Common Science Standards Face Capacity Issues

May 14, 2013 11 min read
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With the completion of new standards intended to reshape science education, the real heavy lifting now begins.

First, states must decide whether to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards developed by a coalition of 26 states and several national organizations. Already, though, considerable focus is turning to laying the groundwork for the biggest task of all: bringing the standards to life at the classroom level.

The capacity challenges for states and school districts are immense as they contemplate taking on the new standards, which call for bringing greater depth to science understanding and asking students to apply that knowledge through the practices of scientific inquiry and engineering design.

The standards have major implications for critical levers in the education system, including teacher education and professional development, curriculum and instructional materials, and assessments. Addressing all that will take substantial time and money.

Mindful of the huge task ahead, and the full plates of educators and systems—especially with most states and thousands of districts still coming to terms with the Common Core State Standards in math and literacy—organizers of the standards-development process are preaching a go-slow approach to science.

States should “have the courage to be patient,” said Stephen L. Pruitt, a senior vice president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that managed the development of all three sets of standards. “They shouldn’t be rushing to implement the [science] standards. They should do it in their time, and when they’re ready.”

By moving at a deliberate pace, Mr. Pruitt said, states and districts “have this opportunity to build some capacity and build the right infrastructure for success.”

Coast to Coast

The 26 lead state partners in developing the Next Generation Science Standards have agreed to consider adopting them.


SOURCE: Achieve

One of the biggest issues, experts say, and a costly endeavor, is helping teachers deeply understand the vision for science education espoused by the standards and gain the knowledge and skills to effectively deliver on it.

“There are more than 3 million teachers of science, a lot of them elementary included in that, who in many ways are going to have to change what they do as they see the standards come on board,” said David L. Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va. “Finding the kinds of professional-development tools that are appropriate at scale is going to be a challenge for all of us.”

A new generation of science assessment tools will also be needed to match the standards.

Initiatives are already underway to support implementation.

The congressionally chartered National Research Council, which crafted a framework to guide creation of the standards, is writing a report to inform the development of aligned assessments.

The NSTA, a partner in producing the standards, has generated some resources, including webinars, articles, and readers’ guides to the standards and the framework. And the standards played a lead role in the NSTA’s annual conference last month in San Antonio. Also, the group is working with Achieve and states to build a tool to guide states in ensuring that instructional units fit the standards.

In addition, teams from more than 40 states have met periodically since 2011 under an initiative called Building Capacity for State Science Education, with the standards being a core focus.

Peter McLaren, the past president of the Council of State Science Supervisors, which is spearheading that effort, said the next two-day meeting, in June, will focus on key implementation questions: “How is this going to affect the system of assessment, the system of instruction, of professional development?”

Even as Mr. McLaren sees big capacity challenges looming, he also sees great power in states’ banding together around common science standards.

“We can look at models for professional development, and it can be ubiquitous across state lines,” he said. “It’s going to drive the bus in terms of [instructional] materials, in terms of preservice models.”

New professional-development offerings are already emerging. For example, the Next Generation Science Exemplar System, being developed with support from a National Science Foundation grant, aims to provide a Web-based system of professional development that allows access to videos, texts, and tools at any time and that has a strong emphasis on demonstrating what a classroom looks like that reflects the standards’ vision. Seven states, including Arkansas, California, and Minnesota, will pilot a unit on the physical sciences this year.

Whether the Next Generation Science Standards succeed will depend on the strength of the professional learning opportunities for educators, said Fred B. Ende, the regional science coordinator for the Putnam-Westchester area in New York state. “That to me is really going to be the glue that holds this together.”

‘Knowledge in Use’

The new standards were more than three years in the making. What sets them apart from existing state standards, and even those abroad, experts say, is how they weave together three dimensions: disciplinary core ideas; science and engineering practices; and “cross-cutting concepts” that span scientific disciplines.

“You can travel worldwide and you’re not going to find standards like them,” said Joseph S. Krajcik, a professor of science education at Michigan State University who served on the 41-member standards-writing team.


The Next Generation Science Standards are built on three dimensions of science education that are woven together in each standard: science and engineering practices, cross-cutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas.

Behaviors that scientists engage in as they investigate and build models and theories about the natural world, as well as practices that engineers use to design and build models and systems.

Cross-Cutting Concepts
Concepts that apply across all domains of science and are a way of linking them together. The seven concepts include energy and matter; scale, proportion, and quantity; and cause and effect.

Core Ideas
These ideas—such as energy, biological evolution, and earth’s systems—cover the four domains of the physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and applications of science.

SOURCE: Next Generation Science Standards

At the heart of them is a set of performance expectations that ask students to take actions to show their learning, such as plan and conduct investigations, make observations, analyze data, and devise models.

“It’s about knowledge in use,” said Mr. Krajcik. This is a “different way of thinking about teaching and learning.”

(Major funding for developing the standards was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Other funders include the Noyce Foundation. Both foundations help support Education Week news coverage.)

The practices are often mentioned as the dimension that may well be the most significant change, and challenge, in classrooms.

“That’s the biggest take-away for my teachers, ... that their instruction will change drastically,” said Diane E. Sanna, the director of curriculum and instruction for the 1,900-student Tiverton district in Rhode Island, where educators have been receiving professional development focused mainly on the NRC framework. “A lot of it has to do with the practices.”

Mr. Pruitt of Achieve said the standards also demand deeper knowledge of core concepts, even though they cover less ground.

