A Case Against the Next Generation Science Standards from New Hampshire

Ann Marie Banfield with Cornerstone Action in New Hampshire wrote an excellent letter to her local school board in Bedford, NH about the Next Generation Science Standards that I thought was worth sharing as a model.

You can read it in its entirety below.

I was unable to attend the last school board meeting, but I did get a chance to review the video online.  I’m deeply concerned by the lack of core classes in math and science based on what parents are reporting.  Several years ago I asked the administration to draw up a list of “needs versus wants.”  If administrators identified expenditures as needs versus wants, it would be helpful when looking at what is really needed right now.  I don’t recall any follow-up information where this has been done. I agree that staffing math and science courses should be a priority.

I watched the presentation on the Next Generation Science Standards that are currently being implemented in the district.  It was disappointing that no critical analysis was presented on these new science standards.  If we are going to expect teachers to teach students to “think critically,” isn’t it equally important that those presenting information, also offer a critical analysis on the NGSS?

The NGSS were adopted by the State Board of Education last year.  The presentation to the State Board of Education also lacked any critical analysis by content experts. The only higher education science professor who commented on the NGSS offered no details in his short comments and a brief letter to me, which included his testimony to the State Board of Education.

How do you, as a board, make thoughtful decisions when you are not provided information on one of the most important components of science education in the district?

The NGSS are national science standards similar to the Common Core Standards.  Achieve Inc, run Michael Cohen, is a D.C. based trade group and was involved with developing the NGSS and Common Core State Standards. I’d challenge anyone to point to an example where they’ve improved student outcomes.

The Common Core Standards have come under a great deal of scrutiny since they were adopted in 2010 by the New Hampshire Board of Education.  The new Commissioner of Education, Frank Edelblut, has also made public statements that he would like to review the CCSS and the NGSS based on critical information, that in my opinion, should have been reviewed and debated prior to any formal adoption by the State Board of Education.

Bedford is under no obligation to use standards that were adopted by the State Board of Education.  Not only are they not under any obligation, it seems reasonable that the board would want to do a thoughtful analysis before agreeing to use these standards in our district.

For instance, many teachers are still covering their old and comprehensive content in Honors Chemistry but now redesigning their classes to be more investigative and focused on problem-solving. There is an emphasis on solving problems and understanding science ideas in the real world, but I’m also hearing from Chemistry teachers that this will not prepare students for college level work because, in order to prepare students for college, their classes need to look like a college class.  This means lots of lecture and problem sets.

Having a brother who holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry, lives, and works for an international company in Germany, I have had access to someone who works and lives Chemistry on a daily basis.  I asked him to look over the NGSS and what jumped out to him was the lack of physical science in the standards.

The scarcity of chemistry standards would not cover a basic chemistry course. Physics is almost absent and instead mentions a physics principle. The life science standards are lacking a great deal of biology, including whole body systems, cell and tissue types, cellular feedback mechanisms, protein structure and function, cell division (mitosis and meiosis), bacteria and virus.  All of this may be covered in AP or IB science, but if those classes are cut or students do not take these higher level sciences, would they be denied the academic content in their high school science classes now?

What’s missing from a standard physical science course in 9th grade?  Newton’s first law, energy thermodynamics, Ohm’s law, simple electrical circuits and lab safety.  This means that there isn’t enough content for a typical one-year physical science class.

Jennifer Helms, Ph.D., RN commented that the NGSS are performance standards rather than academic content standards and rely on group project /grades — this means grading on group consensus and writing rather than the student’s content knowledge.  She highlighted that the human body is missing; other essential life science concepts are absent, such as “bacteria” and “virus”; cytology (design and function of cells) is woefully lacking (no mention of protein structure and functions, cellular feedback mechanisms, cell and tissue types, etc).  In her professional opinion, the NGSS are intended to be a set of science appreciation standards rather than rigorous educational standards.

The NGSS rely heavily on project-based learning rather than content learning. The teacher becomes a “guide on the side,” versus an instructor that students would encounter in a college level science class. This contradicts findings from a study conducted by University of Virginia professor Robert Tai and Harvard University researcher Philip Sadler. Their study appeared in the International Journal of Science Education.  Data showed that autonomy doesn’t seem to hurt students who are strong in math.  However, students with a weak math background who engaged in self-structured learning practices in high school may do as much as a full letter grade poorer in college science.

Student-led projects and investigations do not appear to be as productive as other approaches to teaching science in high school. Increasing student autonomy may be motivated by the goal of providing experiences more akin to scientific research, but only the strongest students appear to something, out of such opportunities. http://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=52399.

Sometimes these teaching methods sound good in theory but do not always work well in the classroom, or for all students.  Making sure a teacher has the autonomy to change up teaching methods is a must.  This is why standards should focus on what a child should learn, versus tell a teacher how to teach the subject.  Teaching methods should be worked out between teachers and administrators.  If parents are concerned about the pedagogy, they can then work with the teacher and administrators to make necessary changes.  When standards dictate a pedagogy that has already been studied as ineffective for some learners, why adopt standards that utilize one-size fits all?

