Successful implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will take a sustained and coordinated effort. It will take multiple years to transition instruction in all classrooms in all schools in a district or state. To be successful, leadership at all levels needs to carefully consider the changes and timeline that will be necessary to move toward the vision for science education laid out in A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (National Research Council, 2012; hereafter referred to as “the Framework”) on which the NGSS are based.
A first step in planning is to take stock of the current status of each major component of science education activity, both by itself and as part of a whole system, to determine what sequence of decisions and actions is needed and how long each change is likely to take. Some changes, such as starting to involve students in science and engineering practices in science classrooms, can be introduced quite quickly, though they will require more time and attention to be fully developed. Others, such as introducing new statewide assessments that are aligned with the NGSS, will require considerable time for development and testing before implementation (Bybee, 2013; National Research Council, 2014a).
District and school leaders will also need to identify the critical policies and practices that can support or thwart the intended changes and make adjustments to these policies as needed. Examples include a district’s adoption or development of particular curriculum materials and allocation of time and resources for teachers’ professional development in science. Plans will need to include cultivating support among various communities for any needed policy changes. Those com-
munities include critical actors both within and outside the school system. The key individuals in those communities need to be engaged early and repeatedly in the process, first to plan and later to provide critical feedback and support.
The rest of this chapter discusses seven overarching principles that can help guide planning: coherence across levels and components; the uniqueness of science; continuing support; need for networks, partnerships, and collaborations; sufficient time to implement well; equity; and ongoing and relevant communication. The specific recommendations in the remainder of the report incorporate the principles discussed below. Many of the pitfalls that we discuss in the remaining chapters arise when one or more of the principles are not applied effectively.
Coherence matters (National Research Council, 2006b, 2012). Aligned and coherent supports and an expectation of ongoing collaborative work to understand and implement changes are key to successful reform efforts. The schools and school systems that are improving have all the components working together: tightly interwoven curriculum and assessment are connected to management and evaluation processes, and these in turn drive professional learning at all levels (Smith and O’Day, 1991). Successful implementation of the NGSS requires that all of the components across state, district, and school are aligned to support the vision in the Framework and the NGSS.
A standards-based system of science education needs to be coherent in a variety of ways (National Research Council, 2006b, 2012). It needs to be horizontally coherent: that is, the curriculum-, instruction-, and assessment-related policies and practices should all be informed by the standards, target the same goals for learning, and work together to support students’ development of the knowledge and understanding of science. The system should be vertically coherent: that is, there should be a shared understanding at all levels of the system (classroom, school, school district, state) of the goals for science education and agreement about the purposes and uses of assessment.
The system should also be developmentally coherent: that is, there needs to be a shared understanding across grade levels of what ideas are important to teach and of how children’s understanding of these ideas can develop across grade levels. The Framework and the NGSS support developmental coherence by describing how each core idea, practice, and crosscutting concept is expected to
develop across the span from kindergarten through high school (K-12). In order to allow students to explore important ideas in science deeply across multiple grades, some topics that are currently taught may receive less emphasis or may need to be eliminated entirely (National Research Council, 2007).
Coherence does not occur accidentally. To achieve it takes planning, political will, professional time, and ongoing management. Leaders need to ensure that those responsible for different components or for different grade levels have the responsibility, opportunity, and authority to work together, rather than each moving ahead in isolation. At each school level or grade level within a school, those responsible for planning and implementing changes need to be aware of what changes are planned and what have already occurred in the earlier grades and also of what will be expected of the students in later grades.
Implementing science standards is different from implementing standards in English language arts or mathematics, though some challenges will be similar. It is important to build on and coordinate with efforts to implement the new standards in mathematics and English language arts while also attending to how science is different.
Typically, there are fewer individuals with expertise in science and science pedagogy available within the school or district than individuals with comparable expertise in English language arts and mathematics. And many administrators do not have science backgrounds. This kind of expertise is relevant when selecting instructional materials, sequencing curriculum, observing classrooms, and hiring educators. There are also some costs associated with science—for materials or laboratory space—that are different than the costs for mathematics and English language arts. Finally, in many states, science is not as important for school and teacher accountability as the other two subjects and has therefore received less emphasis than they have.
