a variety of reasons, this sometimes causes financial and academic disparities between schools, districts and states. Yet, literature like Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat” and the National Research Council’s “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” serve as reminders that global economic competitiveness behooves this nation to ensure all children have the best possible education, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Several years ago, a movement sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers led the development of a much-celebrated set of standards in language arts and mathematics called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Although the standards could not be imposed on states by the federal government, most have voluntarily adopted the CCSS and begun the process of adjusting their curriculum to match the standards. A similar process birthed the NGSS, which many in education circles hope will be adopted across the country, as well.

To understand the NGSS, one has to grasp the spirit of the document that inspired them: “A Framework for K-12 Science Education” developed by the National Academy of Sciences. This document clearly and succinctly presents much of what education research has revealed about the ways children effectively learn science, and describes a structure by which implementation of these methods can occur. The report focuses heavily on structuring lessons to provide students self-directed, authentic experiences with the practice of science (e.g. gathering and analyzing data, building arguments from evidence, communicating research, and so on).

Additionally, the report highlights commonalities across scientific subject areas called “Crosscutting Concepts” and emphasizes the value of engineering practices. The framework document aims to change outdated ways of teaching science by highlighting what works, and outlining scientific skills and knowledge children should acquire by particular grade levels.

Since the framework document heavily influenced the NGSS, adoption and implementation of the standards could possibly alter the way some science teachers deliver content to their students. Students should see a greater focus on science practices, as opposed to passively memorizing science facts. Rather than absorbing fragments of disconnected content, students would apply coherent scientific knowledge that builds in complexity over time. More than consuming data, students will produce data.

Putting knowledge (i.e. “Core Ideas”) into practice, including engineering practices, partly makes up the essence of the NGSS. In fact, it’s worth noting that the NGSS are really a series of “Performance Expectations;” they specify what students should be able to do, rather than focus on listing everything a student should know. Gone will be the days of having students memorize the atomic numbers of every element on the periodic table, or the various phases of meiosis. Instead, students will dive deeper into subject matter to garner an authentic perspective of the scientific process.

Despite having support from various local and federal groups, challenges await the NGSS as with the CCSS. Adopting the standards could cost states and districts millions of dollars. Because the standards are not curricula, many states would have to develop curricula, as well as find ways to retrain teachers, plus purchase new books and materials. State assessments — another costly and controversial endeavor — would need transformation.

The National Academy of Sciences is currently working on a framework for appropriate assessments, but they face the challenge of finding cost-effective tools that truly evaluate students’ ability to practice science as opposed to students’ ability to memorize information. Furthermore, some states — like my home state of Florida — only recently overhauled their state curricula. These states might be less willing or able to spend millions on redoing the process. Unlike the Common Core State Standards, which the federal government de facto supported through Race to the Top grants, the NGSS have yet to leverage federal dollars for state and district implementation.

This movement has also overlooked a key player: the classroom teacher. Little has been done to solicit or secure teacher buy-in. It seems every month teachers are bombarded with new standards, criteria, and red tape they must navigate through. Although various educators comprised the writing team for the NGSS, including members of the National Science Teachers Association, teachers nationwide had little say in the development of the NGSS. Although its writers invited public comment on two occasions for a three-week window, the timing could not have been worse for teachers involved in midterm exams or end-of-year preparations. Just reading the document — over 100 pages long of magnifier-worthy text — could take weeks, assuming teachers omit the critical appendices.

The traditional ways educators teach science must change in order to graduate classes of knowledgeable students interested in science and prepared for related career pathways; that much is known. The NGSS aims to do just that. These standards give states an opportunity to overhaul lecture-driven, teacher-centered courses in favor of interactive classrooms where students take ownership of their learning through personal investments in the practice of science. Even though the standards have yet to be implemented, this kind of philosophical change has begun to occur in science courses across the country.

Nationwide implementation of the NGSS may find resolution with the development of low-cost, valid assessments that tend to secure the place of changing science standards in state policy. Yet, for now, the “Framework for K-12 Science Education” gives education professionals a beacon to follow toward more effective science teaching for their faculty and students. The accomplishment of the science education system should include students interested in science and prepared for careers through mastery of scientific thinking. By putting to practice the guidelines of the framework document and other reports like the freely accessible “Ready, Set, Science!” by the National Research Council, teachers and administrators can bring about these kinds of positive changes much sooner than the NGSS can be implemented.

Remy Dou is an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow serving at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, VA. He would like to thank Einstein Fellows Steve Ruthford and Rebecca Hite for helpful feedback on drafts of this article.
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