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.

“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.


Some state standards are better than the NGSS

Education is primarily a responsibility of states and localities. Each state is free to establish its own education standards, and they differ from one state to another. Below we compare science education standards in two states, Washington and Massachusetts.

Washington State is one of 20 states that have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. A search on the internet leads to a web page titled, Washington State Science and Learning Standards. There one reads,

The Washington State Science and Learning Standards (WSSLS), previously known as the Next Generation Science Standards-NGSS, are a new set of standards that provide consistent science education through all grades, with an emphasis on engineering and technology.

In other words, in Washington State the NGSS is called WSSLS, but the two documents are otherwise identical. That means the WSSLS has the same strengths as the NGSS, such as establishing the goal that students learn about climate change, but also the same weaknesses. For example, WSSLS does not emphasize teaching science in the context of societal and personal interests. There is no suggestion that students learn about the impact of science on public policy, such as policies to reduce carbon emissions, or how to find accurate information about an unfamiliar science topic, such as vaping.

Although Position Statements from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) focus on the importance of taking a broader view of science education than the NGSS, Washington State’s Science and Learning standards make no reference to NSTA’s recommendations. It is presumably a source of frustration for the NSTA to realize that their Position Statements are not incorporated into the WSSLS or into many other states’ science education standards.

On the other hand, Massachusetts is an example of a state that has taken a different approach. In the state’s Science and Technology/Engineering (STE) Learning Standards, one reads that,

While the Massachusetts STE standards have much in common with NGSS, public input from across the Commonwealth during the development of the standards identified several needed adaptations for Massachusetts:

  • Include technology/engineering as a discipline equivalent to traditional sciences.
  • Include only two dimensions (disciplinary core ideas and science and engineering practices) in the standards, while encouraging the inclusion of crosscutting concepts and the nature of science in the curriculum.
  • Balance broad concepts with specificity to inform consistent interpretation …

The idea that every science lesson must include the three dimensions identified in the NGSS was rejected by Massachusetts. A result of that modification is to provide teachers with greater flexibility, such as making it easier to plan lessons.

There are other important differences between the NGSS and the Massachusetts STE learning standards. One difference is to more clearly emphasize the importance of reasoning with evidence, including reasoning about claims found in media of any kind. (The word “media” appears dozens of times in the STE standards.) Specifically, in Massachusetts students should learn to:

“Respectfully provide and/or receive critiques on scientific arguments by probing reasoning and evidence and challenging ideas and conclusions, and determining what additional information is required to solve contradictions, and

Evaluate the validity and reliability of and/or synthesize multiple claims, methods, and/or designs that appear in scientific and technical texts or media, verifying the data when possible.” (pp. 66-67)

Another difference is that Massachusetts adopts as a guiding principle the idea that:

“An effective science and technology/engineering program addresses students’ prior knowledge and preconceptions.” (p. 9)

The NGSS, on the other hand, makes no mention of students’ prior knowledge and preconceptions.

Yet another important difference is that preparing students to apply STE knowledge “to real-world applications needed for civic participation” is an explicit goal of the standards (p. 5). This is similar to NSTA Position Statements. However, in the NGSS there is no mention of civic participation.

For a variety of reasons, Massachusetts students perform unusually well on national and international tests, compared to students in other states. There is simply no evidence that adopting science education standards different than—better than—the NGSS harms the state’s students in any way. To the contrary: we believe that establishing better goals for science education helps students.

Teaching about the Coronavirus, COVID-19

The current coronavirus epidemic, now known as COVID-19, presents an ideal opportunity for teachers to present real-life, cutting-edge, relevant science. Some of the scientific ideas, such as simple messages about hygiene, can be taught at any level, but others are particularly appropriate to middle and high school students.

Some of what there is to be learned falls squarely under existing NGSS core ideas in the life sciences, such as:

  • What is a virus? Are viruses alive? How do viruses differ from bacteria?
  • Some scientists think the infection might have originally come from snakes, others from armadillos or some other mammal. What arguments do they make? How are scientists communicating these ideas? How does “science” come to a conclusion?
  • How might a virus pass from one species to another?
  • How might modern transportation technologies allow a human virus to spread?
  • What does exponential growth look like? (For older students, what is R0?)

Then there are other topics that we have suggested should be included in the standards, but are not now, such as learning about vaccines, the importance of scientific institutions and organizations, and the impact of science on policy. For example:

  • What are vaccines, and how are they developed? Should we develop a vaccine against COVID-19, and how long will it take?
  • How does the current danger to Americans of COVID-19 compare to dangers from measles, Ebola, or the flu? Where and how can people find the answer?
  • Which organizations, like WHO and the CDC, are directing the American response to the epidemic? What do these organizations do? Are they trustworthy?
  • How are different governments, local and national, such as in China and the U.S., making policy decisions about how to handle the new virus? (Examples include: controlling social media, building hospitals, directing army medics to report to Wuhan, shutting down travel between cities, establishing quarantine sites, screening travelers.) Which of these actions do students believe are necessary? Which are effective? Who should be making such decisions?