Implementation strategies have to respect and embody the differences between subjects even as they build on their similarities. Some pedagogical and classroom management strategies apply across subjects, while some do not. It is important to consider links between standards in mathematics and English language arts and the NGSS: one is the role of productive student discourse in all three and the changes in classroom culture required to support it (Michaels et al., 2008).
A focus on science may pose particular challenges at the elementary level. In many schools and districts, very little science is currently taught in the elementary grades. According to a national survey of science education conducted by Horizon Research (see Trygstad, 2013), 39 percent of elementary classrooms did not include science every week. Elementary teachers spent, on average, only 20 minutes on science every day. In comparison, they spent 55 minutes for mathematics and 88 minutes for reading.
Furthermore, analysis of 4th-grade data from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science showed that time spent on science varies widely by state, ranging from a low of 1.9 hours per week in Oregon to a high of 3.8 hours per week in Kentucky, and that the time spent on science is significantly correlated with achievement in science (Blank, 2013). Data from California showed that 40 percent of elementary teachers spent an hour or less on science per week, and, of those, 13 percent spent less than 30 minutes per week (Dorph et al., 2011).
Ensuring time for science at the elementary level is an important issue and will need to be considered early in the implementation process. That consideration needs to include the possibility of changing policies about time spent exclusively on other subjects, remediation, and the resources needed (such as space and materials) for investigative and design activities. It might also include discussion of how to integrate science, mathematics, and English language arts (see National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council, 2014; National Research Council, 2014b). At the middle and high school levels, laboratory space and materials are more likely to be in place, but their role and use may need to be reconsidered to allow students to engage in the full range of science and engineering practices (National Research Council, 2006a).
An early priority is to establish district and school leadership teams that involve a mix of stakeholders (including administrators, teachers, science education researchers, and representatives from the community) who are given the responsibility, resources, authority, and work time needed to lead the implementation effort. And before they can lead and support changes in instruction and curriculum, their learning needs should be addressed, so they can then support the learning needs of all teachers.
Teacher leaders are invaluable for supporting and institutionalizing changes. They work with other teachers and parents, as mentors to other teachers, and as facilitators of reflective learning, in the classroom and in the learning culture of a school (Coburn et al., 2012; Fogleman et al., 2006; Penuel and Riel, 2007; Spillane, 2006a, 2006b; Sun et al., 2013a, 2013b). The NGSS has already generated significant attention in the professional organizations of science teachers, such as the National Science Teachers Association and the National Science Education Leadership Association. Many science teachers are well ahead of their schools and even their states in thinking about the demands on their students that the NGSS will bring and how their own instruction will need to change to prepare their students to meet these demands. Identifying and making use of the teachers who are ready to be the “early adopters,” particularly those who may already play leadership roles in the teacher community of a school or district, needs to be a key part of a school’s implementation strategy.
One advantage of a set of standards that will be used across multiple states is the opportunity to share the work through networks, partnerships, and other collaborations across states. Those networks can serve different levels, from the state, to the district, to the school, and individual teachers. Networks of teachers focused on implementing a shared approach to science can be immensely productive—both to the participants and to the teachers they mentor. Collaborations might involve other schools, districts, and states, as well as other stakeholders in the community, such as universities, businesses, museums, and other institutions that can offer resources for science learning. Networks and partnerships can allow schools and districts to access additional science expertise and resources. They also can help build broad community support for the NGSS, including reaching out to the scientific community.
In implementing the NGSS, do not try to go it alone. Changing one classroom in one school will not provide the science learning experiences that all K-12 students should have. Instead, groups of leaders and teachers in different states, districts, and schools, at times in collaboration with businesses or community organizations, can develop strategies and joint resources to help achieve the goals of the NGSS.
Implementing the NGSS will be demanding and will require persistence. The NGSS require that students not only know science facts but can also apply them to explain phenomena or solve problems using the science and engineering practices. In many classrooms, this will represent a significant increase in complexity and cognitive demand for both teachers and students. Achieving such changes will require attention over many years.
Time is needed for the development of appropriate curriculum materials and assessments; for teachers to embrace the expectations of the standards and adapt their instructional strategies to empower students to achieve the level of performance expected; and for students to adjust to new expectations and to build the foundation of knowledge and skills to meet these challenging standards. For example, middle or high school students who enter science classes today are likely to be unfamiliar with many of the science practices in the NGSS, but in 6-8 years students should arrive in middle school with knowledge of those practices and several years of building the skills needed for science at a higher level. Thus, the higher the grade level, the more time it will take before one can imagine that implementation has reached a stable configuration. Even then, ongoing attention will be needed to keep improving science learning for all students.
