Science education

Will the Next Generation Science Standards Succeed?

Maltobia has a national soccer team that has never made it to the World Cup. The players are simply not competent enough. However, it is a taboo for Maltobians to associate incompetency with the members of any sport team.

7406201 Orig 8394151Under pressure from the public and the government, the Maltobian Soccer Association (MSA), based on numerous researches done on the game, has periodically adopted various strategies to address the poor performance of the national team. The soccer fields were equipped with the latest technologically advanced billboards, goals that recorded the exact location of the ball upon impact, and nets that recorded the location and the speed of the ball. New shoes, with sophisticated electronic devices which correlated the direction of motion and the velocity of the ball with the point of impact with the shoe, were recommended for the players. However, after changing the shoes, the improvement in the game was statistically insignificant. Some researches concentrated on the outfit of the players and found that if the sleeves were shortened to a particular length, the players performed better. Changing the length of the sleeves did not improve the performance of the players either. One particular research done by a prominent soccer education researcher – for which she was awarded a million-dollar grant by the Department of Sport Education – found that cutting the hair of the players short had a positive influence on the performance of the team. This strategy was also a failure.

Recently, a committee of elected members of MSA, university faculty with expertise in soccer education, representatives of some major sport organizations, a delegate from the top Maltobian soccer ball manufacturing conglomerate, and the Deputy Minister of Sport Education came up with a master plan, which was recently published with huge fanfare and publicity. The plan promises to radically improve the performance of the next generation of soccer players. To make the next generation of players ready for the World Cup, the plan recommends changing the color of the panels of the soccer ball from black and white to red and green and to stitch them together with golden thread!


American students have been performing poorly in science and mathematics for decades. Educational, governmental, and business organizations have been trying to remedy the situation by articulating the “standards” to which teachers are to adhere. The appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1985 initiated Project 2061, a long-term effort of scientists and educators to help transform America’s school system so that all students become well educated in science, mathematics, and technology. The two books, Science for All Americans (1990) and Benchmark for Science Literacy (1993) promised to contribute to the way today’s young people will, as adults, influence what life on earth will be like in 2061, the year Halley’s Comet next returns.

Unfortunately, this long-term project did not seem to have a dent in the scientific illiteracy of Americans. The performance of the 4th graders saw no change over the 16 year period between 1995 and 2011 in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) administered by International Activities Program (IAP) in 2011. American 8th graders ranked ninth and did slightly better than 1995 and 2007.

Elementary and middle school science, while useful and necessary, is not an indicator of what happens to the interest and motivation of students when they get to high school. Secondary education is extremely crucial to the development of adults. It is in this period when careers are chosen, futures are planned, and interests are nourished. In America, this is when puberty culture picks Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber as role models of choice for aspiring adolescents, rather than Rosalind Franklin and Steven Weinberg. This is when stupidity becomes “cool” and intelligence becomes “nerdy” and “geeky.” How did American 12th graders perform in TIMSS? Among 21 participating countries in 1995, US ranked 19th in mathematics and 16th in science!

The TIMSS Advanced 2008 tested the mathematical and physical knowledge of students in their last year of secondary education. A glance at the content of the mathematics and physics tests – as well as the embarrassingly poor performance in 1995 – may give a clue as to why America did not participate in this evaluation. After all leaders of American education like Harvard’s Howard Gardner, the originator of “multiple intelligence,” advise that mathematics and science curricula should teach students “how to decide which life insurance to buy, how pesticides affect their food, and how interest rates determine home mortgages.”1 In the same article, Gardner dismisses standardized tests as simply measuring the skill of the participants in problem solving, and if Americans do poorly on them, it is irrelevant because “high scores on these tests obviously aren’t crucial to our economic success.” He overlooks the fact that US economy, which (in 1998) “stands at the top of the world” and whose foundation is laid in electronic and information technology, is driven by South Korean, Indian, and Chinese engineers, who “[irrelevantly] score well on these tests” and were educated in high schools which “through practice … [taught them futilely to] become proficient at a certain skill,” who populated (and are still populating) American mathematics, science, and engineering university classes, and who are now returning to their home countries to help Hyundai, Tata, and Samsung compete fiercely with American auto and computer companies.

