Rewriting Your Child’s Science Curriculum – the Bold NGSS Experiment

Five years after the Next Generation Science Standards were released, many districts still do not have NGSS textbooks according to Education Week magazine. Another bold experiment in education puts our kids at risk…

I have written several articles in the last year about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) rollout in the San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) and the impact it has had on the Aragon High School regular physics program.

  1. Attention SMUHSD Parents! State Mandated Testing Negatively Impacts Aragon’s Physics Program
  2. An Open Letter to the SMUHSD and SMFCSD Boards of Trustees
  3. My Speech to the SMUHSD Board on NGSS
  4. The Fine Art of Delay – An Open Letter to the SMUHSD Board
  5. Update on the NGSS impact on the Local Physics Curriculum

In a nutshell, the District decided to roll out the new science standards before textbooks were ready, thereby requiring full-time teachers to devise the curriculum on their own.

I have been told repeatedly by administrators that SMUHSD teachers enthusiastically embraced this assignment and are doing an excellent job in implementing NGSS.

This unfortunately did not jibe with the low quality worksheets that I encountered while working with my tutoring students in the Aragon regular physics program during the 2017-2018 school year (I have only AP physics students this year).

I ran across the following article in Education Week magazine, one of the premier education publications in the U.S.:

Educators Scramble for Texts to Match Science Standards

As apparently happened with the adoption of Common Core, it appears that so far some publishers made minor changes to their existing textbooks, stamped them as “NGSS-aligned,” and put them out on the market.  This same problem occurred with Common Core, and negatively impacted the adoption of those standards.  This lack of trust in the publishing industry is apparently one of the reasons that districts are proceeding with the NGSS rollout and not waiting for textbooks to arrive before doing so.

According to the article:

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?

If you have children in the public school system, I urge you to take the time to read the article linked to above in its entirety.  Here are some important highlights:

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.

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.”

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.”

Few independent reviews of materials exist to guide …(textbook)… 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.

The last two paragraphs above are a polite way of saying that the potential for failure of this educational experiment is not insignificant.

The SMUHSD is blessed with having above average teacher compensation and many quality teachers.

This is reflected in some of the excellent programs that were already in use such as the Aragon regular physics program as I wrote here.

Every time a school district makes a major curriculum change, it puts students at significant risk of a negative impact on their education until all the “growing pains” are resolved.  I have been lobbying against these changes for over a year as indicated in the five articles listed at the beginning of this article.

I have recently learned that, almost a year after the request for this item was submitted, an update on the NGSS implementation will take place at the February 21, 2019 SMUHSD Board meeting.

I intend to be there although I may be limited to yet another single three-minute public statement with no opportunity for debate.

This is democracy????

Do I expect to overturn SMUHSD’s decision and convince them to change course?  Obviously not at this stage of the game.

However, California has a long history of being on the bleeding edge in education as I have discussed here.

The state is on an eight year cycle to “refresh” each major area of its curriculum as you can find on the following Department of Education web page entitled Curriculum Frameworks & Instructional Materials.  See the link to an MS Word document on that page entitled “Schedule for Curriculum Framework Development and Adoptions of K-8 Instructional Materials (DOC)”

Note however, that the above link says “K-8.”  According to the Department, “There are no state adoptions for grades nine through twelve. LEA governing boards have the authority and responsibility under EC Section 60400 to adopt instructional materials for use in their high schools for grades nine through twelve.

Despite looking into this for a year now, it is not clear to me how involved the Board of Trustees really was in the NGSS adoption decision, and I hope the meeting sheds some light on that question.  I am concerned that our publicly-elected oversight body may be being managed by those who are supposed to be regulated by them…

My goal is to get the District to be more cautious about making such major changes in the future and implement a notification system to solicit greater community involvement ahead of time.  I remain very concerned that the Board of Trustees was confronted with yet another “death by PowerPoint” presentation in a crowded Board meeting agenda and may not have been fully informed about the magnitude of the required changes and risks when their approval was requested by the District.

I also have suggested on numerous occasions that the District needs something akin to an “honors” program in science and math for students that are not quite ready for AP level classes but are above the level of the “regular” classes (which appears to have fallen further with the NGSS adoption at least in the case of the Aragon regular physics program).

Will anything come of the above quixotic quest?

Stay tuned!






Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

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