NGSS priorities matter

It matters which topics the Next Generation Science Standards say are important, for many reasons. The NGSS affects what is written in textbooks, how textbooks are judged and purchased, what questions are asked on national, state and district science tests, and much more.

In response to the COVID-19 emergency, surely many students are now learning about the CDC, immunizations, how the science of epidemiology influences public policy, ways to find sources of reliable information online, the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, and other related topics.  However, it’s a safe bet that until the current pandemic hit the U.S. only a small minority of science teachers focused on those topics—because none of them is included in the NGSS.

The NGSS also has a real, less direct influence on research about science education. Most science education researchers focus on topics widely considered important. One result is that we have little data about teaching and learning topics the NGSS does not include. A nationally representative sample survey of science teachers tells us, for example, that 70 percent of high school biology teachers feel “very well prepared” to teach genetics, and the same survey provides similar data for nearly two dozen other disciplinary content areas. *

In contrast, there are no reliable national data about how often science teachers connect lessons to societal or personal issues, or about how well prepared science teachers believe they are to teach using those perspectives. One expert on the use of SSI in schools, Professor Troy Sadler at the U. of North Carolina, emailed recently that conducting a sample survey of teachers asking about teaching SSI “would be useful, but to my knowledge no one has done it.”

That is not because no one cares about focusing on societal or personal issues. In fact, as we reported in an earlier post, Cary Sneider, one of the architects of the NGSS, regrets that the links among engineering, technology, science and society—which were part of the Framework for K-12 Science Education on which the NGSS was based—were not included in the standards. He hopes that this significant omission will someday be remedied, as do we.

In fact, there are many excellent instructional materials available to science teachers that focus on the intersection of science with public policy or personal choices, topics that are sometimes known as Socio-Scientific Issues, or SSI. As an example, in 2014 the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) published It’s Debatable: Using Socioscientific Issues to Develop Scientific Literacy. One set of lessons, especially appropriate for biology classes, is called A Fair Shot? Should Gardasil vaccines be mandatory for all 11-17-year-olds?  Another set of lessons asks students whether schools should charge a “tax” to discourage young people from eating unhealthy foods. Besides these, there are countless other SSI topics that could be taught in elementary and secondary schools, and many lesson plans exist.

But are science teachers prepared to teach SSI? Getting science teachers ready to teach those topics means preparing them to handle questions related to ethics and civics, not just science. They must be willing to discuss controversial issues, manage class discussions in which divergent opinions are expressed, and help students use evidence to reason with science and not only about science. Teacher preparation programs are less likely to focus attention on such matters if, in effect, the NGSS says those teacher skills and dispositions are not very important. We simply don’t know how many science teachers are well prepared to teach science in the context of personal and societal issues. Nor do we know what constraints they face with SSI, such as feeling time pressure to “cover” topics in the standards, or the need to prepare students for high-stakes tests.

Connecting science to personal and societal issues (SSI) is only one of the important priorities we identified as missing in the NGSS. However, thinking about the “missing data” related to teaching SSI in schools provides an example of science education research that would be useful to improve teaching and learning, and even more useful if the NGSS prioritized SSI.

*  Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Malzahn, K. A., Plumley, C. L., Gordon, E. M., & Hayes, M. L. (2018). Report of the 2018 NSSME+. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.


Preparing students for college and careers

The NGSS introduction states that its “content is focused on preparing students for college and careers” (p. xiii). Perhaps it is not surprising that even someone familiar with the NGSS may never have focused on that part of the standards; after all, the standards are 324 pages long, with another 170 pages of appendices.

Nonetheless, it is clear that authors of the NGSS were aware of the focus of their work. As we wrote in our last post, one of the NGSS Performance Expectations is that all students should be able to “use mathematical representations to support claims for the cycling of matter and flow of energy among organisms in an ecosystem.” A typical American will never use that knowledge, nor is it necessary to use mathematics to understand the most important aspects of ecosystems. We can only assume that the NGSS includes this performance expectation, and various others, because the authors, who were mainly disciplinary specialists, were aiming at preparing students for college and careers.

