CURRENT STATE OF K–12 SCIENCE INSTRUCTION
Describing the current state of science instruction and efforts to implement the Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States (hereafter referred to as “the NGSS”; NGSS Lead States, 2013) can help equip curriculum developers and researchers with a better understanding of how they can meet the needs of users and increase the likelihood that instructional materials will ultimately benefit students. To that end, workshop participants gained insights from a national survey of science and mathematics teachers and from panelists representing state, district, school, and teacher perspectives.
THE CURRENT STATE OF SCIENCE CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION IN THE UNITED STATES
Sean Smith from Horizon Research presented data from the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSSME),1 a nationally representative survey of teachers of science and mathematics across all grade levels. Although the data predate the NGSS, Smith noted that for many reasons, much of science instruction in the United States does not yet match the NGSS standards. As a result, the data still illustrate the “starting points” for many teachers and classrooms.
1 See http://horizon-research.com/NSSME/2012-nssme/research-products for more detailed information about this survey and its methodology [December 2017].
Smith presented a subset of data on science instruction and curriculum from the NSSME important to consider or address directly in the development and implementation of the NGSS-aligned instructional materials. Teachers were asked to answer questions about one of their randomly selected classes. He noted that although many aspects of the overall survey revealed disparities across communities, income levels, or race and ethnicity, they found no such disparities in science instruction or curriculum use by these factors.
In this survey, science instruction encompassed three areas: teachers’ science objectives, the time spent on trying to accomplish objectives, and activities used. Teachers report that a primary objective of most science classes across all grade levels is teaching science concepts, especially at the middle (80%) and high school levels (80%). Nearly one-half of all teachers across all levels of schooling named learning science processes2 and the real-world applications of science as learning objectives. Far fewer teachers (10–13%) reported objectives aimed at helping students memorize science facts and vocabulary.
The NSSME survey also examined how much time is spent on science instruction. At the K–3 level, 41 percent of classes received science instruction some weeks, but not every week. In grades 4–6, about one-third of classes received science instruction almost every day, one-third received science instruction 1–3 days per week, and one-third received science instruction less than weekly. Across all elementary grades when science is taught, teachers spend on average 20 minutes per lesson, compared with approximately 90 minutes and 1 hour devoted to reading and mathematics, respectively. In middle and high school, the time is more evenly divided among the subjects. These data have implications for how much science can be addressed in a school year, stated Smith. Although elementary teachers may be most pressed for time given the many subjects they must cover, Smith said he believes that they present the greatest opportunity for faithful implementation of the NGSS. Teachers can incorporate science teaching across subjects like reading and mathematics, he explained. However, data from the NSSME indicate that only one-third or less of elementary teachers feel very well prepared to teach science, with only 4 percent feeling very well prepared to teach engineering.
Activities with the potential for the NGSS-alignment include small-group, hands-on, or laboratory activities that require students to provide evidence for
2 This wording reflects pre-NGSS terminology. The NGSS focus on science practices rather than processes.
their claims; use tables, graphs, or charts to represent or analyze data; write reflections; and engage in project-based learning. Teachers were asked to consider the frequency with which they used these and other types of activities in their science instruction. As shown in Figure 2-1, between 72 and 83 percent of classes include small-group instruction, but between 55 and 70 percent of classes employ hands-on activities, and between 54 and 64 percent of classes require the use of evidence to support claims across all grades at least once per week. Between 22 and 28 percent of classes use small-group instruction in all or almost all of their
lessons, but less than 20 percent use hands-on activities or require evidence in nearly all of their lessons. More hands-on laboratory work occurs at the high school level than in middle or elementary school. Smith stressed that there is no way to know through this survey if these activities are carried out in the way envisioned by the NGSS.
Some instructional approaches that are less aligned with the NGSS are used frequently, according to the survey. Nearly all classes at all grade levels use whole-group instruction to explain science concepts, with about one-half of classes using this strategy in each lesson, see Figure 2-2. Between 37 percent and 56 percent of classes have students read from a textbook or from other materials at least once per week, although fewer have students do this at every lesson (7–15%). Approximately 20 percent of classes involve standardized test preparation at least once per week across all grade levels, with about 5 percent engaging in test preparation at every lesson.
