Next Generation Science Standards: Old School?

Sometime ago, we argued that there is little evidence that the National Science Education Standards published in 1996 and the Next Generation Science Standards released for public view by Achieve are any different than the content oriented projects of the 1960s.  The disciplines and content areas of science were seen as fundamental in those earlier National Science Foundation funded projects such as PSSC Physics, CBA Chemistry, BSCS Biology, ESCP Earth Science, ISCS, IPS, and to the National Science Education Standards published in the 1996.

In these cases,  groups of experts met in content  areas to work out domain charts in the content areas of life science, physical science, earth and space science.  In the case of the NSF projects, science textbooks were written, field tested and used in schools across the country.  The NSES led to the publication of the original standards book (and online version), as well as books specific to science inquiry.  Content specialists were responsible for the earlier projects and the NSES.

Well, guess what?  This is exactly what the writing team assembled by Achieve with the help of other organizations, and departments of education in 26 states did to create the NGSS.  The NGSS has created standards based on traditional science content and added Engineering, technology and applications of science to the standards.

Standards to Improve Achievement

One could argue that organizing by content area is the right thing to do.  Why not create writing teams for each of the four areas: Earth and Space Sciences, Engineering-Technology-and-Applications of Science, Life Science, and Physical Sciences? Why not emphasize the disciplines of science, as well as engineering?

The argument goes that U.S. students are lagging in science achievement, as evidenced by average scores on PISA and TIMSS, two international tests in which the U.S. participates.  Furthermore, America’s competitive edge is at risk because of the poor showing of U.S. students on these tests.  Without emphasizing science achievement in K-12 schools, how do we expect U.S. students to career and college ready?  This is all part of the “reformers” playbook, and Achieve is one organization that uses this argument as a rationale for the Common Core State Standards, and now is using the argument to explain why we need the Next Generation Science Standards.  And it isn’t just Achieve and its partners that think this way.  The U.S. Department of Education and state departments of education around the country also use the same playbook, and cite the same statistics about America’s failing schools.

One  more thing.  The U.S. Department of Education has funded two groups to prepare computer based national assessments that will be used as high- stakes tests. The reformers obsession with testing is getting out of control? But the NGSS framework is assessment ready, and is to facilitate the testing mania.

The “reformers” argument sounds really good, doesn’t it.

Better Look at the Facts

But as Richard Rothstein argues, this argument relies on imaginary facts. Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, reports that a careful analysis of the the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data shows that there has been incremental improvement of student learning in math, reading and science, but the ones who argue that U.S. schools are failing ignore such data.  Dr. Rothstein puts it this way:

You may be surprised to learn that African-American elementary school student achievement, in Illinois and nationwide, has been improving so spectacularly that in math, the average black student now performs better than about 90% of all black students performed less than a generation ago.

What’s more, black elementary school math performance is now better than white performance was in the previous generation.

Let me repeat: black elementary school students today have better math skills than white students did only twenty years ago.

These data come from the  National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal sample that is the only reliable source on  student achievement over time in this country.

The gains have been almost as great for middle-schoolers in math, and for elementary school students in reading,

Most gains were posted in the 1990s, before the test-obsessed accountability system called “No Child Left Behind,” a law whose flawed premise was that it was necessary to force educators to pay attention to minority students.

For Hispanic students, there are no data that can distinguish between very recent immigrants and children who have attended American schools throughout childhood. But my guess is that if we had data, we would conclude that Hispanic gains have been equally dramatic.

Policymakers, pundits, and politicians ignore these gains; they conclude that you, educators, have been incompetent because the test score gap hasn’t much narrowed.

But the reason it hasn’t narrowed is that your profession has done too good a job — you’ve improved white children’s performance as well, so the score gap persists, but at a higher level for all.

Source: NAEP, 2011 Science

And in science, the NAEP published its Science 2011 report for 8th grade, and the results showed the same incremental rise in scores.  The average eighth-grade science score increased from 150 in 2009 to 152 in 2011. The percentages of students performing at or above the Basic and Proficient levels were higher in 2011 than in 2009. There was no significant change from 2009 to 2011 in the percentage of students at the Advanced level.

Discipline Myopia

Dr. William G. Wraga, professor at the University of Georgia suggests that the Common Core State Standards contain two blind spots. Insufficient attention is paid to the need for  interdisciplinary curriculum and citizenship education.  This is caused, according to Dr. Wraga, by the”discipline myopia” that characterizes the standards.  School science standards are highly technical and steeped in disciplinary concepts (in physics, chemistry, biology) processes and practice.

The NGSS has created a set of standards that do not get us to “think outside the box” of the traditional science disciplines.  And even after adding engineering, technology and applications, they have treated this new domain as a separate, and new set of standards that students must learn and science teachers must teach.

For example, when I examined the standards in the Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science, I found 19 sets of standards spread over the K-12 range of schooling.  They certainly didn’t reflect anything new about how engineering might contribute to the science curriculum that would make it appealing to science teachers whose curriculum is already bursting with science standards.  According to NGSS documents, it was important to integrate technology and engineering into science.  However, Achieve claims that this does not imply that separate courses or units need to be taught on this subject.  The fact that there 19 sets of Engineering standards, and the fact that teachers and students will be assessed on these standards, surely this stuff will have to taught within the science curriculum.

There is very little evidence of supporting interdisciplinary teaching in the NGSS.  The science standards to too confined to the traditional disciplines, and there is meager attention to “applications” in the new Engineering standards.  There seems to a lack of science-related social issues being embedded in the new standards.  The long history of science, technology, society and environment (STSE) education has largely been ignored in the new standards.  This is as expected.  When the teams are organized by content disciplines, the need or desire to give up some of limited space for your list of standards to write interdisciplinary standards is low on the priority list.

Science teaching should be in the service of the students in our classrooms, and it ought to be a responsibility of the writers to take into consideration the needs, desires, interests, and moral principles of our youth.  The principles of teaching drawn from STSE recognize the vital importance of interdisciplinary thinking and citizen science education, as Dr. Wraga so eloquently put it.

The NGSS has let us down in this regard.

Traditional Topics—>Traditional Standards

It is disappointing that the writers stayed in the traditional box and created one more set of standards that in the end will make very little difference in student learning.  We’ve shown over and over by citing research studies that the authoritarian standards model of teaching presents a barrier to teaching and learning.

I know that the long list of partners and the 26 states are clamoring for the NGSS, but they have their priorities in the wrong places.  U.S. students have done well with the science curriculum that has dominated school science for decades.  In fact, prior to the NCLB act, Rothstein points out that students were incrementally improving in math and reading, and then, once NCLB high-stakes testing kicked in, incremental improvements went down the drain.

Why have we invested millions of dollars in creating a new set of traditional standards at a time when education dollars are scarce?  A new study by the Pioneer Institute estimates that it will cost states $15.8 billion to align their state standards to the common core.  What will it cost the states to align its science standards to the NGSS?

It’s probably because the education is a multi-billion dollar enterprise and a cash cow for corporations that sell products and services for the education market.  Since we’ve been convinced that American schools are failing, raising the bar and writing more rigorous standards is just the ticket to pushing those test scores up.  And along the way, it will mean more millions in new text books that will have to be written, new online courses and resources, new assessments and monitoring systems, staff development training to explain the new standards, and on and on.

Do you think that the NGSS has produced another set of standards maintained the status-quo, and in the end will have little effect on teaching and learning science (and engineering)?  Is the NGSS old school?


About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.