8 Quick Points About NGSS Criticism

149779887_59834befbd_nIt’s all too rare that supporters of the Next Generation Science Standards get into the specifics of the proposed standards’ merits and weaknesses, so I appreciate Adam Percival‘s attempt to do so.  In his view the Fordham evaluation – which gave the NGSS a middling grade of ‘C’ – makes a number of mistakes that render its conclusions invalid.

His arguments aren’t quite right, but they’re common enough to be worth addressing, at least briefly.

1) It’s simply not true that the Fordham evaluation criteria focus “solely on content knowledge”. This is admittedly somewhat unclear from the NGSS report, but they are part of Fordham’s criteria. (This is more apparent in the State of the State Standards report from 2012.) The writers at Fordham explicitly acknowledge the importance of both knowledge and practices; it is inaccurate to suggest otherwise. This is a large part of the reason philosophers of science were brought on in the first place.

2)  The Fordham report does claim that the NGSS give scientific practices “undue prominence”, but that is a claim that they support – at some length – with detailed arguments. As they demonstrate, the NGSS fail to articulate the content necessary to successfully execute the specified practices; that is an error that only really makes sense if the NGSS are, in fact, underestimating the importance of content. This underestimation may be intentional or it may be inadvertent, but the report provides no shortage of evidence that it is real.

3) It’s not clear what is “outdated” about “breaking off ‘inquiry’ (practices) into separate sections of standards”, as many states do. The NGSS do the same thing. Admittedly, in the NGSS “practices” box is quite near the “core ideas” box, but this is a superficial difference. What sets practices apart from knowledge is precisely that the former are supposed to be applicable across a whole range of content. Tying the practices and core ideas together arbitrarily – as the NGSS do with their “performance standards” – is a superficial change that, if anything, robs the practices of their generality. Framing the issue as one of “modernity” mostly just serves to obscure the substantive issues about the content of the standards.

4) It is possible that some existing content standards are vastly too “broad”. I’m not sure why some people think that, but in the absence of evidence to that effect we should be suspicious primarily that the NGSS are so narrow.

5) We should also be suspicious of the idea of “deeper learning” unless it is clearly articulated what such “deeper learning” will consist of in the absence of additional content. The fact that the NGSS have cut out a lot of content does not mean that they are likely to promote deeper learning. “Teachers will have more time to spend on X” is not an adequate answer; it is not obvious that X requires additional time and in any case the NGSS do not spell out what a “deeper understanding of X” consists in.

6) The Fordham critique – and mine – rests only partially on the extreme narrowing of the curriculum by omitting science content. It is also about the fact that the NGSS omit the content at the earlier grade levels only to assume in later grades that it will have been covered anyway. This is probably a natural consequence of omitting so much content, but it is in its own way a separate problem. As far as I can tell, NGSS defenders have entirely ignored it.

7) NGSS defenders routinely link to this report to support the proposed standards, but it’s unclear why. The authors are quite clear about the fact that skills of the sort emphasized by the NGSS do not generally transfer across contexts, and that such skills are best taught in context (i.e., in conjunction with specific content). This is not in conflict with the Fordham critique, nor is it an argument for paring down the contexts in which students will be exposed to those skills.

8) It’s true that many luminaries are fans of the standards, and that they are at least moderately popular among science educators (although I’m curious how many have actually read them). As long as critics – particularly informed, knowledgeable critics – are being specific in their criticisms, however, it is a dodge to use appeals to authority to avoid their arguments.

I do not think I have yet heard a defense of the NGSS that doesn’t rest almost entirely on these issues. Unfortunately, they are based primarily on some combination of misunderstandings about the research literature and misunderstandings of Fordham-style criticisms.

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