Smith also presented data on the instructional materials teachers are currently using and how they are using them to teach science. Between 69 and 80 percent of teachers report using a commercially published textbook or program; however, as Figure 2-3 illustrates, the majority of teachers at the elementary level are using a “mix-and-match” approach to instructional materials. Nearly one-third of teachers report that they use primarily noncommercial materials. In middle and high school, teachers more often use a single textbook, but still a
substantial proportion use multiple materials, including noncommercial materials. Smith reported that preliminary interviews with 5th-grade teachers from another study illustrate that topical alignment and the potential for student engagement may be important considerations that teachers weigh when they select materials for science education.
NSSME data show that of those teachers who use at least one commercially published material, 35 percent of elementary teachers use the material 75–100 percent of the time. However, this percentage of time drops across the grades, with only 13 percent of high school teachers reporting that they use the material 75–100 percent of the time. In fact, nearly one-half of high school teachers use the published material less than 25 percent of the time. In addition, although many teachers (64–77%) use a textbook to guide the overall structure of units they teach, nearly one-half of teachers report that they choose the “important” material and skip the remaining material in the text. Smith underscored that how teachers use instructional materials is as important as whether they are using them. However, many teachers are using materials that may be old, said Smith. During a comment period following Smith’s presentation, one participant commented that age of the curriculum may affect teachers’ decisions to find supplemental materials.
Smith identified several key takeaway messages from the NSSME data. In his view, curriculum developers need to consider the time that teachers, especially at the elementary level, spend on science. They should also consider what teachers say their objectives are and what activities they currently use in the classroom. Finally, developers should consider teachers’ approaches to using instructional materials and how they ideally intend for teachers to use the materials they develop.
CURRENT SCIENCE INSTRUCTION EFFORTS AND NEEDS: STATES, DISTRICTS, SCHOOLS, AND TEACHERS
Tiffany Neill of the Oklahoma State Department of Education and Council of State Science Supervisors moderated a panel discussion on how states, districts, and schools are responding to the challenges of selecting materials and implementing the NGSS. A panel of three teachers, representing elementary, middle, and high school science education, also presented their views on implementing instructional materials in their science classrooms.
Experiences from Two States: Louisiana and South Dakota
Jill Cowart of the Louisiana Department of Education leads both mathematics and science instruction at the state level. This dual role has enabled her to apply lessons from mathematics education to science education. In Louisiana, Cowart explained, curriculum matters because it affects the coherence and consistency of the instruction that students experience year to year. Curriculum also affects the professional development that teachers receive. In mathematics, curriculum has become the vehicle through which teachers understand the standards. In her view, “no amount of training on the standards, no amount of webinars, no amount of superstar presenters standing up is going to help our teachers get to that depth of understanding until they have a quality, aligned, coherent curriculum in their hands.” Curriculum also matters for equity, she said. Cowart explained that high-risk students often have teachers who struggle with coherence and understanding science content. These students and teachers can benefit most from a quality curriculum.
Given these beliefs, Louisiana engages in state-level curriculum reviews using their own rubric that draws from two nationally developed rubrics: Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuIP) and the Primary
Evaluation of Essential Criteria (PEEC).3 They also draw from lessons learned from mathematics and English Language Arts curriculum reviews. State-level curriculum reviews for science instructional materials began in fall 2017 and are scheduled for completion in 2018.
Cowart presented three challenges to the attendees. First, she noted the need for a high-quality science curriculum aligned to the standards that features the three dimensions of learning (science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas) embodied in the NGSS. Second, she emphasized the need to have this curriculum quickly. “I have 700,000 kids showing up to school in August who deserve a quality science education,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s perfect. I don’t care if it’s partial. Start me with a scope and sequence. Start me with phenomena. Let me get that into my teachers’ hands. Let them figure it out as we figure out how to do the rest. We don’t have the time to be patient.” Last, she urged participants to be circumspect in how much they ask teachers and districts to do.
South Dakota serves about 132,000 students across 150 school districts that span a wide geographic area, explained Sam Shaw of the South Dakota Department of Education. He has worked over the last 7 years since the development of A Framework for K–12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as “the Framework”; National Research Council, 2012) and through the adoption of South Dakota’s science standards in 2015 to provide professional development and implementation of the standards. Much of the training has focused on helping teachers understand the vision for science education focused on the NGSS three dimensions of science education. Shaw is finding that many teachers still feel uncomfortable with these dimensions.
