Stumping STEM Growth

by Linda Bevilacqua
February 8th, 2013

Like many others, I’ve had high hopes for the Next Generation Science Standards. Right now I’m struggling to keep my spirits up. Having just finished reading the review of the second draft (NGSS 2.0) prepared for the Fordham Institute by nine impressive scientists and mathematicians (who, collectively, have teaching experience at all grade levels), I see more problems than can be fixed between now and March—the arbitrary deadline set for releasing the final draft of these standards.

For a quick take on the many serious problems, see the review’s Forward by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter-Magee. Or, for an even faster look at the main issues, see Finn and Porter-Magee’s recent blog post. In both, they raise eight “critical problems.” While I agree that all eight are truly critical, I’d like to draw attention to three (the following are quotes from the blog post):

  • In an effort to draft “fewer and clearer” standards to guide curriculum and instruction, NGSS 2.0 (like NGSS 1.0) omits quite a lot of essential content. 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 for the earlier grades seems to be taken for granted in the standards for later grades—where it won’t likely be found in students’ heads if the early-grade teachers aren’t prompted by the standards to teach it.
  • A number of key scientific terms (e.g., “model” and “design”) are ill defined and/or inconsistently used.

As E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and the Core Knowledge Foundation have been arguing for the past three decades, students have to build an enormous store of broad background knowledge and vocabulary in order to become literate adults—adults capable of reading about and voting on science-based issues like nuclear power, genetic research, land use, etc. The amount of knowledge to be acquired is so extensive that it must be efficiently and coherently packaged, grade-by-grade, if we are to have any hope of sending young adults into the world ready to make sense of, and dive deeper into, the many issues they will face.

As worrisome as Finn and Porter-Magee’s summative statements are, the review itself may give me nightmares. Take, for example, these quotes from pages 17 – 19:

Using the assertion that it is not a curriculum, the NGSS authors omit most of the chemistry content traditionally found in K–12 classrooms. Missing are topics like gas-law relationships, the chemistry of carbon and its compounds, the mole concept, empirical and molecular formulas, solution preparation, concentration, and dilution, and acid/base neutralization reactions and the pH scale, to mention just a few. When topics are included, they often are somewhat advanced, like bond energy or chemical equilibrium. However, their inclusion is problematic because of insufficient background preparation in lower grade standards, use of low-level vocabulary, or content limits specified in the Assessment Boundaries. And unfortunately, if a topic is not required by the NGSS, it is not likely to be taught.

Numerous concepts that will be developed more thoroughly in high school should first be introduced in middle school. “Ion,” for example, is used in HS PS1-c without explanation, but the testing of “polyatomic ions” was excluded. Then why is the polyatomic “ammonium” ion used in “ammonium chloride” as a recommended reactant in MS PS1-g?

Another example of weak preparation from page 1 of DCI PS.4.B:

Some materials allow light to pass through them, others allow only some light through and others block all the light and create a dark shadow on any surface beyond them (i.e., on the other side from the light source), where the light cannot reach. (1-PS4-d)

Here is a typical missed opportunity to use the appropriate vocabulary: transparent, translucent, opaque.

And here are a couple examples from Appendix A of the review, which covers individual standards (see page 45):

PS3.C: Faster speeds during a collision can cause a bigger change in shape of the colliding objects. (secondary to 2-PS2-a)

“Faster speeds” … is a barbarism. When an object goes faster, we say that it has a higher speed…. In science standards, using scientifically appropriate language is critical.

Similarly, standard (3-PS2-a) indicates: “A system can appear to be unchanging when processes within the system are going on at opposite but equal rates.”

Why not use the proper technical terms, dynamical equilibrium or steady-state equilibrium?

The second draft of the NGSS was anything but slim. Why have so much content and vocabulary been left out? It appears to have been crowded out by a fixation on “practices.” Here’s how Finn and Porter-Magee summed up this critical problem in their blog post: “Real science invariably blends content knowledge with core ideas, ‘crosscutting’ concepts, and various practices, activities, or applications. Well and good. But NGSS 2.0 imposes so rigid a format on its standards that the recommended ‘practices’ dominate them. The authors have forced practices on every expectation, even when they confuse more than clarify.” Here is an example from the review (see page 20):

In the life sciences, … and as elsewhere in NGSS, the central problem resides in the language employed, and it follows from the standards’ preoccupation with “Practices”…. Every standard to focus upon performance expectations that are behaviors (or activities) as opposed to demonstrations of knowledge. Behaviors and activities are legitimate performance expectations; but when all the expectations take that form, a system of standards, which is in principle about knowledge as well as skills, becomes ostentatiously one-sided. The resulting standards statements may not relate in a compelling way to the knowledge that is supposed to be the directing content dimension.

Knowledge, vocabulary, and skills are all necessary, but this draft of the NGSS emphasizes skills to the detriment of knowledge and vocabulary. Ultimately, this constant pushing on “practices” seems to be an effort to force teachers to take an extremely hands-on, project-focused approach to science instruction. While no one would believe that a science classroom without labs, experiments, observations, etc. is offering a strong science education, no one should believe that a science classroom in which activities crowd out content is strong either.

Heeding two of the review’s recommendations (see page 33) would allow for knowledge, vocabulary, and skills to all be pursued together, without any one detracting from the others:

Ban the use of the term “model,” except in familiar scientific contexts such as molecular models or Copernican model or computer modeling (better identified as simulation).

Reduce the insistent “Practices” language in the standards. Science practices certainly need to be taught and learned, but there is no justification for converting all expected science performances to “practices,” and making their substrate, scientific knowledge (including substantive, mathematical, analytical, and vocabulary knowledge) secondary.

One of the great strengths of the Common Core State Standards is that they are goal statements as to what students need to know and be able to do, not dictates as to how teachers should teach. The NGSS should follow that lead by focusing on the science content and vocabulary, and integrating related skills as needed. In effect, this would require stripping away the “practices” language that has more to do with current fads in pedagogy than with developing students’ ability to comprehend science and/or become scientists or engineers.

In their Forward, Finn and Porter-Magee concluded that “if draft 2.0 were to become the final version of NGSS, only states with exceptionally weak science standards of their own would likely benefit from replacing them with these ‘next-generation’ standards.” I hope that the organizations developing with NGSS will drop their March deadline and heed the many cautions raised so that, like the Common Core State Standards, the NGSS can be strongly recommended to all states.