Will the Next Generation Science Standards Succeed?

Why Next Generation Science Standards?

In the FAQ of the web page of NGSS, the first question raised is “Why new science standards? Why now?” The answer mentions the two publications of Project 2061 and adds: “While these two documents have proven to be both high quality and durable, they are around 15 years old.” Note that there is no mention of effectiveness, the only measure of a national guideline that counts! The answer then goes on to say that major advances have taken place in the world of science in the last 15 years, with the implication that these changes ought to be incorporated in science curricula. Because of my background in physics, I’ll concentrate on the physics portion of NGSS. My focus will be on high school physics, especially the last two years, because those are the years which shape the attitude of students toward science in their adulthood.

What scientific progress has been made since the publication of Project 2061 that makes it so urgent to devise the next generation of standards? Granted that the discoveries of the Higgs boson, the accelerating universe, neutrino oscillation, Bose-Einstein condensation, … all occurred after Project 2061, are these discoveries so crucial for K-12 science education as to warrant new standards?

If so, why are they not included in the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI) of NGSS discussed below?

What is to be taught?

The NGSS are standards, or goals, that reflect what a student should know and be able to do. The manner or methods by which the standards are taught and the curricular and instructional decisions are left to states, districts, schools and teachers. The emphasis of the NGSS is on the articulation of the performance expectations, as well as on the incorporation of a DCI, a science and engineering practice, and a crosscutting concept in each performance expectation, and the connection of the NGSS to Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM) and English Language Arts. The high school standards are articulated for seven core ideas: four in physical science (PS), two in earth and space science (ESS), and one in life science (LS). The contents of these DCIs – despite “the advancement of science in the past 15 years” – are very similar to those of  Project 2061’s  Benchmarks. In fact, if anything, the NGSS is more wanting than Benchmark. For example, while the latter clearly states that students should know what atoms and their nuclei are made of, the former only alludes to atoms and nuclei in its DCI on chemistry, and therefore, it has no “performance expectation” on the structure of atoms and their nuclei.1 Similarly, while NGSS puts emphasis “on the astronomical evidence of the red shift of light from galaxies as an indication that the universe is currently expanding,” in none of its DCIs does it mention the Doppler effect, without which the concept of red shift has no meaning!2

What is the connection between NGSS and CCSSM? For all of the seven DCIs, connection is made to reason abstractly and quantitatively and model with mathematics. It is commendable that, despite the current trend in physics education of emphasizing concepts in place of (rather than complementary to) problem solving, the NGSS recognize the importance of mathematics for an in-depth understanding of physics. It is also encouraging to see some rigor in CCSSM.3 Thus, as far as the content is concerned, NGSS are reaffirming what concerned physics educators have been saying for decades:

Rigorous coverage of mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and some atomic and nuclear physics, using appropriate mathematics, is essential for an effective understanding of physics.

The fact that NGSS also provide performance expectations is good, but leaving the curriculum to schools and teachers defeats the purpose. Why?

  1. See HS-PS1-1 and HS-PS1-8.
  2. See HS-ESS1-2.
  3. For example, their number and quantity section includes not only the essential properties of the real and complex number systems, but also vectors and matrices, which are essential in understanding velocity, acceleration, forces, and momenta.

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