Some frustrated parents have already asked if I knew my child was going to teach science to other students through all of these projects, shouldn’t they at least receive some of the teacher’s salary?  Students report that not much learning is going on in the groups, and the more motivated/smarter students carry the others.

Students do not always know what they want to take in college when they are freshmen in high school.  Making sure Bedford students have a basic foundation in science, is what I believe, most parents want for their children. If they make a decision to go into nursing as juniors or as seniors, there is a great deal of content they should know in order to prepare them for an extremely challenging workload. The NGSS would not be an adequate basic foundation.

Hearing how core math and science classes have been cut and now how Bedford is now implementing the NGSS has me very concerned about preparing Bedford students for STEM careers and college programs.

I have heard proponents of the NGSS speak in terms of getting students interested in science.  There is nothing like a great teacher who has the gift of teaching this subject. However, critics have raised concerns that there is too little emphasis on quality academic science content to make the NGSS quality science standards. This is why a there was a call to reject the NGSS in Massachusetts.  Given their history of developing the best academic standards in the country, they knew what they were giving up if they adopted the NGSS.

According to this study they call for,”….the Draft Science and Technology/Engineering Standards to Be Withdrawn and mention the “Astonishing” gaps in science content too large to be resolved editorially. “The proposed science standards have significant, unacceptable gaps in science content,” says Dr. Stan Metzenberg, a professor of biology at California State University and author of “A Critical Review of the Massachusetts Next Generation Science and Technology/Engineering Standards.”

Finally, Fordham Foundation reported that…”High school physical science content is virtually nonexistent. Entire areas that are fundamental to the understanding of physics and chemistry—and essential prerequisites for advanced study—are omitted. Among these are chemical formulas, chemical equations, the mole concept and its applications, kinematics, thermodynamics, and pretty much all of modern physics, including all of the advances of physics since about 1950, as well as their transformative engineering applications.

Nor is energy ever covered with adequate depth and rigor (as explained further below). The idea of building on earlier non-rigorous ideas of energy and making them rigorous at the high school level is glaringly absent.

“Static electricity” is mentioned only once and it’s not well explained or developed. “Current electricity” isn’t covered at all. These are serious omissions.” (pg.34)

Here are some suggestions to the Board:

  1. Ask administrators for a side by side comparison of the NGSS to science standards that were considered the best in the country.  What is missing from the NGSS?
  2. Take the list of missing standards and discuss/debate whether or not to include them.  Are they included in the AP/IB science classes or any alternative science classes?  Parents have the right to see this kind of information.
  3. Look at the political bias in the NGSS and discuss/debate publicly whether it’s appropriate to have a set of science standards that include political bias.
  4. Ask members of the Bedford community who hold higher level degrees in Math, Science or Engineering to read through the NGSS and compare them to science standards that were considered the best in the country. What are their views on the different science standards?
  5. Make all of this information available to Bedford residents in order to solicit feedback.
  6. Read the NGSS, compare them yourself, then decide whether the NGSS are the best for Bedford schools.  If not, look at using better quality standards.

The problem with the NGSS is that they lack a great deal of actual science content standards.  If Bedford is going to move forward with NGSS as their science standards, I would urge you to do so cautiously given the Commissioner’s interest in reviewing the standards in the future.

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration,

Ann Marie Banfield
Bedford, NH

One thought on “A Case Against the Next Generation Science Standards from New Hampshire

  1. NGSS was adopted by New Hampshire in November 2016. Ms. Banfield’s letter correctly outlines several problems with NGSS, but at least two important points were not mentioned.

    First, the NGSS are meant to be basic science standards that essentially all students should be able to meet. NGSS claims it prepares students for “college, careers, and citizenship.” This may well be true if the student is not planning to work in a science, mathematics, or technology field. Students aiming for technical careers, however, should take more advanced (non-NGSS) courses in high school.

    Thus, NGSS high school standards in physics and chemistry are limited because they are designed for a general physical science course. Brighter students should skip the general course or supplement it with more advanced courses in physics and chemistry.

    The second issue is more critical in the long run, and it’s not mentioned at all in Ms. Banfield’s letter. This is the fact that the NGSS are based on “methodological naturalism” (MN), the assumption or doctrine that all explanations in science must be based on natural or material causes – that is, natural laws and chance. MN does not allow any teleological (intentional design) explanations of phenomena to be considered.

    The use of MN in standards dealing with past historical events is particularly disturbing. The NGSS assume that all past events can be explained by natural/material causes, when in fact most people believe that God (or some other intelligent agent) had something to do with the origin of the universe and the development of life. NGSS never mentions the teleological possibility, leaving students with the impression that naturalistic science can explain everything in nature.

    As a first step, high school classes should explain the use and effect of MN in science education. Students will hear the materialistic story from standards based on NGSS. But they should also be exposed to the considerable scientific evidence that infers teleological causation in nature. Then the individual students can decide which explanations, material or teleological, best fit the evidence.

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