An important report from Stanford

Science Education in an Age of Misinformation is an important new report from Stanford University. We welcome this report, especially because the authors reached the same conclusion that we have, namely that national and state science education standards need to be revised in order to teach students to distinguish between real science and junk science. As the Stanford report notes, the cultural context is significantly different now than it was when the NGSS was developed and published, with misinformation playing a far greater and more harmful role than it once did.

Discussions leading to the report were led by Jonathan Osborne, an emeritus Professor of Science Education at Stanford, who was also the lead author. More than a dozen people contributed to the discussions and writing of the report, including Bruce Alberts, who currently holds the Chancellor’s Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. Professor Alberts is a former President of the National Academy of Sciences and a former Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine. It seems significant to us that Alberts, a pillar of the science community, recognizes that current science education standards need attention.

To the best of our knowledge, the work of the Stanford group and our own work were entirely independent. Certainly, we were unaware of their existence until last month. Nonetheless, there are a great many similarities in our concerns and recommendations. Among the overlaps are these: recognizing that educating students about misinformation and judging the quality of sources is vital; helping students develop a better understanding of how scientists reach consensus; developing “competent outsiders” who can make use of science; the need for greater digital literacy; reducing emphasis on teaching science that few students will ever use; and changing other elements of the education system associated with standards, such as high-stakes assessments.

We are encouraged by publication of this report and hope that it stimulates further discussion and, eventually, action to revise and improve science education standards. Our previous post offered specific suggestions for how and why the NGSS should be improved.

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.”


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

“A Response to the National Academies’ 2021 Call to Action

A few days ago Science Educator, a journal produced by the National Science Education Leadership Association (NSELA), published an article by me and Penny Noyce responding to the Call for Action for Science Education published last summer by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The topic of the article is teaching science for citizenship, and the abstract reads as follows:

The 2021 publication of Call to Action: Building Opportunity for the Future by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine offers an opportunity to consider re-balancing K-12 science education in the United States. Besides a strong and detailed appeal to provide a more equitable education, the document calls for science education to focus more purposefully on developing an “informed citizenry that makes fact-based decisions in everyday life.” An approach to science education that reaches beyond scientific theories, facts and methods to consider how science interacts with everyday and civic life, including personal, economic, and ethical concerns, has been called a Vision II approach. Benefits of such an approach are likely to include greater student engagement, practice in constructive group discourse, exercise of critical thinking skills, and strengthening of civic skills needed in a democracy. We suggest pertinent resources and outline the relatively modest changes in policy, curriculum and instruction required at the national, state, district and classroom level to create a more effective approach to teaching science for citizenship.

The Science Educator article cites more than a dozen studies documenting the benefits of teaching science in this broader context. For example, to “inoculate” students against scientific misinformation, which has become so ubiquitous, teachers need to teach media literacy skills that are not “science,” per se. Also, almost everyone realizes that greater knowledge of the intersection of civics and science is essential to preserve American democracy; even Science magazine published an editorial last year recommending “a new spirit of cooperation between the science and civics education communities.” 

This article includes an analysis of the Next Generation Science Standards, noting that,

The most significant component of the NGSS is its list of more than 200 Performance Expectations describing what students should know and be able to do at various grade levels. Those are the minimum expectations for students and the highest priorities for teachers. … They also set the boundaries of high-stakes testing.

Among these 200-plus Performance Expectations only a handful even hint at a broader view of scientific literacy, one that includes not only scientific findings, theories, and methods, but also personal, economic, and ethical concerns. In everyday life, decisions involving science are often made by non-scientists, who must consider a variety of perspectives beyond science. As the National Association of Biology Teachers has written in a Position Statement, excellent biology teachers “follow an integrated approach by incorporating other subjects, technology, society, and ethics.” All science teachers need to follow this advice if schools are going to develop “an informed citizenry that makes fact-based decisions in everyday life.” Teachers need to help students learn to learn about science even after they leave school and have no textbook to guide them.

There are innumerable science-related questions non-scientists need to answer, including politicians, city and town officials, and ordinary citizens. Who decides that COVID vaccines are safe, and how do I know they really are? Do vaccines cause autism? Will this advertised product really drain toxins from my body? Whose job was it to protect the public water supply in Flint, Michigan, and could that happen in my town? What are the pros and cons of buying a hybrid versus an electric car; how can I evaluate the advertisers’ claims; what am I willing to pay? Should I let my child play tackle football? Should I go to a tanning parlor before my beach vacation? How much should states and cities pay for clean energy and why, and should I support a particular ballot question about this?