Shaw explained that in South Dakota, much of education is locally controlled. The state has no role in requiring a particular curriculum or instructional materials, nor are teachers required to attend the regional trainings that he conducts. Whereas in the past he might have traveled to a district to reach several teachers for less than 1 hour of training, he now conducts half-day trainings with 30 teachers or more. However, he finds this amount of time still insufficient.
Through a partnership with 12 other states and two universities on a research grant, South Dakota is also learning more from surveys and focus groups
3 See https://www.nextgenscience.org/resources/equip-rubric-lessons-units-science for more details on EQuIP and https://www.nextgenscience.org/peec for more details on PEEC [December 2017].
about its system of science education. This feedback is identifying ways that implementation efforts can meet teachers where they are. Teachers want to provide students with opportunities to connect classroom science with science outside the classroom. In addition, teachers prefer greater depth and less breadth to the science ideas they teach, would like to see students more often leading investigations, and want to use student ideas to guide and organize instruction. These findings are consistent with other states, which has allowed states to collaborate and develop plans together based on the needs of teachers and aligned to the Framework, he said.
A District Experience
James Ryan, STEM executive director for the San Francisco Unified School District, has primary responsibility for implementing standards and overseeing the teams that carry out that implementation for the district’s 57,000 students across 120 schools. In his experience with implementing new curricula, most teachers tend to teach as they always have but simply use different sets of readings, problems, or activities. To counter this, Ryan has been focusing on helping teachers feel a sense of ownership around curriculum, rather than focusing on compliance.
This approach is centered around three aspects of teaching and learning in each classroom: (1) agency, authority, and identity; (2) access to content for all learners in the classroom; and (3) uses of assessment. Teachers are partners in developing and piloting curricula. For example, teachers helped to develop and field test a curriculum available through Creative Commons4 that will be implemented in all 6th-grade classrooms. Teachers have also had a voice in changing how the classroom is structured and on the scope and sequence of projects, which has been important for teacher buy-in. At the high school level, hundreds of teachers have represented their schools to develop units and materials for a coherent curriculum with storylines. These processes have taken several years, but “we have created an environment in which our teachers all own it, they worked collaboratively at schools and across schools to do it, and the unevenness that we saw beforehand is already starting to disappear even though we are still in the pilot phase,” said Ryan. This process will be iterative, he added, with a feedback mechanism to enable annual revisions.
4 Creative Commons is an online platform that enables users to legally share and allow others to reuse their open education resources and other creative content. See https://creativecommons.org/about/program-areas/education-oer for more information [December 2017].
A School and District Experience
Jennifer Munger, a school principal of 270 students and K–12 curriculum director for a school district near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, described her experiences working on the initiatives that Shaw described earlier in his remarks. In her rural district, she has many responsibilities and constraints. These circumstances have necessitated that she rely on state-level guidance from Shaw to identify important considerations in science education and how the district could align that vision of science education with its resources and needs.
Munger and her colleagues did not find any existing products that met their needs; therefore, they explored open education resources and ultimately invested in professional development that would enable them to create their own curriculum. Munger and her team are now continuing to work with Shaw to help teachers develop the skills to teach science content well and feel comfortable in their abilities.
Presenters discussed the tools they are using and the ways that they are working with teachers. In San Francisco, Ryan noted that once he and his colleagues had a learning sequence for science in place, they collected instructional materials from a variety of sources, both open sources and commercial materials, because he did not find any one publisher best at meeting the needs of all students. “It’s up to us to create the coherence,” he said. They engaged in a process of gathering feedback and videotaping observations, evaluated against the standards by a team of internal and external experts, using EQuIP at the elementary level. According to Ryan, by involving teachers in the process of developing or improving curriculum, teachers are more invested in its success. “This is where, for us, a curriculum isn’t bought by somebody. It’s owned by those teachers,” he said.
Munger described the efforts at her school to work with teachers. She indicated that she devoted initial effort into helping to increase her teachers’ comfort level with science, taking advantage of the online resources created by Shaw at the state level. She suggested this was particularly important at the elementary level where teachers are responsible for multiple subject areas. Next, she increased the time spent on science in the elementary grades, which often gets minimized as teachers focus on other subjects. Munger indicated that they now rely on a base curriculum, CK-12,5 to which they continually add resources through a process
5 See https://www.ck12.org for more information [December 2017].
supported by their professional learning community. Munger has opted to focus on investment in professional development rather than on curriculum materials.