Lastly, misinformation about science is a growing problem that teachers should teach about:

  • Are there examples of misinformation about the coronavirus that are being spread online? What are some examples (e.g., articles here and here)?

Some enterprising teachers are already beginning to develop lessons about COVID-19. For example, here is an excellent lesson from high school teacher William Reed, posted on the NSTA blog. ( )

But note that the lesson’s links to the NGSS fall only under Science and Engineering Practices, and, with a stretch, to Crosscutting Concepts. We agree with the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) that science should be taught in the context of societal and personal issues (Position Statement here), and that students need to learn more about the nature of science than is included in the NGSS (Position Statement here). It’s a shame that this lesson on COVID-19, which provides a great opportunity to teach relevant science, has to struggle so hard to “fit” with the standards.

Wouldn’t teachers and students be better off if the NGSS were revised to address some of these ideas more directly? Wouldn’t we all be better off if teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues and with greater attention to the nature of science became core parts of the NGSS, instead of separate priorities promoted by NSTA?

Barriers to reading about science for school

A distinguishing feature of the 2010 Common Core State Standards initiative was the increased emphasis on having students read nonfiction books and magazines for school, including reading about science. The name of the standards tells the story: The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.

An increased emphasis on reading nonfiction reflects the reality that as students enter higher grades they need greater skills and stamina for reading informational text. Reading nonfiction calls for different strategies, vocabularies, and habits than reading fiction. Students need to learn to question the text, and to summarize it for themselves to help them retain information. These skills don’t come automatically, so teachers need to help students become better readers of nonfiction. For understandable reasons the authors of the Common Core believed that the responsibility for teaching students to understand literary nonfiction should be shared by teachers in non-ELA classes, notably in history, social studies, and science classrooms.   

However, the glaring absence of any similar language in the Next Generation Science Standards stands as a significant barrier to achieving the Common Core’s goals for reading nonfiction. Science teachers who are guided by the NGSS are simply not encouraged to assign students to read about science, besides reading a textbook or class handout. This is a missed opportunity. After all, in adult life, reading newspapers, magazines and books becomes a vital way for people to maintain and extend their understanding of current science.

What’s more, we recently became aware of a related barrier: the poor availability of science books and magazines in schools. A questionnaire for the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) asked eighth grade science teachers, “To what extent does your school system (including your school and school district) provide you with science magazines and books (including digital forms, such as online magazines and books)?” Remarkably, 30% of teachers responded “none,” i.e. no science books or magazines, and another 35% of teachers responded “a small extent.” Is it surprising then, that 40% of these eighth grade teachers indicated they never have students read a book or magazine about science?

What about the school library, which also includes encyclopedias and newspapers, in addition to books and magazines? In 2015 45% of grade 8 students reported they never used library resources for science class. Similarly, 54% of grade 12 students reported in 2015 never using library resources for science class.

Is this the reality that developers of the NGSS wanted to encourage? Probably not. Although the standards writers undoubtedly wanted to see students carrying out investigations and discussions, they probably meant to include reading and writing among the ways that students should acquire, evaluate and communicate information. The NGSS ought to be explicit in asking science teachers to promote more reading about science among students.

There are many wonderful nonfiction science books available, as well as fictional narratives with a strong scientific base. Who will assign them if the standards suggest they are unimportant? Indeed, who will even encourage young people to stretch their minds through science reading? Reading about science or even science fiction can elicit a love of science, provide a way to pursue personal interests, and sometimes foster young people’s identification with scientists and engineers. National standards should make these kinds of encounters between students and ideas more, not less, likely to occur.

Penny and Andy

Comments from another expert reviewer

One of the experts who reviewed a draft of our white paper is Dr. Cary Sneider, an architect of the NGSS, and a member of the NGSS writing leadership team. His comments were extensive and generous, and began, “This is a nicely crafted article that should definitely be published.” Here are other highlights:

I like a lot of what you said about how the NGSS could be improved …. I especially resonate with your comments about distinguishing truth from fiction (and outright lies).

A decision that I lament,” he wrote about development of the NGSS, was to leave out a core idea identified in the Framework for K-12 Science Education (the template for the NGSS), namely, ETS2 – Links among engineering, technology, science, and society. “Some of what you say has been left out [of the NGSS] is included in this core idea,” he said, and we agree. In particular our concern that the NGSS has nothing to say about the relation between science or technology and public policy would be addressed had the NGSS incorporated this core idea from the Framework. As leader of the engineering team of NGSS writers, Sneider takes full responsibility for this missing piece, and hopes it will be reinstated when it’s time to update the NGSS.