The most important recommendation made in our article is that state and local policymakers explicitly set a high priority on teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues. Radical changes are not necessary. What is needed is a modest, feasible shift in priorities encouraged from the top down. Like adding yeast to bread dough, just a little bit can make a big difference in the result.

The full article is a NSELA members-only benefit. Check with your library or other science educators who may have access. You can also send an email to either Andy Zucker or Penny Noyce requesting a copy of the Science Educator article.


A Call to Action for Science Education

In early 2021 we received news that the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Science Education created a new ad-hoc committee whose purpose is to:

“author a national call to action to advance science education programs and instruction in K-12 and post-secondary institutions in ways that will prepare students to face the global challenges of the future both as engaged participants in society and as future STEM professionals.”

We have been concerned about the need to improve K-12 science education goals and standards for years, so the creation of this new committee, under the leadership of Margaret Honey, President and CEO of the New York Hall of Science, is welcome.

There is general agreement that the goal of elementary and secondary science education is for students to become scientifically literate. For students who do not become scientifically literate by the time they graduate high school, the chances are great that most never will. We agree with authors of A Framework for K-12 Science Education that scientific literacy for students is a broad concept that includes not only preparation for college and careers but also “sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues [and become] careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives” (quoted from page 1 of the Framework).

Similarly, the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) takes a broad view of scientific literacy, as does the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The latter group has written: Scientific literacy is defined as the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.

Unfortunately, authors of the Next Generation Science Standards chose to adopt a far narrower view of scientific literacy—as we have been writing about for more than a year. The goal of teaching students how to use science when they face science-related personal and societal issues is almost entirely missing from the NGSS.

With this background in mind, a month ago three of us provided input to the committee, intentionally keeping our comments brief. The committee requested that public comments identify “the two biggest challenges facing science education in the next decade” and suggest “the most important two messages to send to state and national policy makers.” Our memo responds to these requests, and is reproduced below.

We understand that the committee will consider many different opinions. However, the comment we submitted speaks for many individuals and groups, and represents an important point of view. Indeed, on April 8, as part of public testimony, and after our memo was submitted, committee staff reported that among the first 600 comments received by the committee one of the top concerns is promoting “science literacy, science for citizens, science for more than workforce preparation.” In other words, our concerns are widely shared. We hope the committee’s report reflects these concerns, and look forward to seeing the report whenever it is completed.

(Note: Our memo is reproduced below, and a two-page Adobe Acrobat copy of the memo is also available here.)


March 30, 2021

To:          Committee Members, NAS/BOSE Call to Action for Science Education
From:    Andy Zucker, Ed.D., Penny Noyce, M.D., & Cary Sneider, Ph.D.
Re:         Comments for members of the committee and the public

We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments to the committee. As science educators with decades of experience leading state and national projects, we have studied and written about improving K-12 science education, especially the role of science education standards. Dr. Zucker was the keynote speaker at the 125th annual meeting of the Science Teaching Association of New York State in 2020. Dr. Noyce is a past member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Dr. Sneider was a lead author of the Next Generation Science Standards. In 2020 Zucker and Noyce published a popular, free curriculum unit for science classes called Resisting Scientific Misinformation.

The challenges

What are the two biggest challenges that need to be addressed? Testimony for the committee on March 24 identified multiple priorities, making the committee’s task a tough balancing act. At the top of our list is this: Science education in schools should help students make decisions about science-related personal and societal issues. This goal is not widely recognized as a national or state priority, which is strange because there is great interest in civic education, which keeps growing. A second key challenge is students’ diminishing interest in science as they move through school. According to NAEP, for example, in 2015 fewer than 60% of American high school seniors enrolled in any science class, and half of those reported they enrolled only because they had to. Too many students lose interest in science as it is now taught.