“There is going to be a much greater level of content knowledge needed here from both the teachers and the students,” he said. “The reason for that is how they use the knowledge. ... Constructing an explanation is not just saying mitosis has four phases.”

Defining ‘Quality’

In the elementary grades, the task may be especially tough. Most teachers lack significant background in science and don’t spend much time teaching the subject.

“The challenge for elementary schools is probably the most overwhelming because [the federal No Child Left Behind Act] has marginalized science and social studies and everything else that used to be in the elementary curriculum,” said Suzanne M. Wilson, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.

Just one-fifth of K-3 educators teach science every day, a recent national survey found. And more than half of elementary teachers said they did not feel “very well prepared” to teach the subject.

Writing last month for the journal Science, Ms. Wilson argued that helping teachers acquire the “knowledge, skill, and will” to meet the standards is a “daunting enterprise requiring large-scale professional development.”

The professional-development landscape is a “smorgasboard of opportunities” in which quality varies greatly, she said in an interview. “The average teacher in the average American school doesn’t have access to those really high-quality learning opportunities.”

Overlapping With the Common Core

The science and engineering practices embedded in the new science standards have considerable synergy with the practices and skills promoted in the common-core math and literacy standards.


SOURCES: Next Generation Science Standards; Tina Cheuk, Stanford University

Even the best training may come to naught, she added, if the school culture doesn’t nurture it.

Designing curriculum and instructional materials that fit the letter and spirit of the standards, especially the integration of the core ideas, practices, and cross-cutting concepts, poses another major challenge.

“What we tell people is, if you go to any of the vendors who say, ‘This is NGSS-ready,’ stay far away from them, or laugh at them. There’s no way that could be [true yet],” said Mr. McLaren from the science-supervisors council, who also is a science and technology specialist at the Rhode Island education department. “It’s not as simple as taking a text editor and just putting in the practices and handing it back.”

The NSTA and Achieve are working with states on a tool to gauge the alignment of instructional units.

“What this rubric was born out of was the idea of building a better consumer,” said Mr. Pruitt, with the emphasis on identifying a common definition of quality. “It’s very focused on instructional units. This is not for textbook evaluation or daily lessons.”

Analysts say one big adjustment for textbook publishers will be whittling down the huge amount of material typically covered to reflect the standards’ call for greater focus on a smaller number of concepts. Meanwhile, the science kits popular at the elementary level will also need to be redesigned to match the standards.

Although publishers don’t necessarily need to start from scratch, several experts said, they do need to make substantial changes to their offerings and not simply tinker around the edges.

An appendix to the standards drives home the need for “focus” on fewer concepts in depth, as well as “coherence” in the curriculum.

“What this means to teachers and curriculum developers is the same ideas or details are not covered each year,” it says. “Rather, a progression of knowledge occurs from grade band to grade band that gives students the opportunity to learn complex material.”

The NRC framework itself has a chapter on implementation. In addressing curriculum matters, it says that “the adoption of [the] standards by multiple states may help drive publishers to align with it. Such alignment may at first be superficial, but schools, districts, and states can influence publishers if enough of them are asking for serious alignment.”

Assessment is another looming issue of concern.

A 17-member NRC panel of experts is working on a conceptual framework for science exams and recommendations for developing “valid, reliable, and fair assessments.” It will not, however, develop any test items.

"[M]uch of what is needed to effectively assess science learning [in line with the NGSS], either at the classroom level, or for purposes of system monitoring, has yet to be created, ... and the design and implementation challenges are substantial,” writes James W. Pellegrino, the co-chairman of that NRC panel and a professor of the learning sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in an article last month in Science.

At the same time, he identifies some “promising cases from which to learn and build,” including a recently redesigned National Assessment of Educational Progress in science, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, and revised Advanced Placement courses and exams in biology, chemistry, and physics.

Mr. Pellegrino cautions against moving too quickly. When “done poorly,” assessment “sends the wrong signals and skews teaching and learning,” he said. “Our greatest danger may be a rush to turn the NGSS into sets of assessment tasks for use on high-stakes state accountability tests.”

As for other capacity issues, such as whether technology or science laboratory equipment is adequate, state officials and some experts said that while they are valuable tools in the service of the standards, special investments won’t necessarily be required. Mr. Kracjik of Michigan State said the standards are “neutral” on such matters. That said, the standards may raise questions about uneven access to such resources.

What could hinder movement, of course, is the political landscape. The science standards have been subjected to some sharp criticism, particularly on the handling of the politically sensitive issue of climate change. And the whole concept of common standards has drawn fire from some quarters. Supporters of the common-core standards are defending them against a backlash in several states. (See related story, Page 1.)

None of the lead states in developing the standards had adopted them as of last week, though all have pledged to seriously consider doing so. Some are expected to adopt the standards this year, and a number of non-lead states may well follow suit.

‘Reboot Opportunity’

The message to move slowly on implementation of the science standards seems to be resonating with state officials.

“Some people are still of the mindset of flipping a light switch,” said Matt D. Krehbiel, a science education consultant for the Kansas education department. “I’ve cautioned, this is an opportunity to think carefully about your system of science education in your district and what needs to be revised, a three- to four-year implementation plan to do this slowly and carefully.”

“A new standards adoption,” he said, “is like a reboot opportunity.”

Mr. McLaren also cites the light-switch metaphor to explain how states and districts should proceed.

“I don’t think of a light switch,” he said. “I think of a dimmer. The lights will come up slowly, become brighter and brighter.”

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Coverage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is supported by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week as Capacity Issues Confront Implementation of Standards


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