January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Is the NGSS Going to Ruin High School Chemistry?

Posted: Monday, October 19th, 2015

By Pete A’Hearn and Wanda Battaglia

Pete: Most science teachers I work with are excited about the shift to NGSS and exploring new possibilities for student learning. But, I have heard some grumbling from high school chemistry teachers that NGSS is gutting chemistry. “Why there are no standards for subjects like the Gas Laws, acids and bases, naming of compounds, and solutions that are an important part of chemistry?”

I know that you are a high school chemistry teacher who is working hard on NGSS. How would you respond to these teachers?

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Wanda: NGSS is asking for a change in the thinking…the NGSS Performance Expectations don’t describe “subjects”, but long-term transfer skills. NGSS is “science for all students”. It represents the basic framework for teachers to design their curriculum. Teachers can add as much as content as they want–but it’s important to change the process by which the students are learning it.

Even though certain content is not explicitly mentioned, that does not mean that it can’t be taught. Gas laws, for example, could be covered within HS-PS1-3, HS-PS1-5, HS-PS1-6, or HS-PS2-6…basically anywhere that molecular interactions would be discussed. Performance expectations can be bundled– teachers must not think in terms of “those chapters from the book” anymore, but apply more of their own creativity and integrate content to explore phenomena.

An example is a unit I’ve taught on Atomic Structure that bundles Chemistry standards on the structure of the atom, the physics of waves, and their uses in astronomy and medical technology. Resources for the unit can be found at: https://ngsschemistry.wordpress.com/unit-2-atomic-structure/.

Many teachers I know are still covering their “old & comprehensive” content in Honors Chemistry, but redesigning their classes to be more investigative and/or problem-based. In “regular” Chemistry, the focus is more on the practices and crosscutting concepts.

Pete: Yes, it’s important to remember that NGSS is the floor, not the ceiling. It’s focused on the learnings that students will need to solve problems or understand science ideas in the real world, it’s not about marching through the subjects in the book.

But many teachers feel that without doing lots of Chemistry math problems, students will not be prepared for college level work in Chemistry. They feel that to best prepare kids for college, their classes need to look like college. That means lots of lecture, lots of problem sets. One of the things we hear about science and engineering pathways is that many kids who go to college intending to study science and engineering are unprepared for the amount of math and drop out. Won’t downplaying the math make this problem worse?

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Wanda: Teachers can put as much math into it as they want. The NGSS should not be viewed as restrictive, but flexible. From my perspective, the NGSS has a focus on students understanding relationships between variables, not just learning how to “plug & chug,” which is the traditional way.

For example, I have had Honors Chemistry students who could plug in numbers using the ideal gas equation, but could not explain if their answer made sense. They understood where the numbers go, and how to solve the equation, but could not demonstrate any understanding of how the variables affected each other. Students must investigate to uncover those relationships, so that the math then makes sense.

It is more important that the average student has the necessary thinking skills to tackle problems in general. Students who are college bound, and contemplating a career in a science or technical field, should be taking AP Chemistry to prepare them for college chemistry.

Pete: What is your vision for how a student who goes through high school with NGSS will be prepared for college and career? How will that be different than a student’s experience now?

Wanda: With a cohesive and passionate K-12 implementation of NGSS, I believe that students will exit high school with the ability to be more independent in their thinking and problem solving, while also sustaining more of an inquisitive mindset. This will foster more innovative thinking on the part of our students, which will contribute to success beyond high school in any area of study.

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

3 Responses

  1. It seems that we are still talking about two sides of the same coin. I understand that the tendency to “plug and chug” has been prevalent in the past because of the need to march through the material/textbook. However, to seemingly ignore that and only focus on the relationships is also incomplete. It is disingenuous to imply that just understanding the relationships between variables will create complete understanding. Furthermore, I know of very few chemistry teachers who completely forgo the practice of relating variables within a concept. Lastly, Wanda is making a sweeping judgement that I think is pervasive among the NGSS crowd:
    “It is more important that the average student has the necessary thinking skills to tackle problems in general.”
    How is this not gutting high school chemistry? How will the future college science student that Wanda describes be successful in AP Chemistry if they have not at encountered something similar before? The college science student will benefit from having taken AP chemistry, but the general high school chem student cannot as they progress to AP chem? And are you really suggesting that only students with AP science backgrounds will seek out science education and careers? What does that mean for students at my site where our AP Chem and AP Bio programs are offered every other year?
    You may not have intended those connections to be made, but this is largely due to the ambiguousness of your answer, which are so similarly made by so many regarding the impact of NGSS on science learning and programs.

  2. Wanda’s glib reply that teachers are perfectly free to include all of the chemistry that was left out of the NGSS, and to use as much math practice as they think necessary, ignores the fact that time is not infinite. The gutting of chemistry is very real, and is partially acknowledged in the proposed implementation (“course mapping”) document published by the NGSS team. It acknowledges that in many states, there are three science courses: biology, chemistry, and physics. Biology and NGSS Life Science map very well. NGSS Earth Science should indeed be taught, but does not map onto those other courses at all. And NGSS Physical Science is 75% physics and 25% chemistry. In places like California, where the state university has declared that only biology, chemistry, and physics count as science courses for admission to college, but where the organizationally separate state department of education has declared that public schools will adopt the NGSS, districts end up forced into what NGSS calls the “Modified Science Domains Model,” which means that four pounds of content are stuffed into a three-pound bag. Schools will teach courses called biology, chemistry, and physics, to satisfy UC, but will actually be cutting much of that content, especially in chemistry, in order to replace it with the earth science that students will be tested on statewide.

    The intellectually honest solution, and the pedagogically best one, is for high schools to offer four years of college prep science: earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics, as some states have been doing for years. It’s an outrageous cop-out to say, as Wanda does, that students who want to consider majoring in a technical field in college should take AP Chemistry. Apparently she is unaware that not everyone in the United States has that option. Furthermore, that’s an unreasonable declaration. If we properly serve our students, they should be prepared to major in whatever they might want to, based purely on the college prep high school courses they take. To say “Let them take AP Chemistry” is really showing a “let them eat cake” level of detachment from the actual situations of real students.

    As a former research scientist, I know that you can’t solve a problem until you first admit that it exists and then define it. The comments in the article attempt to deny that a problem exists.

  3. I hope this article is way off the mark. I agree with Erik Cross 100%. It is the baby with the bathwater issue all over again. The content standards were lacking so rather than add the expectations of NGSS, we toss the content standards all out? “Teachers can put as much math into it as they want. The NGSS should not be viewed as restrictive, but flexible.” I’m not sure my parent stakeholders would be comfortable knowing that there is not a clear understanding of what their child will learn or that a child in another teacher’s class may leave better prepared for AP or college chem. It looks like again we are going to lower the chem bar so low that the kids are going to trip on it when they walk in the door. I WILL make sure my students know how to do the math required to prepare them for AP and college chem while implementing NGSS. I am vertically planning with my AP chem teacher to ensure that we do just that. But how can a teacher who teaches a class called “chemistry” not prepare them for a STEM major or career? Apparently the California Science Teachers Association calls it NGSS.

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