For Science Standards, Begin at the Beginning
The Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards map out an inspiring vision of science education, in which students build a deep understanding of science and engineering during their journey from kindergarten to grade 12. Still, even educators who embrace this idea may feel daunted by the magnitude of the transformation it requires in science teaching and learning.
How will we get from where we are to where we want to go? The standards framework is challenging, with ambitious disciplinary core ideas, cross-cutting concepts, and practices of science and engineering intricately intertwined. We anticipate that schools will not be able to tackle all aspects of the standards at once, and that some kind of staged implementation is called for.
We find the essential clue about how to structure a staged implementation inside the science standards themselves, which are designed around the idea of learning progressions, with the subject matter and core ideas all growing in complexity and sophistication across the grades. Our suggestion, therefore? Introduce the science standards initially in a school's earliest grade—whether it's kindergarten or 1st grade—and continue that introduction in what we call an upward wave, adding one new grade per year.
This approach has two big advantages. The first concerns prior knowledge. If the standards are introduced one grade level at a time, then each cohort of students will arrive at each grade with the requisite prior knowledge. Teachers will not be asked to teach material for which students are unprepared, and students will not be held accountable for content for which they haven't learned the background.
Beginning at the beginning rather than the middle and laying a solid foundation for subsequent work are especially important for high-need students, who face myriad barriers to making a smooth transition to new expectations.
The importance of prior knowledge should not be underestimated. Science is cumulative, and complicated ideas are built upon constituent concepts taught earlier, which makes a cumulative introduction of new standards and material all the more important. Implementing the full range of standards in all grades at once would expose fissures between what students have already learned and what they need to know going forward.
The authors of the new science standards understood the necessity of building on prior knowledge to reach ambitious performance expectations. Take, for example, the way the standards treat weather and climate. In kindergarten through 2nd grade, students investigate their local weather. In 3rd through 5th grades, they expand their spatial and temporal scale to consider climate. In 6th through 8th grades, the standards introduce causality, as students consider the factors behind weather and climate patterns.
All of these experiences inform the work that students will do in high school, when they are expected to engage with global-climate models and make predictions about future climate change. This is heavy, sophisticated content, far beyond the expectations of the state standards currently in place. But after a decade of building capacity among students and teachers, we are confident that students could reach high school equipped with sufficiently powerful habits of mind and foundational understandings that they would be ready to take on such high-level challenges.
The upward wave's second big advantage concerns time. Building upward gives districts the requisite time to adapt to the new standards and offer effective professional development for all science teachers, who will need time and support to implement the science standards effectively. From a district's perspective, the professional-development challenge becomes more tractable and affordable because only the fraction of the faculty that is at the leading edge of the wave in a given year would need intensive professional development.
Imagine a rising tide of professional development moving through schools, creating an increasingly large cohort of teachers trained in the science standards. If done well, this approach would encourage collaboration, reflection, and continual improvement. And it is much less disruptive than simultaneous whole-school implementation, which requires a massive infusion of effort, time, and cost to prepare teachers in all grade levels simultaneously.
Our opinion is bolstered by the recent experiences of states that are trying to implement the Common Core State Standards all at once.
New York, especially, proves a cautionary tale. When the common-core standards and related assessments were recently introduced last year in New York City, only 26 percent of students in grades 3-8 scored proficient in English/language arts and 30 percent in mathematics, compared with about 40 percent in English/language arts, and 60 percent in math, on the previous year's pre-common-core tests. Moreover, the drop was most precipitous in schools that were already underperforming.
The "all in" approach so far taken with the common core can feel more like a tsunami, hitting a district all at once, changing the landscape, and threatening to erode the very progress it is trying to make. Such disruption can lead to a backlash, followed by efforts to roll back or water down new standards.
Critics of the upward wave will object that students who are ahead of the wave will not benefit. Yet we would argue that it does such students no favors to move the goalposts midway through their science education—especially when such a move would assume knowledge and skills that those students simply do not have. Students ahead of the wave can continue to receive an internally coherent and strong science education.
Some educators look at the science standards' performance expectations for high school students and say, "This is impossible." We would reply that it's not impossible, but it will take a while to get there. So let's plan purposefully for a methodical, deliberate, staged journey toward the distant, but achievable, goal set by the Framework for K-12 Science Education.
Vol. 33, Issue 28, Page 33Published in Print: April 16, 2014, as Rolling Out Science Standards in an 'Upward Wave'