If you’ve read the news over the last three years, you’ve probably come across articles that talk about the Common Core State Standards and their polarizing effects. Early on you’d have read about states coming together in the wake of No Child Left Behind to adopt a common set of standards for literacy and math, followed by articles of skepticism from district leaders and educators about the quality of the new standards compared to those already in place.
The uproar that has followed has been both predictable and avoidable. There is growing concern that if we don’t pay attention to what happened with Common Core implementation, the same controversies will derail the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Here are three ways to learn from Common Core and ease your NGSS implementation.
1. Communicate NGSS clearly
Communication is key whenever a new policy is rolled out, and standards are no exception. It is essential that everyone who is involved in NGSS understand the goals, expectations, and requirements of the new standards. Common Core implementation was poorly received in most cases because of a breakdown in communication about the contents and expectations of Common Core. It was common that almost no one at a district level fully understood Common Core. The few who did understand were then charged with deciding how curriculum would change for hundreds of Pre K-12 educators and thousands of students in their district. This approach, unsurprisingly, hasn’t worked very well. School districts are complex, making the effects of change hard to envision, especially when decision-making falls on so few people.
The most significant problem with Common Core implementation has been that the information needed at a local level among superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents hasn’t been passed down from many state departments of education because of a lack of cohesive and high-quality tools for on-boarding educators and the community.
As a result, Google searches have become the primary mechanism for educating districts and parents on this crucial policy. While the standards for education are improving, the quality of internal communication about education policy has yet to catch up. The current lack of communication produces a great deal of work, stress, and variation, which becomes apparent in how Common Core is interpreted and taught. This has led to a confused and misinformed public about the benefits and challenges of the new standards – and a lot of heated rhetoric.
Despite the existing communication gaps between local, state, and federal levels, there are steps that local officials can take to ensure that NGSS is successfully implemented. Most importantly, districts and departments of education need to better communicate how NGSS performance expectations differ from a school curriculum and how a district can use NGSS to make better curriculum decisions. Districts can start by reading the NGSS documentation and engaging their school community in professional development that will help them understand the NGSS and the changes that need to take place.
2. Spend wisely
Making sure that you have coherent objectives and a spending strategy will go a long way toward helping you get the results you are looking for with NGSS. The presence of funding formulas based on ELA/Math performance and high-stakes testing drew many resources to the table for districts implementing Common Core, but many schools purchased things they really didn’t fully understand – texts, readers, and software subscriptions of every flavor.
In some cases, schools ended up buying or creating ELA and math materials and assessments that did not achieve the goals of Common Core but instead re-invented math and ELA.The flaw in this approach became apparent when the newly purchased resources did not result in improved performance. People became understandably frustrated with the results, without understanding that the standards themselves were not responsible because standards are not the same as curriculum. Standards set the bar for what students should know and be able to do. Curriculum is what is used to teach the standards.
A similar situation is happening now with NGSS and education technology. In education the word technology is often synonymous with electronics and software, so when NGSS included the word, many districts started buying electronics and software. It’s important to remember that these technologies are just tools. A tool needs to function as part of a system with a purpose. Buying tools without considering a cohesive system of instruction can leave districts with stuff that doesn’t serve a purpose.
For instance, before you buy a 3D printer, ask yourself: What specific performance expectations will this allow our students to demonstrate? Is this the most efficient means of allowing them to do that? Who is comfortable using this tool regularly as part of their instruction?
Laptops and iPads are examples of purchases that districts commonly use for STEM. I was asked once if having iPads makes you a STEM school. If you’re wondering the same thing, there is a simple answer: NO. But students who can develop experiments and prototypes will make you a STEM school. In other words, to be a STEM school your students need to engage in STEM practices effectively. Having iPads does not guarantee that students will be using the STEM practices effectively.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy iPads. It just means you need to consider why you are buying them. For instance, if students will regularly use iPads to collect real-time data in their experiments in a way they otherwise couldn’t, iPads would be a good investment for your school. Electronics enhance effective instruction, much like an MRI or CT scan enhances quality medical care.
3. Know the difference between what’s new and what’s old “new”
As we saw with some Common Core ELA/math programs, what is old becomes new again with NGSS. Many science kit companies and textbook providers are retooling their old documentation and adding workbooks to the same old kits to advertise them as "aligned to NGSS." Most do not achieve the core skills of NGSS by putting the student in the role of scientist and engineer, instead merely amounting to materials and worksheets that have students following someone else’s ideas.
The NGSS booklet added to an old kit is a false sense of security that often replaces one workbook with another and one demonstration for another. Remember that the heart of NGSS is students developing STEM practice skills in context. Unless your curriculum before NGSS had students developing STEM practices skills, you should look closely at what has changed before you treat something old as new again.
Districts have choices in how to implement the NGSS, but without a firm understanding of NGSS performance expectations, mistakes will be made developing and buying curriculum. For example, NGSS requires students to be able to demonstrate STEM practice skills in unfamiliar contexts. How are you changing your curriculum to give students the opportunity to develop and demonstrate these practice skills?
Equipping classrooms for NGSS requires building curriculum that makes learning three-dimensional so that reading, discussion, solving problems/questions, and students developing hands-on experiments support each other day-to-day. This also helps tie the goals of the NGSS to the goals of Common Core. Don’t forget that new approaches to teaching require significant professional development for educators who need to learn how to develop and manage an authentic scientific inquiry environment.
How well the curriculum does at engaging students in the higher order thinking of scientists and engineers will become apparent when NGSS testing comes into play. Districts that don’t fully implement the three dimensions of NGSS in their curriculum will be the first with a bone to pick about lackluster results because their students haven’t developed their STEM skills in context. Here, NGSS can learn from Common Core testing models like PARCC and Smarter Balanced that focus more heavily on higher order thinking. Prepare your district to expect NGSS assessments that require students to create, evaluate, and analyze STEM-related scenarios.
Will NGSS implementation be received any differently than Common Core implementation?
It depends on how much you can learn from Common Core’s implementation.
If you understand NGSS, you realize it doesn’t aim to re-invent science, technology, engineering, or math, but it does get to the heart of what these STEM disciplines truly are: questioning and problem solving. Districts that can’t clearly distinguish what science is from what technology and engineering are need to start here. Why? Because NGSS is going to require that districts remove everything that isn’t science, technology, engineering, or math and start teaching students the skills scientists and engineers use to transform our world.