It may be tempting to expect to see results in students’ achievement within 1-2 years, but it will likely take a minimum of 3-4 years for teachers to transition to effectively teaching the new standards. It is essential to allow time for the necessary ingredients, such as professional development, team building, and appropriate curriculum resources, to be in place. Teachers need time and support to develop expertise for teaching in new ways. It takes several years for changes in instruction to become stabilized (Lee et al., 2008; Marx et al., 1998; Supovitz and Turner, 2000, cited in Wilson, 2013). Sustaining such changes depends on a cadre of teachers who are engaged in ongoing reflection on their instructional practice (Coburn et al., 2012; Franke et al., 2001).
It is important for school leaders to be prepared to accept less than perfect outcomes in the initial years of implementation of the NGSS. They will need to prepare teachers and parents to expect the process will take time. It may be helpful to identify interim benchmarks of progress, other than students’ achievement, to track progress toward implementation in the classroom. A range of benchmarks might be considered, such as the availability of ongoing professional learning opportunities for teachers that align to the NGSS, the amount of time spent on science in elementary classrooms, the adoption of curriculum materials that pro-
vide opportunities to engage in all three dimensions of the NGSS, the numbers of students enrolling in high school science electives, the establishment of a cohesive K-12 district science team with work time structured into the school year, and the development of mutually beneficial relationships with informal science educators or local business or industry (see National Research Council, 2013).
The vision of the Framework and the NGSS is that all students will have access to high-quality learning opportunities in science and will be able to succeed in science (National Research Council, 2012). Thus, one component of implementation will be to track whether changes are supporting equality of opportunity to learn science across all districts in a state, all schools in a district, and all classrooms in a school (National Research Council, 2014a).
An “achievement gap” between students from low-income backgrounds in comparison with students from high-income backgrounds persists in science, as it does in other subjects. For example, on the 2009 NAEP science assessment, 4th-grade students from schools with a high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch scored an average of 28 points lower (on a 300-point scale)—approximately 2.3 grade levels lower—than students from schools with a low percentage of such students. A key to addressing such gaps is to pay continuing attention to issues of opportunity to learn science, with qualified teachers and adequate resources, at all grade levels (National Research Council, 2013, 2014a). Districts’ attention to monitoring such opportunities and ensuring access for all students is an important element of implementation planning.
Attention to equity also requires consideration of how to meet the differing needs of students, including those who have special learning needs, do not have access to technology, are learning English as a second language, are living in difficult economic circumstances, or are from nondominant cultural backgrounds. Equity also requires attention to the availability of advanced science courses in high school (through advanced placement, international baccalaureate, or honors courses) for all students who are interested in science and ready to pursue those courses.
The Framework provides an indepth discussion of equity, including attention to sources of inequity and providing inclusive science instruction (National Research Council, 2012, Ch. 11). The NGSS discusses equity and diversity in depth, with case studies that offer valuable examples of equitable instruction (NGSS Lead States, 2013, App. D).
The best of plans will fail if they are not well communicated to all needed audiences. Districts and schools need to understand their state’s timelines and expectations as they develop their own plans. They also need to ensure that their constituents—administrators, teachers, parents, and students—understand and support the implementation process. Maximizing transparency about steps in the plan, when they will happen, and why can help build the support needed to weather the inevitable bumps in any implementation plan. It is also important to emphasize that implementation is a 5-10-year process, and stakeholders need to be supportive of the long-term goals rather than focus solely on short-term results.
Communication about the NGSS and how they will be implemented is only effective when care is taken to ensure that the intended messages are being heard and understood. Words like standards, instruction, curriculum, inquiry, rigorous learning, alignment, and even science have multiple meanings not only among implementation partners in the community and the public, but even in the education community. For example: Is instruction what the teacher says, or is it everything that happens in the classroom? What is a curriculum and what is a curriculum resource?
Stakeholders, working together, will need to come to a common understanding of each of these terms. In this document, we have given some working definitions of what we mean as we use terms such as these. We expect that similar discussions will be needed at the state, district, and school levels to ensure that policies and practices, and internal and external communication about them, are clear and lead to shared understandings.