September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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:

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 Region 4 Director for CSTA.

7 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.

  4. Interesting article.

    I agree with Pete. I am not convinced that NGSS for Chem is a good idea.

    I have not heard any input from college professors on how it affects their incoming students.

    I found this article while looking for chemistry phenomena to use for NGSS. I live in California and this is the direction education is going here. I am just trying to get prepared for what I have to do. I need a paycheck. California is an expensive state to live. Aka: the welfare state. Someone has to pay for all of those entitlements.

  5. NGSS conflates how technically trained professionals “do” science with the best methods for teaching children how to learn science. This is not just a mistake – but will inflict irreparable harm to a generation of young people. High school chemistry epitomizes this backwards approach. Tired of hearing the claim that NGSS are a “floor not a ceiling” – this philosophy defeats the very purpose of having true educational standards. When the minimizing of the chemistry curriculum is combined with the so-called integrated science model at the middle level, confusion – not enlightenment – will be the norm. So sorry to see CA taking the NGSS hook, line, and sinker. We here in NY are following in your footsteps and I for one do not like the road we are following.

  6. New York has enhanced the NGSS with standards that do include the key chemistry concepts. Kudos to NYS! They are not the only ones, either.

    The fact about any standard is that it paves a particular path. Sure, teachers can add on their own side excursions, but they have no guidance or reason to do so. These standards set a national floor, and states that do not build on that floor will be setting a ceiling in the same place.

    The NGSS are a good example of doing the wrong things for the right reasons. I am a former large-university chemistry professor and so was particularly bothered by the loss of gas laws, acid-base chemistry, and a number of other crucial elements for understanding our world. We definitely must have our science classes use the inquire-explore-discover approach to science. We also should have an introduction to basic engineering — but not the wholesale replacement of science with engineering that some organizations propose. These are good ideas. However, the implementation of ideas is where things always can go wrong.

    Somehow, the NGSS committee decided that physical science really means physics and left chemistry out in the cold. New York fixed that omission very neatly. Those not in that state should take the time to read their standards. You’ll find few amendments to NGSS outside of that context. New York really recognized the gaping hole in NGSS and fixed it.

    Let us hope that a future revision of NGSS will use the ideas from the wise people in New York and other states doing similar revisions (I have seen some in Missouri).

    In the meantime, must do as Wanda says and stretch the existing standards to cover these important concepts.

  7. To follow up, here is a link to the NYS standards:

    They added colligative properties, gas laws, acid/base behavior, redox reactions, Ohm’s law, lenses/mirrors, human reproduction, Moon phases/tides/eclipses/seasons, and weather to high school.

    Middle school additions: density, mixtures, and electric currents.

    In grade 3, they added one about relating water and weather.

    There were additions for pre-school and one for kindergarten.

    These are modest but significant additions. Despite the claim that the NGSS are not about content, they truly are because you cannot learn the requisite thinking skills in a vacuum, and the NGSS are shot through with content. Any state can copy New York. IMO, they all should, at least in approach. New York has created a great model for science standards based on the NGSS. They really work.

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.