Few people in the United States are scientists, yet all of us make choices about health and diet for ourselves and our families, and we all purchase products that claim, with variable accuracy, to be based on scientific research. American citizens vote for candidates and ballot initiatives, contribute to political campaigns, run for office, manage town meetings and legislatures, pass laws and issue regulations, and create spending priorities. Science education ought to help students think about issues, questions, and decisions that they face both now and in the future. This means decisions about college and careers but also decisions related to their personal and civic lives that can and should be informed by science. Because such decisions are rarely based entirely on science, students (who include future politicians and policymakers) need practice applying values and balancing costs, competing interests, benefits, and tradeoffs as they make decisions that have a scientific component. This kind of practice may help mitigate our society’s current tendency to polarize rigidly over complex issues. Students also need to learn how to guard against misinformation. Practice judging the quality of allegedly scientific information, through whatever media it may come, including advertising and social media, can help hone students’ ability to resist misinformation of all sorts. At present, schools provide students with little practice making judgments related to scientific issues.

Preparation for college and careers is the sole explicit goal of most science education, but one-third of all high school graduates never enroll in college, and many students will work in careers that have nothing to do with science or technology. Meanwhile, even many college graduates struggle to apply scientific thinking to personal or civic decisions. In our view, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) should be revised to strengthen preparation for daily life.

The NGSS has many strengths, including a focus on “scientific practices” as well as disciplinary core ideas (content), and placing a priority on teaching about climate change. Although the NGSS includes the idea that science, technology and engineering profoundly influence society and the environment, the authors did not include it as a core idea, a decision we lament. We believe this idea should be elevated, with a focus on such issues as public health and the role of science in government affairs. As examples of what is missing, we would like to see the NGSS prioritize teaching about public health, vaccines, immunity, the CDC, the FDA, the EPA, the IPCC, and how to judge the quality of sources of information about science. Since it is a model for most states, we recommend broadening the NGSS to more clearly connect science to one’s own life and to other people’s lives, which should be essential goals for all students, whether or not they eventually pursue a science career. We hope the report of your committee will include this recommendation.

Proposed messages to policymakers

We advocate that policymakers promptly and clearly identify preparing students for civic life as a major goal for science education, in addition to preparing students for college and careers. Massachusetts, one of the highest-performing states on NAEP’s science assessment, already does so. The Massachusetts Vision for STE Education identifies three important goals: civic participation, college preparation, and career readiness. The state’s STE Vision notes the importance of “leveraging multiple relevant societal contexts from STE,” and one of its Guiding Principle states that, “An STE curriculum that is carefully designed around engaging, relevant, real-world interdisciplinary questions increases student motivation, intellectual engagement, and sense making.”

Similarly, the National Science Teaching Association issued a three-page Position Statement in 2016 advocating teaching science “in the context of societal and personal issues.” The National Association of Biology Teachers believes that excellent biology teachers “follow an integrated approach by incorporating other subjects, technology, society, and ethics.” People are interested in themselves and others, as well as phenomena. In 2020 alone the three NSTA K-12 teacher journals published more than 50 articles about teaching science in societal or personal contexts. These articles were more popular than others, and received more than 12,000 views online. As one example, an excellent article in Science Scope describes a science unit for middle school students about the lead pollution problems in Flint, Michigan, which especially affected low-income families of color.

In short, teachers already know that teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues is important, despite the fact that the NGSS and most state science education standards do not make that clear. State tests, teacher professional development opportunities, and model lessons based on the NGSS or state equivalents also do not place a priority on teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues. They should. Eventually, the NGSS should be revised to include a focus on personal and societal contexts, although that seems unlikely to happen soon.

In the near term, we recommend that state and local policymakers prioritize teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues. The NGSS describes minimum expectations, and is not a curriculum. More science lessons can and should include personal and societal issues, and more states should adopt a broader vision for STE education.

Whether connected to the NGSS or not, it would be helpful to see an effort focusing on personal and societal issues that identifies what is important to teach, at what grade level. About half of adults in 2018 did not know that antibiotics won’t kill viruses. That topic would be straightforward to teach even in elementary schools, but is not in the standards. Similarly, it would not be hard to teach students in the middle grades what a number of science-related agencies like the CDC and the EPA do, and how they reach decisions. All students should have these opportunities.

Middle school is also an ideal time to begin teaching students healthy skepticism about statements made in popular media.  Such instruction makes a difference. E.g., in one experiment researchers found that explaining the flawed arguments used by climate change deniers “fully neutralized the polarizing effect of misinformation.” That calls for science instruction about how advertisers, and others, can try to mislead people—material that is easily available but is not included in the NGSS, per se.

