Educators Scramble for Texts to Match Science Standards

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 05, 2018 9 min read
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The Clark County, Nev., school district has worked hard for several years to get lessons aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards into teachers’ hands. As a result, the district’s director of K-12 science, Sheryl Colgan, does not mince words when asked what her teachers thought of a batch of newly published, purportedly aligned high school textbooks.

“The books were disappointingly very traditional, across the board,” she said.

For anyone who lived through the last decade with the advent of the Common Core State Standards and the challenge of finding curricula to match them, Colgan’s assessment will sound familiar.

Five years after the NGSS rolled out, districts are sorting through a nascent, untested curriculum landscape that’s full of murky claims—leaving both students and teachers in a tough spot as they try to put standards into action.

The challenge is accelerating, even as two developments promise to shake up the marketplace this fall. California, an influential bellwether, will adopt science curricula, and EdReports, a nonprofit that releases Consumer Reports-style curriculum reviews, will unveil its first look at science series.

Until then, though, many districts’ main decision on science curricula comes down to this: Buy now, or wait?

Tension Points

Though too often viewed as an afterthought, the vetting and adoption of curriculum affects many more students nationally than do charter schools or even the recent wave of teacher strikes.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now use the science standards, which were developed by a group of states and the national nonprofit Achieve. Within those states, districts’ purchase of new instructional materials stands to be their largest outlay in science for a decade.

While highly praised by science educators, the NGSS are exhausting in their complexity. Student performance is supposed to be “three dimensional,” reflecting science and engineering practices (such as devising and using models), themes that cut across disciplines (like recognizing patterns), and the core ideas within physical, earth, and life science.

“These standards are really complex, and I don’t know if there’s general agreement in the field about what curriculum alignment looks like,” said Eric Hirsch, the executive director of EdReports.

Publishers' Claims

As publishers have put out new series to respond to the emerging marketplace for curricula that embody the Next Generation Science Standards, they’ve made all kinds of claims about alignment and research that districts and states alike are trying to parse.

Discovery Science Techbook (2016)
“ ... Fully supports the instructional shifts required by the NGSS standards and embraces the philosophy of three-dimensional learning.”

HMH Science Dimensions (2017)
“ ... Research-tested at every stage of development by science educators and NGSS advisors.”

Amplify Science (2016)
“ ... A robust, multimodal, hands-on program made to fulfill 100 percent of the NGSS.”

McGraw-Hill Inspire Science (2016)
“... Built to the Next Generation Science Standards with a focus on real-world problem solving and STEM careers.”

Pearson Elevate Science (2019)
“ ... Designed to address the Next Generation Science Standards.”

Source: Education Week
Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky provided research.

On the one hand, districts appear to be casting a warier eye than they did just a few years ago. States adopted the NGSS more slowly and organically than the common core, and districts’ relative hesitancy to buy new series suggests they’re waiting for the market to shake out, said Peter McLaren, who helped to write the science standards and is now an educational consultant.

Many districts, he said, have turned to tools like those developed by Achieve to analyze new materials for evidence that they adhere to the standards.

“What that did more than anything else was make districts and teachers very aware that there’s a lot of snake oil out there,” McLaren said. “I think it contributes to the hesitancy of running to a publisher for a supplement or a curriculum right away, which is not necessarily a bad thing.”

At the same time, though, states and districts want to avoid repeating the curriculum vacuum that was at least partly responsible for the political backlash to the common core. Teachers’ goodwill toward those expectations crumbled as states linked them to tests and evaluations before ensuring that teachers could access lots of matching, high-quality materials.

With more states expecting to update their science tests in the next few years, though, the pressure to secure materials is growing.

A Glimpse at the Market

Districts face major obstacles in trying to get a good handle on what’s out there: It’s labor intensive and it’s costly.

“Materials selection in general isn’t frequently given the time, effort, energy, and resources it deserves,” said Matt Krehbiel, the director of science at Achieve. “To really dig into the materials and look for evidence of these innovations takes time. And that means either during the summer or getting teachers out of classrooms for multiple days. And that’s not typical in a lot of districts.”

On its own, Achieve recently began to review and provide feedback on discrete NGSS units submitted by both commercial and noncommercial developers, and to make the best of the free materials available for download. More than 100 units have been submitted, but so far, the nonprofit has only given eight a high enough score to warrant posting.

And in one major departure from the common-core era, the NGSS has not yet led to the creation of a free, complete open-source curriculum in the mold of EngageNY. That resource created by the state of New York using federal funds in the early days of the common core, remains a popular source of lessons. (Officials at Achieve, several states, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which has separately invested millions to support the implementation of the NGSS, are discussing the possibility of producing an open educational resource for science similar to EngageNY.)

