The Next Generation Science Standards for Today’s Students and Tomorrow’s Workforce (NGSS) released this April are already being approved for adoption at the state level. Five states—Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island and Vermont—have already approved the new standards. They are under consideration or pending consideration in California, Florida, Maine, Michigan and Washington.
The quick adoption of the new standards is surprising to some because they embrace two topics that are central to science education, yet controversial for political reasons: evolution and climate change. Legislative attempts to thwart education about these subjects (and additionally in the case of evolution, to present creationist or “intelligent design” religious views alongside it) continue unabated in some states.
Moreover, approval of the NGSS by state boards of education is not tantamount to seeing them taught in the classroom. Public comment and legislative review, followed by possible revisions, will also be part of the process in many states. In Kansas, for example, legislators nearly passed a measure to block state funding to implement the NGSS. In Kentucky the guidelines will be subject to legislative approval, where they are sure to meet with resistance. Even where the new standards are approved, state-level curriculums and assessments must still be developed, a process that is likely to take several years in most states.
The NGSS guidelines were developed by representatives from twenty-six states, working in conjunction with nonprofit science and education groups. Recommendations from the National Research Council, the working arm of the US National Academies of science, engineering and medicine, form the basis for the guidelines. You can examine the proposed standard for yourself here.
Why are these new guidelines important? One reason is that current nationwide science curriculum standards are outdated. It’s been fifteen years since the dissemination of the guidelines that currently form the basis for most state-level science standards. In that time there have been significant discoveries in science (climate change research being among the most important), as well as advances in our understanding of how students learn science and how best to teach it.
At the same time, other countries have forged ahead with their science education. International benchmarking against high-performing national educational systems in countries like Japan, Finland and Canada were influential in the development of the NGSS. Lagging science achievement by US students, along with erosion in the economic competitiveness of the US workforce, are both well documented. According to the NGSS website, “… the US system of science and mathematics education is performing far below par and, if left unattended, will leave millions of young Americans unprepared to succeed in a global economy.”
As cited in a post by US News blogger Kelsey Sheehy, studies show that while most US high school students can follow instructions and conduct simple experiments, few can successfully analyze and explain what they’ve learned. This is the overall academic weakness that the new NGSS is geared to address, by encouraging more depth, more “hands-on” experiments and more emphasis on physical sciences (physics and chemistry) within science curricula. The idea is to make science education less of a demonstration and more of an investigation—empowering students to formulate questions, work through problems and develop a more comprehensive understanding of scientific processes.
Other challenges to the new standards include the added cost of more comprehensive education (e.g., materials for experiments) plus the cost of professional development for teachers. At the same time, a growing nationwide emphasis on STEM education should help put more energy and resolve behind addressing these issues and moving forward.
Featured image courtesy of OakleyOriginals.
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