It is more challenging, but also vital, to teach some science in personal and societal contexts in a way that considers costs, benefits, tradeoffs, and values. Which vaccinations should be required by law, for whom, and why? Should humans be cloned? What are the tradeoffs when buying an electric or hybrid car, or voting for a state ballot initiative about clean energy? There are dozens if not hundreds of relevant, tested lessons. We recommend that science teacher preparation programs include components that help more teachers manage class discussions about science-related issues with multiple right answers and multiple points of view consistent with scientific evidence.

Changing the emphasis of science education in this way will come naturally to some teachers, but not to others, which is why support for such changes is vital. Such support could come from national statements, state standards, teacher preparation programs, learning materials used in schools, encouragement of interdisciplinary and team teaching, and new reward structures for teachers, among others.  If the nation can successfully achieve this change of emphasis, students will be more interested in science than at present, and they will become more scientifically literate.

Why teach history of science?

The Science Teachers Association of New York State (STANYS) asked me to be keynote speaker at their 125th annual conference, which was an honor. The presentation primarily focused on five keys to teaching scientific literacy. This post is about one of them: teaching students some history of science. (The previous post identifies all five keys.)

The title of my 30-minute presentation was “Teaching for scientific literacy, in a pandemic.” (A recording is available online beginning at 17 minutes 20 seconds, and for those who want a quick overview, you can download a copy of the slides and an edited text version of the talk.)

When the Next Generation Science Standards was being developed, the National Science Teachers Association wrote that it was important “to make it clear that all students need to understand the nature of science and the history of science.” However, in the end history was barely mentioned in the NGSS, or in most state standards. Why does that matter? The answer is that knowing a little about the history of science helps students understand the nature of science and how science fits into society. Fortunately, teaching a little bit of history is easy because it takes hardly any time.

A timely example is that opposition to science based on religion, ideology, or simply asserting that something is true, without evidence (as many people in the White House have done during the pandemic), is a familiar and distressing phenomenon. In the early 1600s, when Galileo found evidence that heavenly bodies move around one another, the Church, which was incredibly powerful, ignored the evidence, called Galileo a heretic, and placed him under house arrest. He was courageous, and in the long term his ideas were accepted. In the short term, the Church was powerful and it set back humanity’s search for truth.

More recently, a twentieth-century agronomist named Trofim Lysenko rejected the theory of natural selection and other widely accepted ideas about genetics. Lysenko was utterly wrong but he was strongly supported by Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders. He set back Soviet agriculture by decades, and was responsible for thousands of unnecessary deaths. Some scientists were even executed simply for rejecting what Lysenko claimed to be true.

Thousands of unnecessary deaths were caused by relying on false “science.” That should sound familiar to anyone who has lived through the pandemic. Students should learn that scientists have been held back by ideologues before. Teaching students about Galileo and Lysenko, for example, can help inoculate young people against new false scientific claims made by powerful people. In the face of global climate change and a worldwide pandemic, the stakes of accepting settled science are higher than ever, and more students need to learn some history of science to become scientifically literate.

Several weeks after the keynote talk, Ed. magazine, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), published an issue called “Pivot: The Future of Education in a World Turned Sideways.” That issue contains an essay I wrote about the need to improve science education, including the following paragraph:

Professor Fletcher Watson, who taught at HGSE for more than 30 years, wrote that he made some science education colleagues uncomfortable by prioritizing the word “education” over “science.” His point was that experts need to think broadly, beyond their areas of specialization. Although science educators have some first-rate ideas, one does not need to be an expert to identify many key elements of scientific literacy; that is a task for everyone.

I am grateful to Watson and my other science education mentors for exposing me to their clear and broad-minded thinking about science education. Watson was one of the developers of Harvard Project Physics (HPP), a more humanistic approach than other high school physics curricula of its day. HPP included some key events in the history of science in order to illustrate how scientists do their work.

James Rutherford was also a co-developer of HPP, and later directed the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061, which in 1989 published Science for All Americans (quoted in the preceding blog post). Science for All Americans includes an entire chapter called Historical Perspectives, which explains why learning about history of science is important.

Another mentor was Irma Jarcho, with whom I taught at the New Lincoln School. She was interested in and taught K-12 students about all aspects of science, including the impacts of science and technology on society and ethical issues raised by science. In 1982 Jarcho and several of her colleagues founded the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter, which is published to this day.

It is troubling to see what a narrow view of scientific literacy is reflected in current standards documents after all the work done by an earlier generation of science educators. Eliminating a focus on the history of science provides a good illustration of the problem.


