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The Next Generation Science Standards' Next Big Challenge: Finding Curricula

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As states wrestle with putting the Next Generation Science Standards into action, one question I'm hearing more and more: What to do about curriculum? 

It's also a question that's been on the mind of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which provided major support to the groups that developed the framework and standards that evolved into the NGSS. Earlier this year, it convened a group of curriculum experts, many of whom worked on curricula development for groups like the National Science Foundation. This week they're putting out a summary report on what they found (it'll be posted here for free download).

In the meantime, I spoke with Jim Short, a program director at Carnegie, about what he (and the conveners) concluded some of the major challenges are in developing strong curricula aligned to the standards. They fall into several different buckets. 

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia, along with dozens of individual school districts, have adopted the standards, which put a heavy emphasis on engineering and having students apply their scientific knowledge, among other things. (If you're just new to the NGSS, get up to speed with my colleague Liana Loewus' great explainer on the topic.)

Now, let's look at some of the challenges.

Professional Development

Previous efforts to produce science materials for teachers often yielded great results— but neglected professional development. The developers of new curricula need to see these as intertwined, rather than separate, Short said, with supports built in so teachers feel safe trying out new things.

It's tempting to assume that teachers can just develop curricula on their own and learn to teach it—after all, lesson planning is a huge part of preservice teacher-preparation programs. But Short, who has worked in science education for 30 years, believes that giving teachers strong curriculum resources to begin with and helping them figure out how to use them can be a powerful way to help them.

"The way I really learned how to teach biology—I actually learned that working with high-quality materials. I had to work with them and change them each year depending on the kids I had, but it gave me a place to start," he said.

Whither Open Education Resources?

First, there's a lot to be learned from the Common Core State Standards, the common reading and math standards that 36 states and the District of Columbia now use, when it comes to curricula.

Open educational resources, or OER, were instrumental in getting the curriculum train going when the Common Core State Standards came along, especially via the New York-created EngageNY curriculum, which remains among the most popular sources of common-core lessons. (OER are generally defined as free materials that can be modified, remixed, combined, and shared in new ways, though not always for commercial gain.)

But so far, it seems less clear who will pick up the OER ball in science—in fact, if you Google "NGSS aligned curriculum," what mostly comes up are publishers, including Discovery Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Amplify—all of which have put out new, purportedly aligned NGSS curricula.

Sequence, Scope, and Coherence

The sequencing and coherence of NGSS-aligned curricula, both over each grade and vertically, may also prove to be difficult. In theory, many units of NGSS-aligned instruction should begin with an experiment, the collection of data, and the formulation of a hypothesis—and then back-in to the content. That means the grain size of materials is probably different than in ELA or math—potentially longer units, for instance.

The challenge of how to "bundle" lessons together to cover standards exists in all content areas, but it's especially relevant in the NGSS. Yet a lot of NGSS materials online still come in lesson-size bits, rather than larger units, Short said. 

"Most of the stuff you teach kids happens over a few weeks or months," he said. "When you're looking at how to cover standards over weeks and months, you have to think about it as bigger than a lesson, but not a whole semester ... . How you construct that kind of unit or sequence is really where some exemplars could be the most helpful, not [merely] a lesson." 

Who Gets to Determine Alignment?

Finally, there is the ever-present issue of alignment of curricula to the standards.

Alignment is often a very subjective thing that brings to mind the old quip "I know it when I see it." It's one of the reasons that publishers can get away with slapping stickers on their products saying they're aligned, when they may be aligned only in the most superficial of ways. There are now great tools out there—such as the EQUiP and PEEC frameworks developed by the nonprofit Achieve—that districts, professional-development groups and curriculum producers can use to gauge alignment.

But for the most part, those are used informally for feedback and development. There aren't yet any independent, national "Consumer Reports" type reviews of new curricula similar to those that EdReports has put out in ELA and math. It's likely that groups like EdReports will get into science, but that could take months yet. (To be fair, EdReports has faced pushback from commercial publishers.) 

Education Week will be digging more into the curricular challenges of the NGSS a lot in the future, so please feel free to email me and share your stories (the good, the bad, and the ugly!). I'd also love to hear from teachers: What materials do you find most helpful? What was disappointing? What was the hardest element of the NGSS to wrap your head around, or create lessons for?

I can be reached at [email protected], or find me on Twitter @Stephen_Sawchuk.


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