At the same time, Sneider, a retired researcher, museum educator, and visiting scholar at Portland State University, expressed a number of reservations about the recommendations offered in the white paper. “It takes more than a decade to implement a new set of standards, especially if they are quite different from what was there before. Also, some states have just recently adopted new standards,” he wrote. So, in his view it is too early to make significant changes to the NGSS. Others have made similar comments, noting how long it takes to fully implement new standards.

Some of the missing pieces we identified in the NGSS, Sneider wrote, are intentionally absent, notably discussion of key principles of science teaching. Although he agrees that appropriate classroom pedagogy is essential for effective science education, the purpose of the standards is just to state what students should know and can do at the end of instruction, and not specify any specific curriculum materials or teaching methods, leaving that up to state officials to provide guidance.

Another of Dr. Sneider’s reservations is that “everyone wants to add topics they think are missing,” but authors of the NGSS were trying to focus on fewer important topics rather than on too many topics taught quickly and ineffectively. “Prior standards have had more than any teacher can do in a year,” he noted. Anyone who wants to add new topics to the NGSS during future updates should at the same time identify other topics that should be taken out to make space for the new material. Otherwise, the process that leads to bloated textbooks will just continue. He recommended that we add a section to our white paper about what could profitably be taken out of the NGSS to make room for the recommended additions.

The last area to highlight in his comments is that Dr. Sneider pointed to Appendix H and some of the “foundation boxes” in the main text of the NGSS as places where the nature of science is already highlighted. “I’m not sure why you feel it is not there,” he wrote.

These are thoughtful comments, which we appreciate. There are obviously large areas of overlap in our views of how to improve the NGSS, as well as significant differences. Rather than try to respond in this post to each of the reservations Dr. Sneider expressed, we will simply refer readers to the white paper. We hope that we provide a sound rationale for each of our suggestions, and as we wrote, we believe that our suggestions could be implemented “without significant disruption to the science curriculum.”

One expert’s comments on the white paper

We asked Professor John L. Rudolph to review a draft of the white paper. Professor Rudolph is chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he educates future science teachers. His recent book How We Teach Science: What’s Changed and Why It Matters is a comprehensive history of American science education from the late nineteenth century to the present, making him exceptionally knowledgeable about how goals of science education have evolved over time.

After reviewing the paper, Professor Rudolph wrote:

“Thanks so much for sharing your white paper on revising the NGSS. I thought it was excellent. I have to say that it aligns almost exactly with my own critique of where science education is currently and where it’s heading under NGSS…. All the things you suggest I would heartily endorse. In fact, your outline of things neglected by NGSS closely parallels the syllabus of the science teaching methods course I teach every fall….

    I think that we’re on the cusp of a change that will begin to prop up the legitimacy and authority of science given the way science and truth have been so thoroughly denigrated in the public sphere of late. Your work will, I think, be part of helping push things in that direction…. It helps that the paper is so very clear and readable too.”

We were optimistic when we asked reviewers for their comments, but frankly we were not sure what experts would think of the white paper. These comments from Professor Rudolph, and others, were encouraging to us. Without widespread support it is unlikely that science education standards will be improved.

The NGSS is one piece of a bigger system

Several reviewers noted that education standards like the NGSS are only one influence on classroom instruction, whether in science or other subjects. We heartily agree! Their comments are an important reminder.

The quality of science teachers, the support they receive, the amount of time allocated to teaching science, the nature of high-stakes tests, support of STEM education by parents and the community—these are just a sample of other important influences on teaching and learning science. One reviewer wrote, “I agree with the ultimate goals for raising scientifically literate students … but I question what new and improved standards will do without addressing the current lack of infrastructure to implement them.”

The white paper does not claim that improving the NGSS is the one and only way to improve science education. At the same time, the NGSS promotes an excessively narrow vision of science and scientific literacy, so we should not be surprised when many teachers adopt that narrow vision.

As an example, too many parents believe that vaccines cause autism. Students graduating high school ought to know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) is an excellent source of information about vaccine safety and about many other public health issues. Similarly, students should learn that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) is a primary source of information about the causes and the impacts of climate change. Organizations like the CDC and the IPCC are central to NGSS practice #8, “obtaining, evaluating, and communicating” science-related information, bringing together experts from many institutions to synthesize and vet scientific findings. Such institutions are one key mechanism for determining scientific consensus, if and when it exists. Yet the NGSS makes no mention of any scientific institution. Nor does it explain how science helps to inform public policy—about vaccines, climate, food safety, or other issues. This is short-sighted.

Improving the NGSS is no guarantee that science instruction will improve, yet guidance from national standards cannot be ignored merely because other factors are important, too.

Andy and Penny