Developing Students’ Scientific Literacy

The primary goal of K-12 science education should be to develop students’ scientific literacy. For example, the New York State P-12 Science Learning Standards identifies that very goal, stating that, “our education system [should] keep pace with what it means to be scientifically literate.”

But what exactly does “scientific literacy” mean? One way to define it would be to stack up the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the appendices to the NGSS, and the Framework for K-12 Science Education (the template for the NGSS). Scientific literacy could be defined as everything in those documents. But that is close to 1,000 pages of text.

English teachers and science teachers can agree that 1,000 pages makes for an unwieldy definition. Can we do better?

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)—which periodically tests thousands of students in dozens of countries across disciplines, including science—developed a more concise definition. For PISA:

Scientific literacy is defined as the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen….

That’s not bad. Actually, it’s quite good. PISA’s definition can easily encompass the three dimensions of the NGSS: disciplinary core ideas (DCIs), scientific practices, and cross-cutting concepts. Scientifically literate people know some science content and understand, generally, how scientists practice science and develop new knowledge.

But beyond that, and equally important, PISA’s definition emphasizes, as the NGSS does not, that scientific literacy is for everyone, not just for college graduates or those who often use science as part of their jobs. In other words, the goal of developing students’ scientific literacy is simply not the same as “preparing students for college and careers,” the stated goal of the NGSS. The latter is a cramped, narrow view of scientific literacy. It conveys a message that the NGSS is a “prerequisite” to the real work that comes later: college and careers. “Don’t worry about applying science outside of college or careers,” is an unintended message, especially to the millions of students who are not college-bound.

For more than three decades, from the time that Science for All Americans was published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1989, key leaders in science education have focused on educating all students. As the AAAS book states, “When demographic realities, national needs, and democratic values are taken into account, it becomes clear that the nation can no longer ignore the science education of any students,” including the non-college-bound student and the many others who won’t use much science in their careers. The book’s introduction expands on the idea:

Education has no higher purpose than preparing people to lead personally fulfilling and responsible lives. For its part, science education—meaning education in science, mathematics, and technology—should help students to develop the understandings and habits of mind they need to become compassionate human beings able to think for themselves and to face life head on. It should equip them also to participate thoughtfully with fellow citizens in building and protecting a society that is open, decent, and vital. America’s future—its ability to create a truly just society, to sustain its economic vitality, and to remain secure in a world torn by hostilities—depends more than ever on the character and quality of the education that the nation provides for all of its children.

As Penny Noyce and I have written recently in Education Week, the narrow view of the NGSS almost certainly makes science class less appealing to many students. People are interested in themselves and other people, and the national science education standards say little that humanizes science, little that could literally put a human face on the subject. For example, the NGSS does not mention a single scientist by name and the words “women” and “minorities” don’t appear in the text of the NGSS.

If Americans want to develop all students’ scientific literacy, Penny and I believe science teachers need to put a greater emphasis on the following five topics, “keys to scientific literacy.” These are:

  1. Teach science in the context of societal and personal issues
  2. Tie scientific literacy to traditional forms of literacy
  3. Teach how to find reliable scientific information and how to reject junk science
  4. Include some important events in the history of science
  5. Help females and minority students realize their potential in science

The NGSS devotes hundreds of pages to identifying what students should learn, focusing almost entirely on science content and scientific practices. By having students learn mainly about investigating scientific “phenomena,” the NGSS leaves behind many other important aspects of scientific literacy.

It is Vital to Teach Students about Scientific Institutions

In our recent Phi Delta Kappan magazine article Penny Noyce and I quoted a former president of MIT, Susan Hockfield, who wrote in Science that if the public hopes to “get the most from this scientific golden age,” then it will have to understand the critical roles played by scientific institutions. We pointed especially at governmental institutions whose mission is to use science for the public good.

Teaching about these institutions is easy to do. In fact, I can recall being taught about scientific institutions when I was in elementary school. My Weekly Reader included articles about the World Health Organization (WHO), and other scientific institutions, in language appropriate for young people. It still shocks me to realize that the Next Generation Science Standards does not say teachers should mention even a single scientific institution. Authors of the NGSS evidently did not believe that knowing about these institutions is part of the minimum knowledge needed by students to become scientifically literate adults.

