Revising the NGSS

Andy and Penny have maintained this blog for more than two years, explaining why and how the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) need to be improved. In the process we’ve also published a wide variety of related material, including a curriculum unit to help students resist scientific misinformation, a free article in the Kappan called “Lessons learned from the pandemic about science education,” and another article through the National Science Education Leadership Association describing changes in science education policy, curriculum, and instruction needed if students are going to learn how to use science to make “fact-based decisions in everyday life” (see previous post). Also, an article for teachers discusses what it means to teach scientific literacy in the 21st century.

In this post we synthesize our earlier writings and sketch a set of desirable changes to the NGSS—which will undoubtedly be revised at some time, as all standards are. Whenever that happens people will want to keep the best ideas in the document and improve the rest. The question is: how can the NGSS be better? Below, we outline possible directions for change.

We are joined in this post by Professor John Rudolph, an expert on the history of science education (author of How We Teach Science: What’s Changed and Why it Matters), and by Rodger Bybee, a member of the Writing Leadership Team of the NGSS and formerly Executive Director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS).

Why revise the NGSS?

We agree with the National Association of Biology Teachers, which issued a Position Statement saying that excellent biology teachers “follow an integrated approach by incorporating other subjects, technology, society, and ethics.” Indeed, we believe that all science teachers need encouragement to teach in such a broad context. The National Science Teaching Association agrees, as they explain in a Position Statement focused on teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues, and our NSELA paper cites research showing the benefits of this approach, including greater interest from students. Although Appendix J of the NGSS makes clear that science and technology are embedded in society, far too little of that understanding is reflected in the main document, including the Performance Expectations (PEs).

Right now, the NGSS includes no history of science, no mention of a government scientific agency, and nothing about vaccines, immunizations, or public health. Our writings have documented additional gaps, too, including the absence of a requirement to teach students how to judge the reliability of the myriad sources of information about science and technology available outside of school, some of which disseminate harmful misinformation.

We realize that creating national or state science education standards involves dozens of people. Our efforts will not replace a robust, time-consuming process to air different opinions and reach a consensus. Nonetheless, we hope the suggestions prove useful.

Keeping the best of the NGSS

One of the most significant characteristics of the NGSS is its focus on three dimensions: disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts. Many states (Massachusetts is one) have incorporated only the first two of these and we would do the same. The seven crosscutting concepts (such as “patterns” and “cause and effect”) emerge naturally in a long-term study of science, so little is lost by eliminating that dimension. Also, we would rename “disciplinary core ideas” simply as “core ideas” because some essential ideas, like judging the quality of sources of information, are not associated with only one science and engineering discipline.

The NGSS also promotes discovery learning, as students develop their understanding of natural phenomena. This can be extremely useful, up to a point. However, students do not need to conduct investigations every day to learn science any more than people who want to become informed about music or art or baseball need to practice that activity every time they study it.

Moreover, asking teachers to focus almost exclusively on so many dimensions of science at once—phenomena, disciplinary core ideas, the practices, and crosscutting concepts—can seem like asking someone to rub their belly, pat their head, shake a leg, and pull their ear all at once. This rigid insistence by the NGSS on what makes science education “acceptable” poses an unnecessarily difficult barrier more than it helps teachers offer high-quality science instruction. A narrow definition of good instruction also limits teaching creative lessons that do not fit a rigid template. An example would be showing students, and then discussing, the award-winning movie Hidden Figures that tells the story of Black mathematicians at NASA who overcame bias based on race and gender to contribute to one of America’s great engineering accomplish­ments. Race, gender, bias, and STEM careers are not part of any of the three dimensions of the NGSS.

One way to continue to be faithful to the understanding of science expressed in the NGSS would be to ask teachers to focus on scientific phenomena, core ideas, and practices in every unit of instruction, while realizing that some lessons might look quite different than “doing science” or focusing on just one discipline. Making the standards less rigid would provide breathing space for creative teaching, such as exemplified in hundreds of articles published in science teacher journals that “color outside the lines” of the NGSS in one way or another.

We also appreciate that the two-hundred-plus PEs in the NGSS reflect a great deal of expert analysis and discussion. Even as the NGSS is revised, most of those expectations could remain as they are.

Keeping multiple aspects of the NGSS in the same or similar form—including the science and engineering practices and many of the PEs—would make successor standards easily recognizable. Key parts of the NGSS would continue to influence science and engineering instruction.

Finding space for new topics

It is remarkable that one cup of water can dissolve almost a pound of sugar without expanding in volume. One can picture the sugar molecules taking up space between the molecules of water. Similarly, we believe there is space in the NGSS to include certain topics without requiring more teaching time. One example is teaching students about government scientific agencies, like the EPA and the IPCC. Such instruction could easily be tied to existing lessons and could take minutes rather than hours. And the NGSS was intended to allow time to teach additional topics.

