Blog: The Educated Reporter

Common Science Standards Quietly Gain Momentum

(Flickr/Woodley WonderWorks)

Although the Common Core State Standards have garnered significant attention nationwide, a set of common standards for science is gaining traction but far less public notice so far.

The Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, aim to engage students by encouraging them to explore, think like a scientist, and make connections between what is taught in the classroom and the outside world. The inter-relatedness of science concepts is also stressed, such as learning about ecosystems together with the plants and animals that inhabit them.

A key motivation for creating new science standards was to increase U.S. students’ competitiveness worldwide, said Brian Reiser, a professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University, during a panel discussion at an Education Writers Association seminar in Los Angeles last month.

Applying Knowledge

Like the Common Core standards, the new science standards – which have been adopted by 18 states and the District of Columbia so far – emphasize critical thinking, arguing from evidence, and learning important concepts in greater depth. In addition, the science standards were explicitly crafted to align with the Common Core.

While many educators and experts laud the standards for making science more engaging to students, some critics say they are watered down and fail to include important concepts that have been dropped to allow more time for scientific inquiry and investigations. In fact, the standards were handed a middling grade of C by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank that has been a staunch supporter of the Common Core.

Reiser is a member of the National Research Council’s Board on Science Education, which created a K-12 framework for science education that was the basis for the new standards.

“Our charge was: ‘What do we know about what works in science classrooms that isn’t widespread,’” Reiser said.

In addition, he said the board looked at widespread practices that were “getting in the way.”

The new standards were released in 2013 and will reach about 35 percent of the nation’s public-school students in states that have adopted them so far, Reiser said.

The adopting states are Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia, plus the District of Columbia. Hawaii was the most recent state to sign on, adopting the standards in February.

In U.S. schools, the typical science curriculum has been “a mile wide and an inch deep,” Reiser said.

“We try to teach way too much stuff – not in enough depth – and that turns out not to be very productive from a learning perspective,” Reiser said.

The new standards, he said, emphasize “the most important science ideas” and allow “kids to make sense of the world in a lot of different ways.” Teachers involve their students in “sense-making,” he said, instead of “just getting to the punch line of: ‘This is how a cell works.’”

Now, Reiser said, students are expected to apply their knowledge to deepen their understanding. For example, the new standards require students to develop and use a model to describe the function of a cell and explore why and how cells exist, instead of merely memorizing facts about them.

“We’re getting to the deeper levels of understanding,” Reiser said. “We know that just focusing on the memorization of different parts of the cell is not a very productive practice for learning.”

Content and Practices

Voicing opposition to the new standards was Paul Bruno, a former middle school science teacher and current doctoral student in education policy at the University of Southern California. Calling himself a “wet blanket in terms of NGSS,” Bruno admitted that he’s “in the minority” in raising concerns.

Bruno wrote several blog posts criticizing the standards following their completion in 2013, and wrote a letter to the California Department of Education urging that the state not adopt them. He also wrote about implementation issues in a 2013 commentary for EdSource.

At the EWA seminar, Bruno displayed the old and new standards in a PowerPoint presentation, pointing out that California’s former standards were reader-friendly. The new standards, he said, are presented in a complex chart that is “difficult to navigate and understand” and that de-emphasizes “factual content relative to scientific practices.”

Secondly, Bruno¸ said the new content is “vague,” with key facts omitted, whereas he said the former California standards were far more thorough. He highlighted the 2013 review by the Fordham Institute, which gave the prior California standards an A grade.

Third, Bruno said trying to teach “scientific thinking” can be “misguided” if students lack foundational science knowledge. Finally, Bruno cited research from 2006 that found so-called “authentic” inquiry-based activities often aren’t best for learning, if students are only given minimal guidance.

Thinking Scientifically

But Frederick Freking, a former high school science teacher who is now an associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California, refuted some of Bruno’s criticisms, saying science content is still key in the new standards.

“The Next Generation Science Standards work towards having kids do science to understand science,” Freking said. “Content and doing are both important. We need everyone in our population to think scientifically.”

Previously in California, he said, “inquiry skills” were separated from content. Integrating them allows students to investigate real-world phenomena through the “Five E Instructional Model” – engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate.

“We’re not going to develop future scientists if kids think science is just a lot of knowledge you have to remember,” Freking said.

States have not yet developed assessments for the new standards. Education Week reporter Liana Heitin, who moderated the panel, said the tests will likely raise the profile of the science standards and generate debate.

“I promise you, as soon as there are assessments attached, that controversy is coming,” Heitin said. “The backlash is coming. This is what happened with the Common Core.”