American society is now paying a heavy price, because federal science-based institutions—about which most people have been taught nothing—are being attacked by President Trump and members of his administration. Seven former heads of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a public statement expressing deep concern about the politicization of the agency. “At risk,” they wrote, “is the FDA’s ability to make the independent, science-based decisions that are key to combating the pandemic and so much more.” Similarly, four former heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publicly expressed concern that political leaders are “attempting to undermine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” and subvert public health guidelines.

Social scientists use the term “inoculation” for the concept that exposure to some important ideas (e.g., fossil fuel companies may use advertising to mislead you) later reduces “infection” by misinformation. It seems very likely that teaching young people about the role and function of key science-based agencies, as well as the nature of scientific integrity, will later help them resist political efforts to undermine those agencies.

The Trump administration has undermined scientific institutions over and over again, for years. Isn’t it time for leaders in science education to suggest that learning about the key role of scientific institutions is basic to developing young people’s scientific literacy? Unfortunately, the science education establishment is very resistant to re-examining the NGSS. It will be up to states, districts, and hundreds of thousands of science teachers to make the choice to help “inoculate” Americans against anti-science propaganda.


Lessons from the Pandemic about Science Education

Phi Delta Kappan magazine recently published an article we wrote about improving the Next Generation Science Standards, with the title above. The text begins:

If students in the United States master everything in the Next Generation Science Standards but learn nothing else about science, then they will graduate high school without knowing anything about immunization, viruses, antibodies, or vaccines, or about organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. They will never have been asked to investigate such topics as the efficacy of measles vaccine or the risks of vaping. They will never have been asked to read science-related books or articles in the popular press. Nor, for that matter, will they have been taught how to find reliable sources of information about science or how to evaluate and reject scientific misinformation, such as, for example, fringe theories about the origin of the 2019 novel coronavirus. And yet, these same students will have been required to master a host of more technical standards, such as learning to “use mathematical representations to support claims for the cycling of matter and flow of energy among organisms in an ecosystem,” even though few of them will ever use such knowledge.

In the middle of a devastating pandemic, is this the best set of national science education standards that the United States can muster? We don’t believe so, and we are not the only ones.

Since the standards were released, the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) has issued position statements in 2016 and 2020 reiterating how important it is for students to learn about science “in the context of societal and personal concerns,” whether to inform their own health care decisions or to allow them to participate in public debates about vaccination requirements, the regulation of pesticides, online privacy protections, the importance of “social distancing,” or any number of other policy issues.

Unfortunately, the NGSS does not include “societal and personal concerns” as priorities. We believe more students would be interested in science if their teachers taught the subject in the context of personal and societal concerns. Moreover, by adopting that approach the United States would educate a more scientifically literate population.

NSTA has largely done its part. Improving science education standards will require leadership at the state level and among other national organizations, including the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science. It was the NRC that developed A Framework for K-12 Science Education, which acted as a blueprint for the NGSS. Although the Framework prioritized teaching science in the context of societal and personal concerns, the NGSS largely abandoned that perspective. It is time for the NRC to weigh in.

We hope that the Kappan article attracts a large number of readers, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and not only science educators. As we wrote, “It is often said that war is too important to be left to the generals. One might add that science education is too important to be left to the scientists.”

Modest changes to the NGSS would not be enough

A number of science educators believe that the NGSS has sufficient strengths that any improvements should be made simply by adding to or subtracting from the existing document. For example, as we wrote earlier, a science educator who provides professional learning experiences for science teachers reported that he has seen a large increase in teachers seeking help on how to teach from a more student-centered, phenomena-oriented, inquiry-based approach. In his opinion (and he is not alone), the NGSS has done a service in promoting instruction that helps students learn about science by doing science, so he is reluctant to make major changes.

Even though some science educators agree that certain important ideas are missing from the NGSS, their preferred approach would be to add performance expectations (PEs) as needed (e.g., students should be able to describe the functions of some key scientific institutions, such as the CDC). At the same time, in order to keep the list of expectations to a realistic number, as some PEs are added they believe that others would need to be removed.

On the surface this seems reasonable. Certainly some improvements could be made in this way, and that would be a good thing. However, tinkering with the NGSS would not change its overall purpose (“preparing students for college and careers”), which is too restrictive. That approach also would not incorporate NSTA Position Statements advocating teaching more about the nature of science, and linking science to personal and societal issues.

