Problems with Next Generation Science Standards

NGSSThe Next Generation Science Standards are projected to be completed this month.  The process has been slightly different than we saw with the Common Core State Standards, but ultimately it seems like we’ll have the same result.  Special interest groups driving the standards with state departments and boards of education adopting them with little feedback from the public.  There were public comment periods, but those were poorly publicized with short time frames.

True state-led and vetted standards must include in-state public comment and vetting by elected representatives of the people.  Any process that doesn’t include this step is inherently flawed.  That said reviewers have found problems with the content.

The Fordham Institute, who endorsed the Common Core Math and ELA Standards, in their review of the Next Generation Science Standards second draft made public briefly in January of this year.  They said “large problems still abound” and those include:

  • In an apparent effort to draft fewer and clearer standards to guide K–12 science curriculum and instruction, the drafters continue to omit quite a lot of essential content. The pages that follow supply many examples. Among the most egregious omissions are most of chemistry; thermodynamics; electrical circuits; physiology; minerals and rocks; the layered Earth; the essentials of biological chemistry and biochemical genetics; and at least the descriptive elements of developmental biology.
  • As in version 1.0, some content that is never explicitly stated with regards to earlier grades seems to be taken for granted when referring to later grades—where, we fear, it won’t actually be found if the earlier-grade teachers do not see it made explicit.
  • Real science invariably blends content knowledge with core ideas, “crosscutting concepts,” and various practices, activities, or applications. The NGSS erroneously claims that presenting science as such an amalgam is a major innovation (“conceptual shift”), which it isn’t. Much more problematic, the NGSS has imposed so rigid a format on its new standards that the recommended “practices” dominate them, and basic science knowledge—which should be the ultimate goal of science education—becomes secondary. Such a forced approach also causes the language of these standards to become distractingly stereotyped and their interpretation a burden.
  • As noted above (and praised), the drafters made a commendable effort to integrate “engineering practices” into the science rather than treating engineering as a separate discipline. Still—once again—their insistence on finding such practices in connection with so many standards sometimes leads to inappropriate or banal exercises—and blurs the real meaning of “engineering.”
  • The effort to insist on “assessment boundaries” in connection with every standard often leads to a “dumbing down” of what might actually be learned about a topic, seemingly in the interest of “one-size-fits-all” science that won’t be too challenging for students. This is a mistake in at least two ways. First, it potentially limits how far and how deep advanced students (and their teachers) might go. (The vague assertion that this can be dealt with via “advanced” high school courses helps almost not at all.) Second, it usurps the prerogative of curriculum builders and those constructing (and determining proficiency levels on) assessments to make these decisions for themselves. It’s one thing to set forth what must be covered in school; it’s quite another to try to put limits on how much more might be covered—and to suggest that not going farther is perfectly okay, even for pupils who could and would. What’s more, these “boundaries” are often used to strip science of critical mathematics content.
  • A number of key terms (e.g., “model” and “design”) are ill defined or inconsistently used.
  • Even as the amplitude of new appendices adds welcome explanation and clarification of what is and isn’t present and why, it also produces a structure for NGSS that most users, especially classroom teachers, will find complex and unwieldy. Even the attempts to help users understand and apply these standards (as in the four-page PDF document titled “How to read the NGSS standards”) are complicated and confusing. Moreover, the various appendices are clearly aimed at different audiences without ever saying so. Will a fifth-grade teacher actually make her way to Appendix K to obtain additional (and valuable) information about science-math alignment and some pedagogically useful examples? Will the final version of NGSS omit some of the intervening appendices that have more to do with the philosophical, political, and epistemological leanings of the project and its leaders than with anything of immediate value to real schools?
  • Although the “alignment” of NGSS math with Common Core math is improved, there also seems to have been a conscious effort by NGSS drafters not to expect much science to be taught or learned of the sort that depends on math to be done properly. This weakens the science and leads, once again, to a worrisome dumbing down, particularly in high school physics—which, as the reviewers note, “is inherently mathematical.” It must also be noted that Appendix K, valuable as it is in grades K–5, is essentially AWOL from the middle and high school grades, where it is most needed. Indeed, our math reviewers found “no guidance about the specific mathematics to be used for individual science standards at the high school level. And only occasional guidance at the middle school level.”

You can read their comments on the first draft here.

Then Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, approaching the standards from a faith-based perspective, in his lecture at the 24th Annual Educational Policy Conference of the Constitutional Coalition in St. Louis in January listed three major concerns of the standards treatment of evolution and climate change that is of concern to him.

  1. The are religiously non-neutral which would lead to indoctrination, not education.
  2. The standards fail to distinguish historical from experimental science.
  3. The standards fail to distinguish for students the various definitions of evolution, leading them to assume that the word always denotes the same thing.

He shared an additional problem which he said should be “condemned by every scientist no matter his religious persuasion.”

The standards frequently present science as “an enterprise promoted by consensus.” On the contrary, consensus is not a scientific but a politi
cal value, as should be clear to anyone familiar with the history of science, which chronicles scores or even hundreds of great reversals of once reigning paradigms—as documented, e.g., in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Science does not seek to attain truth by popular—or expert—vote, but by logical reasoning from premises provided by observations of the surrounding world.

I consider this one of the most serious errors in the standards both because it undermines true science and because it plays into the hands of those who intentionally politicize science—the proponents and practitioners of post-normal science.

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