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Education Trends

Behind the Next Generation Science Standards

May 11, 2012

The public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards were just announced at Public comments on this draft will be accepted over the next three weeks. A second public draft and comment period will occur in late fall. Background information on NGSS can be found here.

I had the opportunity this week to speak with Emily Miller, a member of the NGSS writing team and a bilingual/English as a Second Language teacher in the Madison (WI) Metropolitan School District. She was graciously willing to share her thoughts about the Next Generation Science Standards. The following interview represents her opinions and perspectives on the NGSS and not those of Achieve or the NGSS writing team.

Q: As a bilingual resource teacher, how were you selected to serve on the NGSS writing team?

A: I have been teaching as a bilingual resource teacher and ESL teacher since 2000 in Madison Metropolitan School District. In 2004, I became involved in a professional development with SCALE, a group of educators and curriculum designers who were working on redesigning widely used curriculum to make it more inquiry based. At that time, I became very interested in experimenting with teaching English through the content area of science. My Master's thesis adapted FOSS curriculum for English Language Learners. Later, I was fortunate enough to become involved with Inquiry for the 21st Century, a teacher training grant from the UW Fast Plants and the UW, and that focused on teaching inquiry in science. I am convinced that the content area of science is one of the best ways to simultaneously meet language objectives and content objectives. This area is still relatively new in terms of academic research.

I was recommended as a potential NGSS writer by Dr. Hedi Baxter Lauffer from UW-Madison, who was in charge of Inquiry for the 21st Century. Stephen Pruitt, Achieve's Vice President for Content, Research and Development, asked the recommended teacher participants to submit an application and resume. Dr. Pruitt is very concerned with addressing the diverse student population that we are teaching today. He was seeking good representation from different states, different grade levels, as well as various areas of expertise for his team. There are teachers who have specialized backgrounds in urban education, alternative education, special education, TAG, etc. on the writing team.

Q: Now that the public draft is ready to be released, what does your process look like as you work towards the final standards document?

A: The group takes the feedback from the state partners very seriously. The staff at Achieve compiles the comments by theme, and then the team goes through the comments item by item and addresses each one. I imagine that will happen again this time around; hopefully, the state partners will see that the final documents incorporate everyone's input. This release has a broader base, I believe, including more teachers and practitioners, even high school students.

Q: What do you see as the biggest changes that will need to be made in our teaching as we look towards implementing NGSS?

A: I can more easily speak to this from my perspective as an elementary school teacher. First of all, the standards are a lot more rigorous, not only because the standard itself includes a scientific practice and cross-cutting theme, but also because the expectations for content are more rigorous. There are fewer core ideas but the level of understanding for each core concept has been intensified. The idea of "a mile wide and an inch deep" was sometimes (maybe erroneously) associated with the last science standards, but no one could say that about this document! I think the fewer but more intense expectations will really push the envelope of what is expected of elementary school teachers in terms of their own content knowledge. I'm wondering if some schools who take these standards very seriously will see the need for science specialists, in the same way they have reading specialists in some schools. Also, the standards include the teaching of some scientific practices like modeling and data analysis in conjunction with the scientific concepts. This will require the teacher to not only have a deeper understanding of the concepts themselves, but teachers will have to learn how to teach these practices. Finally, I think the cross-cutting themes will be challenging for teachers to teach. They will have to see how the cross-cutting themes of, say, "energy" or "systems" relate to many different scientific disciplines. I think teachers will be stretched, and in order to teach to the standards, they will be asking for more professional development. I am hoping that these new standards will give rise to better and more comprehensive assessments. In this way, teachers and schools will be more accountable for what the students are learning in science.

Q: The Framework has a strong chapter on equity and diversity in science education. How do you see NGSS helping to enact this vision?

A: The equity and diversity team is the one I have been most involved with as of late. I am really excited that Stephen had the vision to include this team right from the beginning. I believe that through this action, he is demonstrating a commitment that this document promotes equity in schools. The diversity team is including a chapter that specifically addresses the challenges and opportunities awarded to diverse student groups through this work. The chapter cites current research in the area of science education and diversity and draws connections for NGSS. There is research that shows that schools with high poverty are more likely to focus on reading and math in order to meet AYP at the expense of quality hours studying science. They are also less likely than wealthier schools to incorporate the teaching of practices with science content because of various factors. NGSS could level the playing field and allow access to high quality science education for all students. In addition, as I mentioned before, we are including vignettes for some student groups (ELLs, ethnic groups, female students, etc.) to address the practical side of implementation for educators. Finally, all of the writers of the document are careful to be mindful of bias and accessibility for all students when writing the individual standards.

Q: What advice can you give to teachers that they could start doing next year, as they get ready for the release of the final version of NGSS next spring?

A: I think we -- elementary teachers -- are all going to start raising the bar of our own content knowledge and understanding. We are going to have to be serious about carving out enough hours for science in the school day. Also, because the new standards are much more language intensive -- and intensive in terms of depth and time -- I think we are going to have to be more adept at integrating ELA and math with science. A lot of focus has been paid to ELA and math because of the Common Core, and I think this document could be a nice companion to the Common Core document. Each standard will have connections to Common Core to facilitate this integration, but this will also require initial work on the part of teachers to make the integration coherent.

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