Should states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards?

Paul Bruno has written an interesting piece arguing that California should not adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). While I think he raises some interesting points, even for states with relatively strong existing science standards there are good reasons to adopt the NGSS.

Paul argues that California’s current state standards are among the strongest science standards currently in use in the US, which I would agree with. He also takes issue with the clarity of the NGSS, which I would also agree with. The NGSS are probably less clear than the current California standards in some areas, especially when it comes to what classroom teachers should be teaching on a day-to-day basis.

However, the claim that the NGSS are attempting to draw clear distinctions between the core ideas, cross-cutting concepts, and science and engineering practices is actually counter to the intent of the NGSS and the K-12 Framework on which they are based. The goal of the NGSS is to encourage an understanding of science that recognizes the interdependence of these aspects of science. The format of the current California standards doesn’t emphasize this in the same way, just like nearly all current state standards do not.

Moreover, the K-12 Framework and NGSS are based on a significant amount of research conducted by the NRC and others into how science is best learned, and our best understanding of the most critical scientific concepts and at what grade levels these should be introduced. Without adopting the NGSS, California would need to independently revise its current standards to account for what we’ve learned about science instruction since the National Science Education Standards and Benchmarks for Science Literacy were drafted.

The integration of the NGSS with the Common Core standards for ELA and Math that California has already adopted is another strong argument for adoption of the NGSS over leaving the current standards in place.

Because the NGSS are not as accessible to classroom teachers as previous sets of science standards, there will be some considerable work needed to help with this transition. But leaving current state standards in place would probably be a mistake in California, and would definitely be a mistake in the many states with much weaker science standards.

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3 Responses to Should states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards?

  1. Thanks for the response. A couple of quick points.

    1. I would describe the NRC Framework as “somewhat incoherent” on the relationship between the 3 dimensions. On the one hand, it acknowledges that they are interdependent. On the other hand, they seem to me to studiously avoid stating the crucial point – elaborated on elsewhere by the NRC itself – that skills (and probably crosscutting concepts) seem not to be teachable in a way that is significantly context-independent. In other words, in my view the NRC both acknowledges the interdependence and understates it.

    2. Also re: the NRC Framework, to be frank I think it involves a lot of over-interpretation of murky evidence and research. I didn’t want to get in to this in an op-ed that was originally supposed to have a 750-word limit, but I’m just not as impressed by the Framework as many people are.

    3. Being “less clear” is a pretty big deal for content standards. Existing CA standards are not perfectly clear by any means, but the NGSS are considerably less so, and clarity should probably be considered the major criterion in quality standards.

    4. I think it wouldn’t be too hard to just revise CA’s existing standards to get most of the benefits of the NGSS, and this would allow us to avoid the NGSS’ other weaknesses.

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comments!

      Re: #1, I think you are touching on a very interesting question, which is that if you take it as a given that practices, core ideas, and cross-cutting concepts are all important for science education and that they are interdependent in many ways, how exactly do you structure curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment to reach those goals? If someone has the answer, I haven’t seen it yet :).

      Re #2, I would love to hear more about your take on the shortcomings of the research behind the framework.

      Re #3, I agree. However, the existing CA standards (and basically all other state standards) aren’t trying to combine the three dimensions in the framework in any meaningful way, which makes clarity a much easier thing to achieve. So there is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison there. I’m hopeful that there will be guidance for teachers to help bridge that gap coming soon from Achieve and others (NSTA).

      Re #4, perhaps… if the NGSS isn’t your cup of tea, I’m much more of a fan of that idea than keeping existing state standards in place. CA is one of the few states that could probably pull it off, since the existing standards are pretty decent and that’s not the case in most states.

  2. #1 – The NRC has looked at trying to teach things like practices and cross-cutting concepts in such a way that they transfer from context to context and concluded that it’s not clear it’s possible at all, let alone practical. My short answer is, “teach as much content as possible, try to direct student attention to deeper (i.e., “cross-cutting”) concepts whenever possible.”

    #2 – My short answer is the central error of the NRC Framework is that it interprets evidence that “People are bad at X” to always mean “Therefore we need to isolate X – practically or conceptually – and spend more time teaching it to them.” This is a natural enough error to make because that strategy works in many cases, but it just doesn’t work when X is a context-dependent ability. Indeed, there’s not even really a coherent way to assess proficiency with that sort of general ability – people are good at it in some contexts and bad in others.

    #3 – CA standards don’t really deal with “cross-cutting concepts”, but I disagree that they don’t incorporate process/practice standards. I’d argue that the existing standards include fairly clear “investigation and experimentation” components that accomplish much the same thing as the “practices” in the NGSS, but with much greater clarity and specificity. Arguably those I&E standards should be expanded, but they’re there already. I’m not terribly impressed with worrying about “cross-cutting concepts” anyway since my take is that understanding a “cross-cutting concept” consists almost entirely in knowing a whole lot of diverse content and then abstracting away from it. I’d argue that understanding a “cross-cutting concept in general” is a not-very-useful-or-impressive accomplishment cognitively. I prefer the approach mentioned in #1, although I don’t object to briefly and concisely identifying those cross-cutting concepts separately.

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