Project 2061 was intended to be a long-term initiative. One should not be hasty in judging its effectiveness by the 1995 results. After all, 1995 was only two years after Benchmarks came out. Perhaps later tests would demonstrate its real value. Although no recent evaluation of the scientific knowledge of the American 12th graders has been made, the related field of mathematics has been looked at.

Twenty years after the publication of Project 2061, the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that three quarters (74%) of American 12th graders are below proficient level!

  1. NYT, March 2, 1998.

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.

Who teaches the DCIs?

To teach high school physics in any state, you have to be licensed in that state. Different states have different requirements. In Illinois, with which I am most familiar, to teach physics in high school, you need to have a BS in one of the sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, and earth and space science. In most universities, including mine – the state’s oldest public university and recognized for its teacher preparation programs – to get a BS in chemistry, biology, or earth and space science, you need at most two physics courses. To grasp the level of the physics courses in which various majors enroll, I’ll look at the range of introductory courses offered by a typical physics department.

  • The general education course conveying the “excitement” of physics; no prerequisite; very little math – nothing beyond arithmetic and power-of-ten notation. This is the course designed to be taken by any student on campus.
  • The concepts-in-physics course, which uses very little algebra and is required by some departments who think that the level of the previous course is too low. This course covers mostly mechanics and electromagnetism, waves, some thermodynamics, and very little atomic and nuclear physics. Its level is below what a high school physics course should be.
  • The algebra-based courses taught in two semesters. The first course covers mechanics, heat, and waves; the second course covers electromagnetism, quantum, atomic, and nuclear physics. These are the courses taught in two years at high schools with good physics teachers.
  • The calculus-based courses are a sequence of three to four courses covering mechanics, electromagnetism, waves, thermodynamics, and quantum and atomic physics. All of them are taken by all physics majors. Good chemistry programs require their majors to take the first two, covering mostly mechanics and electromagnetism as well as waves or thermodynamics.

To obtain a BS in biology, you have to take only one physics course. The vast majority of the biology majors who intend to be high school teachers take the second course above. The mathematics requirement of this degree is just algebra plus some probability.

Therefore, the physics background of a typical graduate of the biology teaching program is below a good high school physics course!

To obtain a BS in earth and space science education, you have to take only two physics courses, one of which usually covers astronomy at the level of a general education course (first course above), and the other one is the first of the algebra-based sequence. There is no explicit mathematics requirement for this degree, and the implicit requirement for the more advanced physics course is two years of high school algebra. To obtain a BS degree in chemistry education, you need two semesters of the calculus-based physics and two semester of calculus.

Now consider the following disturbing statistics:

Almost two thirds of American high school physics teachers don’t have a degree in physics!

Assuming that they have a degree in one of the other three sciences – which is not necessarily the case, as some rural schools allegedly confuse physical “education” with physical science and have their football coach teach physics – and that these degrees are equally divided in that population, we obtain the bleak situation of more than 20% of the teachers having passed (most likely with a grade of C) a single course at sub-high school level, over 20% having had a high school course that covers only mechanics, and another 20% having had only two introductory university physics courses covering mostly mechanics and electromagnetism.

What about the other third who do have a BS in physics teaching? I have had direct, long-term, and evaluative experience with this group at their sophomore/junior year. Barring a few exceptions in the last twenty years or so, generally the students in our teaching program were in the lowest third of the class. Since my course was about applying mathematical techniques to physical problems, I could evaluate these students’ mathematical as well as physical ability. Although they had had at least two semesters of calculus and two semesters of calculus-based physics, their understanding of both subjects was poor. They often mixed the concepts of velocity and acceleration, they had trouble calculating components of electric and magnetic fields, and they could not set up the integral of the electrostatic potential of a simple charge distribution. Their mathematical skill was abysmal. I routinely saw “identities” like    (but the rule changes if ; it becomes   ) and  ! The only trigonometric identity that all of them knew was the fact that the sum of the squares of sine and cosine was 1. However, if the two squares appeared in an algebraic expression but were both multiplied by the same constant and separated by some other terms, many of them did not have the sense of factoring out the constant and setting the sum equal to one!

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