Participants also considered the ways in which researchers could work within existing systems to help states and districts as they seek to implement NGSS materials. Shaw emphasized that progress is only likely to occur by responding to teachers’ needs, building on and fostering their strengths. The amount of new information and change in practice that teachers need to make presents significant challenges. Because leadership and resources in science at the district level are scarce, South Dakota has benefited greatly from partnerships with other states and with university researchers. These collaborations have helped Shaw gather information about the many factors that affect science education in the classroom and what science education with cohesive frameworks and storylines can look like. He identifies districts that are ready to use such resources to catalyze change. Shaw indicated that researchers who develop curricula could help states to foster networks of support. In addition, he and Ryan suggested that researchers help states and districts explore and evaluate multiple “levers” of change beyond instructional materials (e.g., assessment, professional development, coaching, policy work). Researchers can also reach out to states to involve teachers in pilot-testing materials and providing feedback, explained Cowart.
Cowart described how Louisiana encourages the adoption of high-quality instructional materials. Because the choice of curriculum is the decision of local districts, Louisiana educates districts by providing curriculum ratings and has also developed ways to “make the smart choice the easiest choice.” The state department of education provides free training on highly rated curriculum materials and helps smooth the acquisition process for these materials through state contracts. They also support districts through observations and feedback to support the implementation after initial training. In both mathematics and science, Cowart indicated that supporting the adoption of high-quality curricula is the “most important lever that we have found that significantly changes what is happening in the classroom quickly.” Moreover, this has proven true with both high-performing teachers and those who struggle to teach science effectively.
Panelists also discussed their views on instructional materials and equity. Cowart said she has found that in Louisiana, funding is not the primary barrier to quality science education in schools serving underserved populations. Often these schools have more resources available to them than do other schools, she said. In San Francisco, explained Ryan, attending to equity means making sure that all students have access to rigorous content through an ongoing process of coaching,
observing, reviewing student work, and particularly not waiting for end-of-year evaluations to identify any gaps that exist. Shaw added that instructional materials should also be relevant and flexible enough to adapt to varied interests and identities of students.
Science Teacher Experiences
Three teachers—one each from elementary, middle, and high school—described their experiences implementing, adapting, and evaluating science curriculum materials in their classrooms. Tiffany Neill moderated a panel discussion among the teachers and participants.
Monica Aguirre has been teaching elementary school for 20 years, currently at Lake Elementary in Oceanside, California. The adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)6 ushered in a shift from focusing on fidelity to a curriculum to a greater focus on innovation and meeting the needs and interests of students, she said. Three years ago, Aguirre joined the California K–8 NGSS Early Implementation Initiative, which she called a “life-changing experience.” This opportunity to better understand three-dimensional science learning, what the standards are, and what students should be learning has also provided her with an opportunity to participate in pilot-testing the Next Generation Analyzing Instructional Materials tool (Next Gen AIM; described in Chapter 3). Aguirre found this to be a valuable learning experience as she shifted from thinking about how to develop her own curriculum and instructional sequences to understanding how a publisher approaches these tasks. Next Gen AIM is an “amazing tool,” according to Aguirre, that provides a structure for teachers to evaluate instructional materials and give feedback about whether students are learning.
Rabiah Harris is a science teacher at Kelly Miller Middle School in the District of Columbia. A chemistry major with a graduate teaching degree, she is now in her 8th year of teaching middle school science and her 12th year of teaching. Harris is also the department chair and holds a leadership role in the district, helping to support all 8th-grade science teachers. Over her years of teaching, she has found that although she has embraced project-based learning and worked to identify phenomena to study and identify resources, this approach is very uneven across grades and teachers. She suggested that more open-source materials that identify phenomena that address the three dimensions of science learning would be helpful. Harris indicated that she could help other teachers in her school and
6 See http://www.corestandards.org for more information about the CCSS [December 2017].
district with such resources. Right now, Harris said she “spends countless hours on the Internet looking and searching and hoping and talking to my friends who did go into industry . . . having them try to help me figure out how to make it [science] accessible for my students and make it something that connects to the world.”
