The California State Board of Education unanimously adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) this week, making it the sixth state to do so. The decision not only represents a move forward for evidence-based science instruction but also highlights the control and flexibility individual states have in terms of the NGSS.
The NGSS was developed by states and was designed for states. Despite erroneous claims that NGSS (and the Common Core) are unfair mandates from the federal government. California was one of twenty-six states that oversaw the development of NGSS and they made decisions about its structure.
These lead states collectively made decisions about the overall scope and structure of the standards. For example, they agreed that while the standards should specify what students must learn each year in the elementary grades, states should have flexibility in what topics are studied each year in middle school and high school.
Some educators believe that students are best served when they study some life science, some Earth science, and some physical science each year. Such an approach allows simpler ideas in each discipline to be studied in earlier grades and more complex ideas in each discipline to be studied in later grades. Topics can be sequenced to build upon and one another over several grades. In addition, this approach presents students with the full variety of science every year.
Others believe that students are best served when they focus on a particular topic every year. as this allows students to see the coherence of ideas within that discipline. In addition, since teachers often have expertise in one discipline but not others, this approach makes it more likely that students are taught by someone with a deep conceptual understanding of the topic.
My point here isn’t about which of these approaches is best; both have their merits. Instead, I want to point out that the developers of NGSS recognized that these decisions are better left to the states. Appendix K of the standards provides model course maps for either of these configurations. More important, the appendix walks through the process of how the NGSS writers developed the model course maps so that states would have guidance about how to do the process themselves.
What does this have to do with California? The board deferred until November on deciding the sequencing of science topics in middle school. Currently in California, the sixth grade curriculum focuses on Earth science, the seventh grade curriculum focuses on life science, and eighth grade curriculum focuses on physical science. A panel of experts in the state recommended an integrated approach where students in each grade would study some of each discipline.
To reiterate the point: When a state chooses to adopt NGSS, THE STATE IS MAKING A CHOICE. NO ONE IS MAKING THE STATE DO ANYTHING.
Furthermore, when the state chooses to adopt NGSS, there are many other choices that must be made. One of these is to choose how courses will be structured in middle school. But there are other choices as well about assessments, professional development, and curriculum materials.
Choosing NGSS is just the first step in a process that can lead better instruction for all students.
So I congratulate California for choosing to adopt NGSS, and I am happy for the students in California because regardless of whether they are taught only one science discipline each year of middle school or a blend of several disciplines each year, they will now have the opportunity to study science more deeply with these standards.
I encourage other states to make the same choice for the benefit of their children.