In addition, the requirement that every lesson incorporate the three dimensions identified in the NGSS unduly limits the curriculum. It is not necessary to “do science” every day, focusing only on the list of topics in the NGSS. Some days students might read a news article and summarize it, or research an unfamiliar topic, like vaping, and write a few paragraphs about what they learned. In fact, reviewing articles and lessons published in professional journals such as The Science Teacher makes it clear that good teaching does not always look like what the NGSS says it should. The NGSS moved the proverbial pendulum in the right direction—doing more science—but moved it to an extreme.

A more positive perspective

We recently spoke with Dan Damelin, a Senior Scientist at the Concord Consortium who has experience as a science teacher, curriculum developer, and provider of professional learning for teachers. Below is an edited version of Dan’s comments.

Dan: For many years I’ve held a firm belief that students learn best though discovering things for themselves. In the science classroom this means providing students with opportunities to engage in exploring the world like scientists. Until the NGSS, “inquiry” was always separate from other content standards, and usually thought of as an aside or add-on, not integrated into everyday experiences in the science classroom. It didn’t help that state testing almost solely emphasized content over process.

The critical breakthrough of the NGSS was to write the standards in such a way that engagement in science and engineering practices is part of the standard itself. With the influence of the NGSS, I’ve experienced a huge increase in teachers seeking help on how to teach from a more student-centered, phenomena-oriented, and inquiry-based approach. So I think NGSS has done a great service in promoting instruction that helps students learn about science by doing science.

I don’t think that the NGSS is perfect, but I see these standards as an opportunity to promote many goals that I support, and believe the integrated nature of the standards, each of which incorporates disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts, is integral to achieving those goals. For these reasons I would be reluctant to support a large-scale overhaul of the Framework on which the NGSS is built.

However, I do agree with many of the concerns you have written about. For example, there is no disciplinary core idea in the NGSS that covers epidemics—and now pandemics—so strict adherence to the NGSS would preclude teaching about that. However, the NGSS is intended to be a foundation, not a ceiling on what all students learn. Many curriculum developers are producing new instructional materials that are largely consistent with the NGSS and that focus on epidemiology and other additional topics—even if those phenomena are not 100% aligned with NGSS. I think the NGSS can also serve as a template for the integration of disciplinary ideas, practices, and crosscutting concepts, which can guide teachers and curriculum developers in designing materials that integrate practices regardless of the phenomenon being explored.

I do understand that many will interpret the NGSS as some limit on what they should be teaching and empathize with your desire to make sure anything you think is critically missing is directly included. If you feel that critical disciplinary core ideas or practices are missing I would encourage the two of you to suggest specific changes you would like to see in the text of the NGSS. The heart of the document is a set of Performance Expectations (PEs) describing what students should know and be able to do. I recommend you propose adding new PEs that you think are needed. For example, you might add a PE related to epidemiology, or extend the practice on “Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information” to include student understanding of the role of scientific institutions, like the CDC. However, if you do that you will probably also want to suggest removing some PEs, so the list of expectations does not simply become longer, because, as you know, one of the strengths of the NGSS is that it reduced the number of disciplinary core ideas to make room for more time to learn through engagement in science practices.

Your white paper suggests adding information to the NGSS about how students learn science. I wonder whether you can do that in a meaningful way without adding a large amount of new text and changing the basic structure of the document. The NGSS is intended to provide assessment boundaries. Imagine if we started adding pedagogical directives to the standards. Which should we add? There are many approaches, and it would change the entire nature of the NGSS, so I think it’s best to avoid that potential minefield.

Another of your concerns is that you would like teachers to be encouraged by the standards to teach science in the context of societal and personal concerns. That’s a great approach, one that has been adopted by many in the education research field who are developing curricular materials aligned with the NGSS. There are two approaches to influencing science teaching related to NGSS—change the NGSS itself, or try to influence the way NGSS is interpreted. The NSTA Position Statement “Teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues” is an example of the latter approach. Those researchers I know developing NGSS-aligned curriculum have all taken a particular stance on what it means to align with the NGSS. They are leading by example. I tend to take that same approach. I don’t want to suppress any debate around the NGSS. It’s not perfect and will itself be revised someday, so I encourage you to push for the kinds of changes you want to see.

Andy: Dan, the primary goal Penny and I hope to achieve with the white paper is to start a conversation about the strengths and the weaknesses of the NGSS. There is undoubtedly more than one way to improve the existing standards. Your approach is not the same as ours but we share many of the same goals for what science education should accomplish. That is an excellent starting point for a conversation. Thank you for your thoughts about the NGSS.