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Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, Science | January 17, 2013

The Kids want to Learn about Ducks! Time to review the Next Generation Science Standards


Duckby Maren Johnson

You've never seen science standards like these before. There's a big change coming to science education in Washington state and in much of the rest of the country, and if you want to have a say in it, the time is now. The final public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards is now open for review and will close on January 29, so give those standards a glance! Read as much or as little of it as you want--all feedback welcome. With a strong integration of science and engineering practices with traditional science content, these new standards are challenging and thought provoking. Washington state is very likely to adopt these later this spring, possibly in March, so now's your chance to weigh in.

I've had a few different opportunities to discuss this draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): once in a charming rural cafe with a group composed mainly of local science teachers; once in an urban conference room with science education professionals who were primarily not teachers; and on Twitter at #NGSS and #NGSSchat--check out those hashtags!

So what did people have to say about these standards which are radically different from what we have now in both form and content?

Hey, are these standards telling us how to teach in addition to what to teach? One of the most significant changes in these new standards is that now each piece of science content is tied to a specific practice. With our current state standards, I teach about photosynthesis, but it is completely up to me whether I approach photosynthesis in my classroom through inquiry, a systems model, or an application. In contrast, the photosynthesis performance expectation in the Next Generation Science Standards states, "Develop a model to support explanations for how photosynthesis transforms light energy into stored chemical energy. HS-LS1-h." Yes, practices like carrying out investigations or analyzing data might work just as well for photosynthesis, but the NGSS have selected just one practice for each piece of content. The NGSS document carefully says that these intersections of practices and content "do not predetermine curriculum, they simply clarify the expectations of what students will know and be able to do." Basically, the teacher doesn't have to teach it that way, but the students need to know or be able to do it that way. A nuance, yes, but if the standards state a student needs to be able to develop a model relating to photosynthesis, then that does set some fairly clear expectations of curriculum.

All standards for all students. The Next Generation Science Standards make a "foundational commitment" that "all students are expected to accomplish all of the performance expectations." The high school section of the new science standards document is designed for three years. If three years of science become required, and the same set of standards which cover three years worth of high school must be taught to all students, then where does that leave science electives? In other words, what about student choice?

Voicing this concern over student choice, one teacher, on taking his first look at this draft, exclaimed, "But the students want to learn about ducks!" He said many of his students were interested in the detailed stories of the nature they saw around them--they wanted to know about the ducks, the trees, the local creek. He worried that natural history was being edged out.

It is often when students get to choose their own science classes and pursue their own interests that they become passionate life-long science learners. Is there enough leeway in the standards to allow for some of these specialized classes--for example, could the life science standards be taught with an emphasis in marine biology, biotechnology, or horticulture? Or are the number and nature of the standards such that creating alternative classes like that would be quite difficult? What do you think? Read the standards and weigh in.

A few of the performance expectations read like a guessing game: "Define a practical problem that can be solved through the development of a simple system that requires the periodic application of a force initiated by a feedback mechanism to maintain a stable state. MS-PS2-f." Ok, I give up. What is it I am supposed to be teaching here? The clarification statement provided a hint: "Examples include a weather vane or a wind sock at an airport." I admit I'm still a bit unclear. I provided some feedback, maybe you can too.


The Next Generation Science Standards format, with each page full of mixed red-and-black print, elicited this first impression from one reviewer: "Oh boy! Are there special 3-D glasses that help you decipher these?" All that red? Those are the clarification statements, which accompany each performance expectation but are often more than twice as long as the performance expectation itself. Color abounds: each standard has foundation boxes in blue, orange, and green--sometimes with varying visibility.3d-tv-without-glasses

There are some provocative assumptions in these new standards. For example: "The progressions in the NGSS automatically assume that previous material has been learned by the student. Choosing to omit content at any grade level or band will impact the success of the student toward understanding the core ideas and puts additional responsibilities on teachers later in the process." There are many reasons a student may not have learned some of the material at some point in time. If the material in these standards is such that prerequisite knowledge is required, then we need a stronger system to address this issue other than putting "additional responsibilities on teachers later in the process!"

These new standards may significantly reform science education in our state and many others. What do YOU think of all of this? Now is the chance to have your say.



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In theory, I am pleased with much of what the NGSS attempts to provide. With engineering, modeling, and investigation integrated into all areas, students should have a greater opportunity to experience "doing science." Elementary students have fewer units of study over the course of a year, allowing for more time and depth of learning.

I am glad to learn, however, that I am not the only teacher who found standards that are difficult to understand. Unfortunately, the "clarification statements" do not give me the level of clarification I need to understand what it is that students should do or know in order to meet the standard. As I recently told a colleague, "I understand all the words, they just don't seem to be communicating much when they get together."

For elementary grades, the curriculum has been pushed down significantly with students expected to know concepts and content far earlier than previously and I question whether it is developmentally appropriate. In Massachusetts, we've prided ourselves for rigorous standards but the elementary expectations of the NGSS may be overreaching.

I will be giving feedback via the survey and encourage others to do the same.

Man. It's just evidence that it's very, very difficult to explicity define what it is teachers do.

I like standards. The early years of my career were spent in the Lake Washington school district, which was years ahead of the game in writing up what students should master from K-12. It really does make alignment and curriculum decisions easier.

But now that we're attending a learning ballroom dance class, with instructors who seems unsure of whether kids really need to know the tango or the waltz, and they're trying to list out specific steps and skills, the whole standards thing is becoming a nightmare. About as much fun and about as useful as a list of descriptive steps for dancing instead of finding a good partner, turning on the music and getting out there.

I'd much rather the standards look like this: "by the end of 1st grade students should be able to X. Get them there." Then, teachers can be creative. They can design curriculum that fits their students' needs and interests.

The Common Core standards for reading are actually an improvement on our state standards (though I'll miss saying "eelers and glees," but those science standards look like a lab gone wrong.

The standards writing team is mainly composed of people with K-12 science expertise: The standards are based on a Science Framework which was mainly written by practicing scientists.

There has been a member of the Next Generation Science Standards writing team at several of the review sessions I have attended over the past year or so, and I have found this person to be interested in and responsive to feedback. In general, the standards have changed quite a bit since earlier drafts, so I would say that feedback provided will likely be seriously considered!

I wonder who wrote these standards?

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