January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

NGSS: Will There Be More or Less to Cover?

Posted: Sunday, July 1st, 2012

by Peter A’Hearn

The first period of public review for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is completed and I hope that many of you took the time to review the units that you are most familiar with. NSTA has posted an official response which in my opinion makes several good points and notes some key concerns.

Yesterday I went to a meeting on the common core standards for literacy in science and technical subjects and noted some important parallels with the NGSS and some common concerns.  Unlike the NGSS, which are still in the middle of their revision process and may or may not eventually become adopted by California, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a done deal. Testing on these standards, written for math and Language Arts, begins in 2015. What will happen to testing in science and social studies at that time is an open question and one that is currently being discussed by the AB 250 work group. (They are currently seeking public comment, click here for more information.) 

So what is in the CCSS for science teachers? On the math side there is a huge new emphasis on application, which could mean science and engineering if that is the way the testing and curriculum development go.

On the English/Language Arts side, there is a much greater emphasis on reading informational text. This should be 50% in elementary, 55% in middle school, and 70% in high school. Compare this to current curriculum, which is heavily focused on stories and literature. So this means that especially in elementary, there may be much more reading of science in ELA classes. The danger of this is that folks think reading about science is a replacement for doing science and this actually leads to less real science in elementary. Also we can hope that the testing and curricula for elementary ELA line up with science and other subjects- this would mean that the selected passages for reading and tests would actually be about grade level science subjects (or history, or art) instead of just random as it is now.

On the writing side, there is also a much greater emphasis on writing to explain and writing to persuade.  This parallels two of the science practices emphasized in the NGSS: engaging in argument from evidence and constructing explanations. These changes offer both an opportunity and a possible pitfall: the opportunity to get more time and respect for the types of literacy used in science, the pitfall is that science will be seen as a support for ELA and not an important subject in its own right (sound familiar?). An emphasis on reading and writing in science is a good thing, but not if it actually pushes out doing science. It occurred to me at the meeting that if the CCSS increase the amount of time spent reading and writing about science, and the NGSS increase the amount of time spent doing science, then the thing that will have to give is lecture and notes-this will have to be an increasingly small part of what happens in science classes, and I have to think that’s a positive step.

For all of this to happen, there is broad agreement that breadth of coverage of standards will have to be greatly reduced. This is in fact one of the charges given to the committee writing the NGSS-to cover fewer topics in greater depth (a colleague of mine recently pointed out that to “cover” means to hide or obscure).  So my question this month is, “did they do it?” When you look at your subject or grade level in the NGSS is there less there to cover? Will you have time to go into depth and engage in experimentation and argument and constructing explanations? Or did the committee do what committees naturally do and give everyone their pet subject and thus bloat the standards? My reading suggests that in some subjects and grade levels the standards writers showed great restraint and in others they failed. I’d love to hear your impressions.

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District, Co-Chair of the 2013 Conference Committee, and a member of CSTA.

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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.

One Response

  1. I share your concern over the risk that the CCSS may result in science resources being cut back to just a textbook used for “applied math” and “applled reading”.

    I can support the emphasis on reading and writing science in elementary school, if the emphasis results in students prepared for a “flipped” or “inverted” classroom environment during middle school.

    As I understand a “flipped” class: expository reading and writing homework can go “beyond the book” by using online resources and collaboration tools to engage students at the highest levels on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Students who do homework are prepared to question the teacher and receive differentiated instruction while they complete the homework before proceeding to do experiments and activities, analyze data, and discuss their conclusions. Grade-level teacher teams working collaboratively can build a common core of homework lessons and checks for understanding that support the creativity of each individual teacher’s style of classroom instruction and interaction. In practice, this results in very individualized instruction, so the teacher’s challenging work becomes pacing a large and heterogeneous group of students through the curriculum in time for state testing.

    So, I strongly support reducing the breadth and scope of the NGSS for each grade level within every grade span.

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