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Lesson learned! Next Generation Science Standards

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The second public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, developed by Achieve, is due for release before the new year. This draft represents step four in a nine-step process to update standards for K-12 sciences and engineering education. The nine-step process includes three public and two state review and comment periods before delivery of a final product. Once complete, states will opt to select or not select the NGSS for local implementation.

The NGSS focus on science and engineering education whereas the Common Core State Standards initiative addresses math and English language arts education standards. The two independent efforts seek to achieve very similar goals: preparing U.S. students for academic and career success and global competitiveness in the 21st century. Each effort also seeks to provide educators and parents clear, cohesive and consistent guidelines that lead to a robust and meaningful education.

The common core and NGSS initiatives benefited greatly from hard lessons learned during the development and implementation of the first generation of education standards disseminated in the 1990s. First and perhaps foremost, the current efforts actively sought state participation at the start of the process. National standards developed in the 1990s came across as top-down mandates. Next, the latest standards appear very concise and cohesive. In my area of expertise, science, the first draft NGSS were only 90 pages in length whereas the original NRC Standards and AAAS Benchmarks exceeded 200 and 400 pages respectively. Thirdly, NGSS developers have anticipated the relationship between standards and assessment. The first generation of education standards led to a cycle of assessment development and standardized testing. The NGSS start with performance expectations that are aligned to scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas. Starting with how and what to assess, rather than what to teach, focuses on learning rather than teaching, placing the student at the center of the process.

The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association initiated the common core effort. These groups elected to focus on math and ELA. The “3 Rs” continue to heavily influence early elementary education — without a strong foundation in reading, writing and mathematics students struggle throughout grades K-12 regardless of the subject matter. The NGSS derive from a 400-plus page document known as the “Frameworks” developed by a team of scientists, engineers and experts in science and engineering education from the National Research Council. The Frameworks could be likened in the new standards process to the NRC Standards and AAAS Benchmarks of the 1990s. However, this time the Frameworks were written to inform the development of the NGSS rather than to act as the standards.

“48 states and territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards and are in the process of implementing the standards locally.” — Council of Chief State School Officers.

Let’s hope that the NGSS receive as much support as the common core standards. The NGSS effort includes 26 states that likely will adopt the final product. The original science education standards were rarely adopted directly by states. Rather, states reviewed the Standards and Benchmarks, reinterpreting them into actionable items for teachers, a costly and time-consuming effort.

Of course, with new standards in math, ELA and science and an overt directive to include engineering in grades K-12, educators, administrators, parents and education product developers should anticipate a whole new cycle of curriculum development and assessment design, as well as debates about accountability and effectiveness. Whether these are viewed as opportunities or as challenges, remember that at the heart of the discussion remains improving education for our youth.

Doug Haller is the principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller is an education consultant specializing in strategic planning and market analysis to drive design, development and sales of niche education products for clients in the for-profit, nonprofit, and education and public outreach fields. His creative approach is based on years of practical experience as an educator, instructional designer and education consultant. Check out his blog, STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.