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.