Margo Murphy teaches earth and space science and advanced placement (AP) environmental science at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, Maine. She explained that her journey implementing a science curriculum began 31 years ago with being handed a textbook and thinking “What do I do with it?” In that pre-Internet era, she availed herself of summer professional development opportunities because they provided the only access she had to different ways of thinking and different resources for science education. Her experience this past year in teaching AP environmental science for the first time has provided her with new opportunities to assess her effectiveness as a teacher, she commented. She has been able to see the learning retained from when she taught the same group of students as freshmen. An external evaluation is also helping her assess student learning over the past year. Murphy said she experiences a disconnect between her own internal motivations as a science teacher committed to the NGSS and the external motivations in the system, including limited time in the day and the ways that teachers are certified and evaluated. “So I’m thinking about certification. I’m thinking about highly effective teachers and teacher effectiveness, that this person who knows nothing about my curriculum is going to come in and evaluate me. I am thinking about the fact that I have maybe 20 minutes a day to set up, clean up, there’s so many contextual pieces. . . . I would love somebody to bring me a curriculum that’s about valuing this planet at the high school level that doesn’t say biology, chemistry and physics, and let me run with it with a lot of professional development, a lot of collaboration,” she stated.
The variability in students and teachers is one of the biggest challenges that these teachers see to the selection and implementation of instructional materials. At the high school level, explained Murphy, materials need to be able to provide a sufficient foundation for students who may be lacking important understanding when they come in to a class, as well as provide students with preparation for their next steps. Materials need to be able to adapt to the different starting points of both teachers and students, according to Aguirre and Harris. Getting feedback from teachers is important, they noted. Technology could provide an important
means for learning from teacher experiences, identifying adaptations, and improving materials, said Aguirre. Some inexperienced teachers may benefit from a more scripted curriculum, while others may find that confining, added Murphy.
Aguirre noted that this variability in teachers’ comfort and preparedness to teach science often stems from the opportunities they have had to work in an in-depth way with the materials and the amount of professional development they receive to help them better understand the NGSS. She received extensive professional development as an NGSS Early Implementer and has now been prepared to train others and to coach. “Teachers receive it best from teachers,” she explained, “because we share with transparency our own struggles. We share with transparency our own shortcomings. We talk through, ‘Well, how do we make these shifts together? How do we respond to our students?’” Given this variability, fostering a cohesive storyline is also challenging, according to more than one panelist.
All three teachers discussed supplementing their curricula with materials they find on their own. Harris focuses primarily on finding material that is accurate, then weighs how engaging and accessible it is given the technology constraints of her school. What is engaging for one class may not be so for another class, however, she added, which requires additional adaptation. Over time, Murphy has developed more comfort in discerning which sources are more credible for finding information and teaching resources. She noted that it is still difficult to determine whether items that claim to be NGSS aligned actually are, but that naming the tool (e.g., EQuIP) used to ascertain the NGSS alignment could be helpful. Costs are another factor that Murphy must consider when selecting materials. She said she prefers open source and feels that paper textbooks are unnecessary. There are more resources to purchase materials for AP courses than there are for other science classes, added Murphy.
Adapting curricula is important, Aguirre stated, because “it’s very difficult to argue for a single curriculum that’s going to meet every single child’s needs, every single teacher need.” In her view, teachers must have a voice in contributing to curriculum development and improvement, but expertise from researchers, especially related to science content, is still essential. Murphy noted that teacher collaboration with curriculum designers is important to account for the realities of teaching (e.g., preparation time not valued) or to consider how to change those existing constraints.
Access to technology varies. Harris noted that she has intermittent access to computers at her school, and that other subjects are prioritized above science for access to them. She has virtually no access to other technologies, such as probes or
other measurement tools. Aguirre’s school is on the opposite end of the spectrum, with nearly one computer for every student; however, many teachers in her district do not know how to effectively use technology in instruction, she said. Maine is a state with a policy of one device for each child, but increasingly how these policies are implemented varies locally.
Following the discussion, Neill described her perspective on key points that arose from the discussion. She suggested that developers and researchers work closely with individuals at the state and district levels, who can help provide valuable information about the systems in which materials would be used and about the barriers to implementation. Neill also urged participants to consider codesigning materials with teachers or others who will adopt the curricula. “One thing I have found for sure in the last 5 years of working across the nation, across states, and in Oklahoma, with implementation of the vision, is this is tough work and it is worthwhile work,” she stated. “But, it requires the expertise of every player in the system, and if we aren’t paying attention to all the experts in the system, we’re going to be missing a big component which may be the barrier that doesn’t allow us to move forward.”