My Letter To The State Board of Education Regarding NGSS Adoption And Implementation

Things have been a little hectic for me recently as summer vacation rapidly comes to a close and the new school year rapidly approaches, but I did set aside a little (I’d hoped) time today draft a letter to the California State Board of Education about the Next Generation Science Standards and the proposed middle school framework. The CSTA hosted a discussion forum locally last night that I attended. They recommended sending additional feedback directly to the Board and encouraged a couple of CC’s as well. (I’ve already gotten a couple of out-of-the-office automated replies, so now is maybe not the ideal time to be sending this out.) I’m copying the letter below.

To: California State Board of Education

CC: California Science Teachers Association & Phil Lafontaine

Subject: Feedback on NGSS Adoption And Implementation

Distinguished members of the California State Board of Education –

I am a middle school science teacher currently working in Los Angeles, having recently relocated from Oakland.

I understand that California is well on its way to adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, and has even begun proposing grade-level content sequences, and this letter is to offer feedback about those efforts.

I wish to be clear at the outset that I strongly believe that California should not adopt the NGSS. I have laid out my arguments to that effect elsewhere, especially here:

In short, in their efforts to place a greater emphasis on “scientific practices”, the NGSS sacrifice the superior clarity, specificity, and rigor that we know is possible from existing state standards (like California’s).

Moreover, by narrowing the science content to which students will be exposed (and stating only vaguely what they will be exposed to), the NGSS likely undermine their own objectives. A clear finding in the research literature – including much of the literature cited by NGSS supporters – is that proficiency with scientific practices depends on factual content knowledge. The NGSS will therefore likely reduce – rather than expand – the extent to which students are able to “think like scientists” across contexts.

The most comprehensive analysis of the NGSS to date that I am aware of is the Fordham Institute’s report, and it reaches similar conclusions:

The NGSS are by no means terrible, but they are a substantial step down in quality from California’s existing standards. If California wishes to improve its science standards – a worthy goal – we would do better to modify our existing standards than to abandon them altogether. This would allow us to improve our standards while preserving their strengths and without imposing unnecessary costs, confusion, and challenges on our educators and education system.

If, however, California does proceed with NGSS adoption, implementation poses a large number of additional challenges. The organization of the NGSS into grade levels is one such challenge.

I recently attended a forum discussion on the Next Generation Science Standards at South Pasadena Middle School sponsored by the California Science Teachers Association. There we discussed the proposed “integrated” middle school science standards, which combine earth, life, and physical science standards in grades 6-8:

We were fortunate to have a panel of experts – including a number of participants involved in drafting the proposed progression – present to answer our questions.

Unfortunately, the rationales being offered for “integrating” the sciences across middle school are not persuasive. The current organization of the standards – in which the content at each grade level is organized more-or-less around a discipline (e.g., life science) has many virtues. The proposed integrated pacing sacrifices most of those strengths for little benefit.

Many teachers – perhaps most – have specialized to some degree or another in teaching particular scientific content. (In my case, life science and physical science. I have no experience teaching most earth science.) To the extent that teacher knowledge, experience, and expertise matter, it is unwise to shuffle the science disciplines across the grade levels, forcing teachers to teach content with which they are less familiar.

Additionally, many teachers have strong preferences for particular scientific disciplines. Those preferences are likely to align with the “traditional” discipline-based arrangement that we currently use in middle school. They are unlikely to align with the proposed, “integrated” arrangement, in which the content within each grade level is not organized by interrelatedness or similarity (except at an extremely abstract level).

These realities mean that integrated middle school content standards – such as those proposed – will frustrate teachers and limit their effectiveness. And to what end?

I have seen two broad rationales offered for the proposed integration. First, it is argued that the proposed arrangement “spirals” elegantly across the grade levels. Second, it is argued that the content within each grade level is unified by underlying (or overarching) “scientific practices” and “cross-cutting concepts”. Neither of these is persuasive.

First, it is true that in many cases the progression of the content across the grade levels is elegant. It makes sense, for example, for students to progress from cells to ecosystems to natural selection over the course of their middle school life science studies. Other arrangements may also be coherent and intuitive, but the proposed progression is a wise one.

What is doubtful is that that progression is best experienced intermittently over the course of three years rather than with a sustained focus on life science over a single year. In fact, to whatever extent the proposed progression makes sense over the middle school years, it makes more sense within a single year.

Separating the components of, say, life science by twelve months or more only makes it harder to draw connections between them. Realistically, drawing meaningful connections will require substantial review of previous years’ content, especially since students will not have sustained their study of the material for very long in the earlier grades as they bounced between the various “integrated” content areas.

The second defense of integrated middle school standards is the argument that connections are, in fact, possible between disparate content areas because while they lack content relatedness they are unified by crosscutting concepts and scientific practices.

This defense is similarly implausible. While the proposed integrated standards can be “connected” by concepts and practices, such connections are possible – in theory – between any scientific concepts. The beauty of these concepts and practices – such as the importance of notions of “cause and effect” in scientific reasoning – is precisely their generality; any arrangement of content will provide opportunities to illustrate them. Since the traditional progression – in which content is organized by discipline within each grade level – allows for illustrations of concepts and practices, there are no advantages to integration to justify its aforementioned costs.

In summary, then, my advice to the Board of Education is as follows:

1) Do not adopt the NGSS. Instead, begin the process of improving and building upon the high-quality standards we already have.

2) Do not “integrate” the disciplines across the middle school years. The “traditional” organization – with earth, life, and physical science studied in separate grades – should be maintained, with integration happening only where the content makes it most appropriate.

Thank you for your attention and consideration, and for your hard work in these and countless other matters.

Paul Bruno
Middle School Science Teacher


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  1. Posted August 9, 2013 at 10:50 PM | Permalink

    Good letter.

  2. Ttegtmeier
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 8:28 PM | Permalink

    We are trying the integrated model and it is working. I honestly had no idea it would – but the kids are really engaged so far. Our 8th grade teacher believe that they forget so much content from one year to the next that learning content like this wont matter as long as we teach them good thinking skills.

    Who knew – what not what I thought would happen.

    • Posted October 26, 2013 at 10:32 AM | Permalink

      I’m not at all surprised that some schools would have some success under an integrated model. I’m just skeptical such a model is better on average than the traditional model.

  3. Ttegtmeier
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 9:38 AM | Permalink

    My only concern is that it (the integrated model)will be voted down without trying it or using teacher centered/concerned reasoning and not student centered logic/reasoning.

    My concern initial concern (being a life science teacher) was it would not work because the students started cell in 6th grade and used it in 8th. The 8th grade teachers assured me that they forget much of the content anyway and science skills and thinking (and being interested) were most important. Then, I exhaled, and gave it a try – I heard “I love chemistry” from a 7th grader yesterday 🙂

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