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.