In the meantime, most of the major education publishers have finally crafted new science series aimed at the NGSS marketplace—some in preparation for California, which began to review series last month and will complete the adoption process this fall.

In interviews, publishers expressed confidence that their new products faithfully embody the standards, while acknowledging that alignment is, at its heart, a subjective exercise.

“I think there will be debates about how to interpret NGSS. Do you have to have all the [science and engineering] practices all the time in every lesson, or can you do them over a unit period?” said Marty Creel, Discovery Education’s chief academic officer. “That’s something we occasionally hear talking to districts and teachers.”

Phenomena Puzzle

Clark County teachers who have spent some time digging into commercially available materials already list some common problems.

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The standards envision teaching that’s anchored in phenomena—for instance, why clothes fresh from the dryer stick together or why adding soap to a pan of water will cause floating toothpicks to move to one side—that students gradually explore and learn how to explain scientifically.

Many textbooks have interesting, even worthy activities for students to engage in but don’t coherently build students’ understanding of each phenomenon, said Loretta Asay, Clark County’s coordinator for secondary science.

“Phenomenon should drive all of the instruction for a group of lessons, and kids are constantly trying to figure out, explain, or add to their understanding of each phenomena. And that is overall hugely missing in everything we’ve seen,” she said. “Teachers will use a discrepant event to get kids’ attention, but the learning experiences aren’t centered on coming back and constantly adding to that phenomenon.”

Few independent reviews of materials exist to guide selections. And even the dozen or so states that formally review materials vary in how strict or lenient they are. California, for instance, approved dozens of common-core textbooks in 2014 and 2015, while Louisiana put a far smaller proportion on its list of top-quality resources.

As for research, most publishers release field studies when they put out a new curriculum. But they are often based on the teaching of one unit or lesson in classrooms that may not reflect the student demographics of the nation at large.

There’s certainly an irony to the fact that few—if any—of the science materials currently on the market are backed by independent empirical evidence. But that’s one of the Catch-22s of curriculum: Only after one has actually been used in classrooms for a few years can researchers start to examine its impact.

Three case studies show the range of approaches districts are taking to the science-curriculum challenge. Oakland, one of several districts in California to implement the NGSS early, decided to craft its own curricula rather than selecting a series. Teachers took the lead in writing and revising units around themes. Much of that process required detailed research—for example, as when teachers wanted to write a unit on water quality, a nod to the droughts that have devastated swaths of California.

“It created incredible buy-in, and the development process itself was the professional development,” said Caleb Cheung, a former director of science programs for the district. “They learned not just about how to create curriculum, but how to implement it, and it changed their own understanding of teaching science.”

The downside?

“It ended up being way harder than we thought. And it’s expensive, because you’re covering teachers’ time, and compensation is hard to come by,” Cheung said.

Indeed, building a complete curriculum from scratch is beyond the capacity of many districts, over half of which serve fewer than 1,000 students.

Look, for example, to the 750-student Mountainside, N.J., district. Leaders there wanted a resource that both improved students’ ability to approach science through inquiry and could take advantage of the district’s 1-to-1 Chromebook initiative.

Under Principal Kimberly Richards, a team of teachers began by studying the framework that NGSS was based on before taking a whack at commercial materials. A contact in the state education department pointed Mountainside to the reviews conducted by Oregon, currently the only NGSS state that has finished its adoption process. Meanwhile, Richards and Nancy Lubarsky, the district’s superintendent, surveyed science supervisors across the state and looked for patterns among districts with higher science-test scores.

Ultimately, Mountainside selected two commercial series but contracted to use them only for a few years as it keeps a watchful eye on implementation.

“We weren’t signing away ourselves for the next seven years, and we can modify and change them if something else comes along that’s more aligned with what the state wants,” said Lubarsky.

Finally, there is Clark County itself. It began by providing sample lessons, and as teachers became more familiar with the standards, had teams use the Achieve alignment tools to “retract” lessons that were less well aligned and disseminate stronger ones.

That led up to the high school textbook review. And despite some overall problems with the high school texts, the district review committee approved a few that schools can buy if they want. The district’s Colgan and Asay expect schools with high numbers of rookie teachers, who are more likely to depend on a textbook, to use them as a support, though they add that the books will need to be supplemented.

“That was the conversation the committee had: ‘This isn’t that great, it’s not really that aligned, but I have some teachers in this school who need some of this,’ ” Asay said. “It was tough. [The committee] made some difficult decisions.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2018 edition of Education Week as Matching Texts to Science Standards a Tough Task


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