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.

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?