Nonetheless, in a revision of the NGSS some PEs should be eliminated to make space for new ones. An excellent example is HS-LS2-4, “Use mathematical representations to support claims for the cycling of matter and flow of energy among organisms in an ecosystem.” Typical high school graduates will never use this knowledge, even the minority who will pursue science-related careers (which are estimated to be about 7 percent of all high school students). Millions of citizens can, and already do, develop a more-than-adequate understanding of ecology without this Performance Expectation.

We would comb through the PEs for other examples of unnecessary topics or ideas and remove them. The NGSS is not supposed to describe advanced work; rather, it is supposed to describe basic requirements for all students, including the millions who will never receive an advanced degree. Is it really “basic” knowledge for all middle school students to “integrate qualitative scientific and technical information to support the claim that digitized signals are a more reliable way to encode and transmit information than analog signals” (MS-PS4-3)? We do not believe so.

New Performance Expectations

Perhaps a dozen of the existing PEs should be removed, which is roughly five percent of the total and just a few in any single year. We would then add perhaps two dozen new PEs with the understanding that many of them would require little additional teaching time.  

The reason to focus on PEs is because they define the basic set of expectations for what students should know and be able to do. Explanatory text can be helpful, certainly. But adding a few paragraphs to the hundreds of pages in the NGSS will not accomplish much if the PEs are not also revised.

Because this is a sketch and not a blueprint, we do not specify precisely what PEs to add. They might be chosen from multiple categories, as illustrated below.

The Nature of Science

  • Science is conducted by scientists who work in the context of their cultures and societies. A sample PE: “Describe an example illustrating that cultural norms and practices worked against women or minorities in science.”
  • The impact of science on society is often due to actions by government scientific agencies. A sample PE: “Identify the names and basic functions of key science-related government organizations, including the CDC, FDA, WHO, NIH, EPA, IPCC, NRC, NOAA, NASA, FAA, NSF, and USGS.”
  • Individual scientists may make critical discoveries; however, reaching scientific consensus involves many scientists. A sample PE: “Describe the role of scientific organizations such as the IPCC in helping scientists reach a consensus explaining important phenomena, in this case the primary cause of recent climate change.”
  • The history of science illustrates the difference between using evidence—a defining aspect of the nature of science—compared to asserting knowledge based on ideology. A sample PE: “Identify reasons why the Church rejected Galileo’s observation that moons revolved around the planet Jupiter, or why Soviet politicians supported Trofim Lysenko’s erroneous genetic theories, which led to thousands of unnecessary deaths.”
  • One pillar of science is linking claims, evidence, and reasoning. A sample PE: “Given a short text including a scientific claim and some pieces of evidence, describe the reasoning that links particular evidence to that claim.”

New Core Ideas

  • Science and technology have made and continue to make enormous contributions to public health. A sample PE: “Describe the role of vaccines in combating global pandemics.”
  • “Caveat emptor” applies not only to purchasing products but also to claims about science and technology that people see, hear, or read in media, so individuals need to judge those claims carefully. A sample PE: “Identify several ways to help determine whether a given claim is or is not supported by science.”
  • Using science in making decisions often involves weighing alternatives by examining strengths, weaknesses, costs, or ethics. A sample PE: “Identify advantages and disadvantages of combating climate change by imposing a carbon tax or carbon fee (e.g., as proposed in Washington State ballot initiatives).”  
  • Especially after they leave school, people often need to synthesize for themselves information about science and technology. A sample PE: “Given several sources of information about a scientific topic, such as the safety of vaping, produce a short oral or written synthesis and conclusion, using non-technical terms.”
  • Scientifically literate people continue to learn about science after they leave school. A sample PE: “Briefly summarize the main ideas in an article or TV program about science or technology.”

Conclusion

The revisions that we sketched above are modest in scope and would make a new NGSS easily recognizable to those already familiar with it. That means that science teachers would not experience major dislocations. Alternatively, national or state science education standards could be amended or supplemented in ways we sketched above rather than replaced entirely. What would be needed in either case is systemic change, including how instructional materials are selected, how teachers are trained, and what is on high-stakes science tests for students.

We believe that making these changes would bring more life to science classes and in the process yield many benefits. Just as adding yeast to bread dough requires only a tiny bit more mass but makes a big difference in the bread, similarly we expect that revising the NGSS would lead to significant improvements in students’ scientific literacy, not least making learning science for citizenship a goal as easy to see in the standards as preparation for college and careers.

– Andy Zucker, Penny Noyce, John Rudolph, Rodger Bybee

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