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Observations by Larry: NGSS Angst and the Way Forward

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 21, 2015 | Observations by Larry

There are those around us who are wondering what the initialism NGSS stands for. Some suggest maybe it is short for Next Guess Science Standards. Those who have lived through countless versions of "the next big thing" in education have grown justifiably cynical about implementing "promising new" policies and practices in education. So it's not surprising that elementary educators may be experiencing NGSS angst. NGSS angst is the stress and anxiety created by the perceived urgency to make informed decisions and take meaningful action around the Next Generation Science Standards. NGSS angst is exacerbated by tension produced by the call to recreate science as a priority in an environment where the accountability police mandate that instructional time be dominated by language skills and arithmetic, leaving only scraps of time for content instruction: science, social studies, and art.

But that was then, and this is now, or should I say this is next, because next is now. Informed elementary educators are turning to science for solutions to intractable achievement deficits. The usual priority topics of language arts—reading, writing, active listening, coherent speaking, vocabulary, and communication—are being exercised more effectively than ever before by embedding them in science instruction. And the overarching goals of science instruction are gaining traction as business and government spokespeople are becoming increasingly vocal in their desire to see more graduates who are scientifically literate and knowledgeable in the various dimensions of STEM education. To these ends it is incumbent on elementary educators to be conversant in the goals and cognizant of the spirit of the NGSS. How should we prepare to make effective decisions about how to act on the NGSS?

First, we have to remember that the NGSS are based on the National Research Council's A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (2012). The NGSS are a derivative product of this fine document. Consider this analogy: many of us have had the experience of going to a movie based on a book we read that we considered to be top-notch, only to be disappointed that the film version did not meet our expectations. Those involved in the adaptation may have had the best of intentions, but the end product doesn't meet exactly with what we personally would have liked to have seen. I'm afraid that this will be the experience of many of us as we study the Framework and the NGSS. For me, the NGSS are the well-intentioned derivative product of a really good book that ultimately didn't entirely meet my hopes for what the end product could have been. To understand where the NGSS are leading—the intention—we have to study the Framework carefully and thoroughly.

The Framework is at the same time a thoughtfully crafted description of the structure and scope of the anticipated student scientific knowledge, and a philosophical stance on how we should expect our students to learn that science. The Framework exposes and delimits the knowledge our students should acquire while simultaneously expecting a sufficient exposure to the crosscutting concepts that weave all of scientific knowledge and thinking into an integrated fabric that embraces all natural and human created systems. And an even deeper current running through the Framework is teaching about the nature of science. Deep engagement with science promotes a particularly unique kind of intellectual activity. Those who accept the challenge to engage the nature of science advance into a rarified cognitive state someplace between belief and enlightenment. Those who have taken the nature of science into their hearts have an almost spiritual level of comfort and familiarity with natural systems and principles. Not everyone is prepared to accept the nature of science as a guiding life principle, but that is an implicit goal of the new vision of science.

Cover for the book, A Framework for K-12 Science Education

So how does this relate to the NGSS? Remember, the NGSS are descriptions of student performance expectations. Each expectation is a complex statement including all three dimensions of the new vision of science instruction/learning: core disciplinary ideas (content), science and engineering practices (process), and crosscutting concepts (big ideas/themes of science). Students will not be able to demonstrate mastery of the NGSS performance expectations with a correct answer to a question. In the old paradigm we expected students to know the answers to questions, so we taught them the answers. "Good students" learned and remembered the answers and got As on their exams. In the new paradigm, student will be asked to respond to complex scenarios and will be expected to develop and communicate sophisticated explanations based on their knowledge and understanding of scientific content and principles, crosscutting concepts, and the practices engaged in by scientists and engineers. Wow, this is a path never before traveled in science education. So, if we can't teach students the answers to questions they are going to be asked, what are we suppose to teach? We are supposed to provide students with the opportunity to learn comprehensive, meaningful science, which they will draw upon to answer questions they have never encountered or thought about before. Thus, NGSS angst!

Achieve, Inc., the brain trust behind the NGSS, has developed documents to assist with the work of making thoughtful decisions concerning the adoption of instructional materials to move learning in the right directions. The first tool released by Achieve was the Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuIP) Rubric. This rubric guides educators through a series of evaluative steps to determine how well an instructional event (lesson or unit) is aligned with the goals of the NGSS. The process of using the EQuIP tool can be a bit long and somewhat tedious, and may in the long run be of limited usefulness. As I write this, a second evaluative document is just out in draft form, Primary Evaluation of Essential Criteria for Alignment (PEEC-Alignment). The PEEC-Alignment tool is designed to provide information about the alignment of entire school programs—curriculum, instructional materials, teacher support materials—with the intent of NGSS. Because of the revolutionary nature of the new vision for American science, the guidance provided by the PEEC-Alignment holds more potential for helping school systems make coherent, comprehensive decisions in the interest of deep reform of the structure and practice of elementary school science instruction.

The PEEC-Alignment tool will focus on a number of critically important considerations. Following are a few of these considerations.


  • Inventory and allocation of school resources; fiscal capital, human capital, community resources, professional development policy
  • Recognizing the essential relationship between science and language development
  • Commitment to learning progressions within grade-level units and coordinated across all grades
  • Commitment to sufficient instructional time
  • Commitment to professional/staff development
  • Developing a coherent, intelligent curriculum plan

In summary, the most efficient, straightforward remedy for NGSS angst is pretty simple: adopt FOSS Next Generation Edition. Doing so will replace NGSS angst with another form of angst: FOSS Next Gen implementation angst. And for this form of angst you have a lot of support: Your FOSS product team at Delta Education, a strong national network of knowledgeable, experienced FOSS teachers, administrators, and professional developers, and your FOSS program development team at the Lawrence Hall of Science.

And a simple parting thought, thanks to scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, "The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it."