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March 18, 2021

Next Generation Science Standards: What’s a Teacher to Do?

How will my district handle the implementation of science standards? How will they be integrated with the Common Core literacy and math standards? Will I have to figure it all out on my own? Those are big questions for thousands of American science teachers who are encountering the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Yes, it’s going to be hard work, but the NGSS show great promise, with their emphasis on what students are able to do. How do I know? I’m a practicing teacher who was part of a committee that vetted the standards as they were developed. I know what teachers need to do to get ready.

As a science teacher you can—and should—be responding to the standards right now, regardless of whether your district or state has taken action. This change doesn’t have to be done to you; it can be a change that you and your colleagues bring about alongside school and district administrators.

Take a little time to become informed so that you are conversant in the way the standards are written. (Don’t wait for someone to teach you—take it upon yourself to do a little digging!) This will give you the knowledge and credibility to advocate for the time and conversation you’ll need with your professional community.

Help your district administrators understand the importance of:

  • opportunities for teachers to build a common understanding of the standards;
  • time to grasp the implications for our teaching; and
  • strategic allocation of resources for science instruction.

Here are the steps we need to take collectively to bring the standards to life:

First, study the standards, performance expectations, and dimensions. (But don’t get bogged down and linger too long.) This will probably be easier than you expect, and more straightforward than the sometimes dense-looking documents may suggest.

Each standard is connected to specific performance expectations. The performance expectations are fairly direct, often including a statement to clarify its meaning or outline the boundaries of what students should know and be able to do.

Each performance expectation intentionally blends all three dimensions of science instruction: science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and cross-cutting concepts. When you look at an individual expectation, you’ll see relevant practices and concepts listed below it.

Happily, just below the performance expectation, there are references to specific common core literacy and math standards. The person(s) who decided to go to this trouble and make the connection back to reading, writing, and math should be congratulated. What a useful mechanism for helping teachers synthesize all these standards into something exciting, coherent, and doable.

Yes, it will take time and reflection to work through the page. It will take time to think about what it all means. And it will take time to build curriculum around these ideas. But what you need to implement the standard with integrity is all right there.

4-PS3-3 Energy standards

Second, analyze how concepts and topics are developed throughout the K-12 sequence. This understanding can inform how you write curriculum, design courses, and scaffold learning from grade to grade.

The appendices will prove helpful here, since they explain and illustrate the growing sophistication of the core ideas, practices, and cross-cutting concepts as a student moves from grade to grade.

Of course, the standards only say what students should know and be able to do as a result of instruction. They don’t determine the path to get there. This is why it’s critical for teachers to have the time and opportunity to work together across grades to redesign courses and then write the curriculum for those courses. Your district should tap your knowledge and expertise when thrashing out the pragmatic aspects of how the expectations lead to cohesive science instruction.

Collaboration is critical because bringing the standards to life goes beyond an individual classroom; there are big-picture decisions to be made. For example, should courses be more integrated, combining life, physical, and earth/space sciences? Or should they remain discipline-centered? (For the record, I see good arguments either way.)

An online enhancement to the standards could be invaluable as a district works to create course descriptions and/or develop curriculum. As a teacher rolls across key words in a performance expectation, it’s easy to see the specific practices, core ideas, and cross-cutting concepts that relate.

MS-PS1 Matter and its Interactions standards

Third, use backward design as you develop curriculum. Performance expectations should be the centerpiece of every science unit.

Backward design, developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, helps teachers align assessment, instruction, and unit content. The standards are already set up to help you do just that, with clear performance expectations from which you can “back up.”

I am looking forward to the amazing lesson and unit plans that teachers will come up with in response to these performance expectations, pushing students not only to know things, but also be able to do them.

Fourth, keep professional conversation alive and active. It is through professional conversation that our collective pedagogical expertise will grow and spread. Analyzing our work will help us find holes and gaps, as well as identify innovative practices.

There are many thousands of science teachers whose expertise can be activated in bringing these standards to life, with fidelity and a strong commitment to student learning. But can our educational system take the long view, setting us up for success? I hope that you will be part of the conversation and solution now, not a bystander who feels overwhelmed and unheard later.


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