Don’t like the NGSS? Here’s what you do.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have recently gotten a somewhat mediocre grade from the Thomas Fordham Institute. Fordham and others have several criticisms, but the primary one revolves around the weighting of “science content” versus “science practices” in the language of the standards.

As fascinating as these kinds of arguments can be, ultimately I am most interested in improving the quality of science education for all students. Science standards alone, while important, are a fairly indirect means to this end. There are other possible ways to write good science standards than the NGSS. And adopting any specific set of standards is less important than using standards that take into account our best understanding of what should be a part of a K-12 science education.

So, if you’d like to develop your own standards, here are some criteria (not intended to be inclusive of all important concerns):

1. Your standards should be based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education. All students should have the advantage of a science education focusing on what leading scientists and science educators have agreed is most important to know and understand, rather than the current “mile wide and inch deep” list of topics found in many science standards. The Framework lays out what should be studied quite nicely, and even Fordham seems to agree with this (full points for “content and rigor” and a B+ grade overall, for those who believe in their grading methodology). So use the Framework as the basis for what should be in your standards.

2. Following from the first point, your standards should require students to understand the core ideas in the K-12 Framework as well as be able to use the science and engineering practices in the Framework in the context of those core ideas. Arguments about the balance of content versus practices aside, I don’t think anyone is arguing that either of these are unimportant for students.

3. Following from the first point, your standards should require students to be able to recognize and apply the cross-cutting concepts outlined in the Framework.

4. Your standards should require deeper understanding/critical thinking/greater depth of knowledge/whatever you prefer to call it. Although facts such as that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas are important, we are not attempting to educate students who only know facts. For example, we want to get students to the point where they are able to analyze data showing carbon dioxide levels and global temperature trends, and not be misled by arguments about how temperatures haven’t increased for the last ten years. This is difficult, and discipline-specific. But however you choose to organize and blend practices, core ideas, and cross-cutting concepts in your standards, the eventual aim needs to be applying understanding to actual scientific problems.

5. Of course, the usual concerns about clarity, correctness, and appropriate sequencing apply as well.

The Next Generation Science Standards are currently the only set of standards which meet these criteria, and I’d argue that they are quite strong. So it makes good sense to adopt them, but they certainly are not perfect or the only possible way to lay out a set of up-to-date student expectations in science.

On the other hand, Fordham recommends adopting standards that pre-date the Framework for K-12 Science Education, such as those currently in use in California and South Carolina. Unfortunately, using these existing standards would mean depriving students of our best understanding of what science education should be. Even if you don’t like the wording or arrangement of the NGSS, we should not throw out the last 20 years of science education research and settle for less.

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4 Responses to Don’t like the NGSS? Here’s what you do.

  1. Doug says:

    I’ve tried reading the Framework as well as the new standards. It’s a lot–way too much to digest. What in your view is the single most important difference between them and e.g. the California standards? You alluded to 20 years of research in science education. In your view, what’s the single most important take-away from this research?

    • Hi Doug,

      There is certainly a lot of information to absorb! Your questions are really interesting- I’ll take a stab at them here but they probably deserve their own post at some point.

      The summary of the Framework briefly lays out the implications of the recent research in science education. The three main conclusions are:

      1. focus on a limited number of ideas and concepts
      2. have students build on their knowledge over multiple years
      3. integrate knowledge, skills, and practices

      So to answer your questions, the last one is the biggest difference between the NGSS and most existing standards (although in the case of California, limiting the number of concepts taught will also be a major difference). I think it’s also the biggest takeway, because the first two aren’t too difficult to understand and mostly focus our efforts a bit more. But the idea of “practices” is fairly different from the old “inquiry” approach, which unfortunately often tended to result in students performing interesting activites that required little conceptual understanding or deep thinking about the content. Students also need to perform these practices in the context of each core idea, since these kinds of skills seem not to transfer very well to new contexts. In other words, students need experience in a practice like “analyzing and interpreting data” frequently and in the context of data related to many different core concepts over the course of each year.

  2. Doug says:

    Here’s a question I’ve wondered about–not sure if it interests you equally, but I’d love to find an answer. A few years ago I discovered the Project 2061 Benchmarks and found them very sound. I’ve wondered: in what way are the NGSS different from those? Why was the NGSS created, and not the Benchmarks used–was it not the intention of Project 2061’s Benchmarks to serve as a national set of standards? Were they deemed defective in some way?

    • I am a big fan of the Benchmarks as well, and I think there’s still a lot of good information in there. I do know that the NGSS build on both the Benchmarks and the National Science Education Standards, but also take into account the significant research on science education that has taken place since those previous sets of standards were released. See for example Taking Science to School or Ready, Set, Science.

      I think there are two major areas where the NGSS improve on the older Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. The first is that they help spell out what “inquiry” means in terms of what students should be able to do at the end of instruction, where previously “inquiry” tended to devolve into activities without much academic rigor. In addition, states tended to split off inquiry standards or science practices from content standards, which can lead to the impression that the practices aren’t important in all areas of science. The second is that the NGSS really narrows down the scope of science content, focusing on really understanding the most important concepts over covering many different concepts.

      Finally, I think there was always some confusion with two sets of “national” standards documents, so having a single NGSS document helps avoid any issues due to discrepancies between the two previous sets.

      Hopefully someone more familiar with the Project 2061 Benchmarks and NGSS might chime in, in case I missed something.

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