Checking the Next Generation Science Standards Crystal Ball

Aug 27, 2014

Nearly three years ago, I presented several blog posts devoted to the potentially transformative nature of the as-of-then-still-under-development Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the possible pitfalls to the approach being taken in developing and promoting them.

Here’s an update/scorecard on the points I raised long ago.

Back in 2011, I gave three reasons that the NGSS revolution might succeed:

  1. NGSS taps into an existing, growing movement that only lacks formalization.
  2. NGSS has strong institutional support from key influencers and heavy lifters.
  3. NGSS is set to reach critical mass as soon as possible.

Let’s look at each one from the vantage point of 2014.

NGSS taps into an existing, growing movement that only lacks formalization.
Since 2011, STEM education has become a much more familiar term, and not just in rarefied policy circles, thanks in part to NGSS. President Obama’s 2015 budget proposal includes more than $300 million for STEM teacher training projects. Mayors, business leaders, parents, and students have begun to identify STEM as a good pathway to careers of the future.

NGSS has strong institutional support from key influencers and heavy lifters.
The partnership between the standards’ framers, funders, and other associations has grown beyond merely those with an educational focus to include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), among others.

NGSS is set to reach critical mass as soon as possible.
At last count, 26 states have signed on to develop, vet, and consider adopting the standards. Because many of them are states with large student populations (California, New York, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, and North Carolina are 7 of the 10 most populous states), that boils down to about 58% of U.S. students. This fall, the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee will vote on what may be the first statewide adoption of NGSS-based instructional materials.

But the time to adopt and implement the standards is coinciding with some pretty robust political headwinds, as groups on the right and the left push back against Common Core Standards for Math and for English/Language Arts. Many of the same objections raised in that debate can apply to NGSS.

Now for the downside of my forecast.  In 2011, I noted these four possible stumbling blocks for NGSS:

  1. Assessment
  2. Top-Down Implementation
  3. Teacher Preparedness
  4. Curriculum and Equipment

Again, let’s examine each of these from the 2014 perspective.

Assessment
While the Achieve group is planning to release some sample classroom assessment tasks, the instructional philosophy of those driving NGSS remains diametrically opposed to the dominant paradigm of standardized testing as a primary means of accountability. This remains a large unsolved problem, without even a road map for how to transition from the NCLB-inspired testing boom to the vision espoused by the NGSS.

Top-Down Implementation
A paradox of NGSS is this: On the one hand, professors of science education and other policymakers are driving NGSS to provide a rather prescriptive system. On the other hand, the standards aim to liberate teachers by providing more flexibility for designing their own customized learning experiences for their classes within that prescriptive framework, rather than relying upon “canned” curriculum pieces from the usual publishers.

Teacher Preparedness
The Achieve group has made great strides in coming up with tools to help teachers come to grips with changing their approach. And they’re producing many seminars and webinars and conference presentations. The challenge I noted in 2011 remains today, though: how do you reach out to the vast majority of teachers who aren’t connected to networks where they would find out about NGSS?

Curriculum and Equipment
So far, NGSS have artfully focused on student performance expectations without explicitly mandating equipment, which is certainly a good move. The sticking point will be whether the model of teachers all crafting their own curriculum components is feasible, given the realities and constraints inherent in most teachers’ everyday lives.

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In short, my NGSS crystal ball seems to have been working pretty well—most of the promises and challenges I anticipated three years ago remain today, with a few modifications. Stay tuned, and in a future blog post I’ll explore possible synergies between the broader future of learning and the vision of NGSS.

Writing Your Way Out of a Box

A Verse for Those Averse to Tests

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