Education, Science

A Vote Against NGSS is Not a Vote Against Common Core

I’ve struggled before with the idea of a common curriculum.  The science teacher in me loves the idea, but the libertarian hiding under the surface sees problems.  Common Core State Standards, in the end, were an easy sell to me: I see the benefit in a very tangible way.  The skills and content knowledge covered in these standards is really powerful and necessary stuff.

The Next Generation Science Standards are a different beast.  On the surface they appear very similar, but if you look under the hood you’ll see some glaring differences.  Yes, NGSS were developed by a consortium of states and agencies.  Yes, states must sign on before they are held to these standards.  But, when it comes to the quality of the standards, the similarities end.

Several authors have explained the nature of the NGSS, and I recommend their writing as a primer.  The bottom line is this: NGSS focuses on process skills over content knowledge.  This may, at first, seem like a really good thing.  After all, in my own science classroom I always taught students that science is both a collection of facts about our universe AND a way to solve problems.  I told them repeatedly that I was more interested in them learning the latter than the former.  It would seem that the NextGen standards take this attitude to an official level.  Digging a little deeper, though, reveals cracks in that generalization.

Under these new science standards, students spend much more time asking questions and performing investigations on their own than learning established dogma.  But, developing those inquiry skills happens largely before content knowledge is introduced.  We spend a lot of time asking a lot of questions at the expense, some (including myself) would argue, of pushing off useful and appropriate learning.  With these standards, students are asked to discover much of what we know about science by themselves.  When I teach the importance of the scientific process, it isn’t because I think students can discover the science content knowledge that they need.  It’s because I know they can find it online when they have need for it.  Therefore, I have spent a lot of time focusing on evaluating online resources and curating content.  Not open investigation, which is time-consuming and frustrating for many students.

And, moreover, the CCSS and NGSS don’t align.  The Common Core Math standards that directly impact science learning are taught at different times (sometimes by as much as 5 years!), and the NGSS turn a blind eye to the literacy standards that Common Core already includes for content learning in science.

In many ways, it’s an issue of the chicken and the egg.  If K-12 institutions make this change, it is quite likely that students will not have the skills and knowledge needed to matriculate at top-notch colleges as they stand now.  If higher education doesn’t change to fit the changing science classrooms envisioned by NGSS, our students may not have what it takes to get in.

Don’t get me wrong: I am glad that the NextGen Science Standards were created.  I think that they represent a decent first effort and a starting point for conversation.  But, I don’t think that most states will improve science instruction by implementing them.  We need a more integrated approach that acknowledges other standards, or states are better off working independently.  I also fear that those who criticize the Next Generation Science Standards will be accused of despising national standards or fighting against “government control”.  It needs to be made clear that national curricula are not inherently bad, but NGSS needs some work to be as effective as the Common Core.

What do you think of the NGSS?


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