As we wrote in our last post, authors of the NGSS were not thinking primarily of students as future citizens concerned about science in the context of societal and personal concerns. Earlier science education standards included those focal points; however, the people who created the NGSS made a conscious decision not to. Indeed, as an earlier post indicates, one of the key writers for the NGSS now regrets that the connections between science, technology, and society were left on the cutting room floor, as the expression goes.

Only about a third of Americans over the age of 25 hold a four-year college degree, and even today graduating from college is not the norm. In 2015 fewer than half of adults ages 25-34 had earned an associate’s degree or more. Indeed, only 85 percent of students even graduate high school. And of course the majority of students will not need a specialists’ knowledge of science or technology, such as acquired in college, for their future jobs.

Yet all students will benefit from applying their understanding of science to decisions in their later lives (e.g., about health care for themselves and others). Similarly, students will apply science to decisions they make as citizens (e.g., deciding whether to support candidates who don’t accept mainstream scientific findings, or voting whether to approve state or regional carbon fees).

Preparing students for college and careers is a reasonable goal, up to a point. However, we don’t believe it should be the exclusive goal of national science education standards at the expense of other priorities, such as teaching science in the context of societal and personal concerns.

Will required state tests, or national exams like the SAT, focus on students’ science knowledge and skills as related to societal and personal concerns? Will students be expected to demonstrate that they can distinguish between more or less reliable sources of scientific information? These are examples of performance expectations that are not priorities under the NGSS as it is now written. That concerns us, and we hope it concerns you.


The NGSS as assessment standards

Several people have pointed out that at its heart the NGSS is a set of Performance Expectations (PEs) for students. In other words, the NGSS is intended to identify what students should know and be able to do in science by the time they reach particular grade levels. The theory behind this approach is that states adopting the NGSS will assess students using these performance expectations (which include all three dimensions: disciplinary core ideas, scientific practices, and cross-cutting concepts).

Teachers are free to add to what is in the NGSS. In fact, because these standards are intended for all students, some students’ learning surely will go beyond the standards. For example, students in Advanced Placement classes, who are likely to attend college, are expected to learn more science than what is included in the NGSS.

Architects of the NGSS adopted this approach in part to satisfy teachers who were saying or thinking, “Just tell us what the test will cover and I will teach my students accordingly.” At the same time, designers of the standards wanted to keep the total set of expectations to a realistic size. In other words, they developed the NGSS as a floor or a minimum, not a ceiling.

This is all understandable, yet it begs the question whether the set of minimum expectations that comprise the NGSS is an appropriate set. If we assume that many school systems are hard pressed to teach their students everything in the NGSS—something we have also heard from well informed people—then it seems likely that for many students the totality of what they learn in science will be dictated by what is in the NGSS.

Is it really sensible that students studying in science classes aligned with the NGSS could graduate high school without discussing the relation between science and public policy (e.g., food and water safety, pharmaceutical testing, or regulating nuclear energy)? Or without even knowing the names and functions of key government science agencies like the FDA, the CDC, or the IPCC? Does it make sense that the NGSS does not encourage teachers to prioritize societal and personal concerns related to science—including science-based issues like smoking, vaping, immunizing children, and the quality of supposedly “scientific” information in advertising and social media? These are examples of goals or expectations missing in the NGSS.

In contrast, the NGSS expects all students to be able to “evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning behind the idea that electromagnetic radiation can be described either by a wave model or a particle model, and that for some situations one model is more useful than the other.” Also, according to the NGSS all students should be able to “use mathematical representations to support claims for the cycling of matter and flow of energy among organisms in an ecosystem.

Think about these priorities the next time you are on a bus or subway or in some other place with dozens of people representing a broad slice of the American population. Are the NGSS expectations what you think is the most important science for every adult to know? Are these the right expectations for all students?