Why Do People Support The Next Generation Science Standards?

4515570008_4646a8cdc6_mI’ve been pretty hard on the Next Generation Science Standards. So if I’m right about their middling quality, why do they have such enthusiastic supporters?

Interestingly, NGSS defenders will often concede – e.g., here – that the proposed standards are not as clear as they should be. This is always puzzling to me, because clearly articulating desired learning outcomes is precisely the purpose of a standards document. Once you’ve conceded that the NGSS don’t do this well, you’ve essentially given away the game.

This paradox – supporting the standards while acknowledging their lack of clarity – suggests that many supporters of the NGSS actually want something else from the standards besides specifying learning goals. What might that “something else” be? I have two guesses.

NGSS Supporters Really Support Certain Kinds of Instruction

When discussing the NGSS, it is not unusual for supporters to bring up their enthusiasm for “project based learning” (PBL). See, for example, this post from the blog of the National Science Teachers Association.

Now, if you talk to people involved in the creation and implementation of the NGSS, they will go out of their way to assure you that the NGSS “are not meant to tell teachers how to teach”. At a recent NGSS public forum hosted by the California Science Teachers Association, some of these NGSS architects were present on a panel and multiple audience members independently broached the topic of PBL and expressed their optimism that there would be more of it under the new standards.

I asked only one question of the panel that evening – I didn’t want to cause too much trouble – and I remember it almost verbatim:

People involved in the creation of the Next Generation Science Standards are often at pains to say that the new standards aren’t intended to tell teachers how to teach. At the same time, I often hear supporters of the new standards – including some here tonight – state that the new standards really support project based learning, and the authors of the NGSS never seem to explicitly disagree with this. Is it fair to say that the NGSS as written implicitly endorse project-based learning?

One panel remember responded with what might have amounted to a wink and a nudge: “There’s nothing in the Next Generation Science Standards that explicitly endorses project-based learning, but they work well together.”

Certainly, many supporters seem to see agree, and this might explain why they are so enthusiastic about the standards even though the standards do not clearly lay out what it is that students should be expected to learn.1

NGSS Supporters Really Support Different Kinds of Assessments

Fans of the NGSS will often say – e.g., here – that the prominent inclusion of “scientific practices” in the standards document means that students will be increasingly expected to develop proficiency with those practices.

The problem with this line of thinking is that most (all?) existing state standards documents already include “scientific practices” standards. In California, for instance, they are called “Investigation and Experimentation” standards and the document is formatted very differently, but these are superficial differences; they are “practices” standards by a different name.

As I’ve said elsewhere: “If teachers are, in fact, underemphasizing scientific practices, this probably has more to do with how students are assessed than with how the standards are constructed.”

It may be that states that adopt the NGSS will also adopt new, “more rigorous” assessments that will encourage teachers to spend more time on scientific practices in the classroom. We’ve yet to see any such assessments and I struggle to imagine what they would look like, but they may be coming down the pike.

Still, why not abandon the highly disruptive adoption of the new, mediocre standards – which are at least as vague with their “practice” standards as they are with their “core idea” standards – and just skip straight to developing amazing new tests?

Remember: there’s nothing to prevent us from just tweaking our existing standards to incorporate new or different “scientific practices”, and we could likely do so with considerably greater clarity and specificity than is present in the NGSS.

Of course, many of the proponents of the Next Generation Science Standards may very well like the standards for what they say about what students are expected to know and be able to do. What’s striking, however, is how often defenses of the NGSS stray from the core purpose of a standards document and into areas like instruction and assessment.

Oftentimes the Next Generation Science Standards seem to be all things to all people. This should make us worry that they will do nothing well.

  1. Do the NGSS really encourage PBL? I’m not sure. If so, the primary mechanism would likely be this: The NGSS are both vague and narrower than many existing standards, which means that it will be harder to expect that students acquire a great deal of specific scientific knowledge. This, in turn, means that less efficient methods of instruction – like PBL – could become more tolerated, especially with lower-achieving populations of students. []
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  1. EB
    Posted August 27, 2013 at 1:51 PM | Permalink

    I think the answer is, “certain kinds of instruction.” And it’s discouraging that this indicates a willingness to abandon content in favor of “having them do science.” As you’ve stated in other posts, this approach is hardest on students who come in with less knowledge. Looks easier, but has bad outcomes. On my worst days, I think that constructivist teachers adopt that stance because it’s so much easier than trying to engage students in learning content.

    Just found your blog; it’s great, and also great to

    • EB
      Posted August 27, 2013 at 1:58 PM | Permalink

      (oops) . . . great to see that science teachers are divided on this issue (because most of what I hear is about teaching science as a process rather than a set of disciplines with content AND processes).

      • EB
        Posted August 27, 2013 at 10:00 PM | Permalink

        Although, as you note, maybe the reality is not as bad as the talk. Much depends on whether teachers have access to good curriculum and (yes, I said it) textbooks.

        • Posted August 27, 2013 at 11:44 PM | Permalink

          My guess is that what really matters for the magnitude of the NGSS problem is 1) what the assessments look like and 2) How schools and teachers are held accountable for results on them.

          It will also depend on the extent to which teachers are genuinely confused about how scientific thinking works. If they think you can “think scientifically” without knowing lots of science, there’s going to be a lot of weak instruction. On the other hand, in practice teachers may realize that to think like a scientist you have to be knowledgeable like a scientist, in which case instruction will change only a little.

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