From Vision to Reality
Around 2008, national leaders in education began discussing the need for new science standards, said Heidi Schweingruber (Board on Science Education [BOSE]). A committee of 18 experts was convened by the National Academies to develop a Framework for K–12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework; NRC, 2012). The committee received input from four design teams, said Schweingruber, as well as feedback from thousands of educators and other stakeholders in science education. Following the committee’s report, the NGSS were developed through a collaborative effort that included 26 partner states, Achieve, the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Science Teaching Association. This process was a community effort, said Schweingruber, with input from “an amazing array of people.” Schweingruber emphasized that the standards and the Framework be considered “living things” that are informed by the work as the field of education moves forward.
The panelists in this session of the workshop represent people who have worked with the Framework and the NGSS at different times and in different roles, and who have been connected to some of the many BOSE projects described by Garcia.1 Schweingruber noted that choosing panelists for the session was challenging, as there were “thousands of people” who could have offered unique and relevant perspectives. Schweingruber moderated the discussion by posing a series of questions to the panelists and then
1 Panelists have been involved in several different BOSE activities. Each panelist was asked to represent one of the activities, noted as part of their affiliation.
allowing Summit participants to ask questions in the chat box. The session featured four panelists:
- Philip Bell: professor of education at University of Washington; committee member for A Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC, 2012); principal investigator for Advancing Coherent and Equitable Systems of Science Education project for implementation
- Elizabeth A. (Betsy) Davis: professor of education at University of Michigan; chair of the committee for Science and Engineering in Preschool through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators (Brilliance and Strengths) (NASEM, 2022); co-investigator on a research project on NGSS implementation
- Michael Lach: Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at Township High School District 113; former high school science teacher; committee member for Science and Engineering for Grades 6–12 (NASEM, 2019); worked with Achieve on the NGSS
- Tiffany Neill: Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at Oklahoma State Department of Education; former high school science teacher; committee member for Call to Action for Science Education: Building Opportunity for the Future (NASEM, 2021); former president of the Council of State Science Supervisors
Bell began the discussion by saying that what motivated him was to “see how far we could actually move science” education toward what is known about how people learn science. Bell’s research centers on sociocultural and sociocognitive perspectives of learning, and he noted that science learning is fundamentally a cultural process. The cultural significance and relevance of the subject matter is fundamental to learner engagement and scientific literacy as learners engage with the natural world. The Framework, he said, highlighted the fact that science learning is cultural, and explored three dimensions of how to put this into practice in science teaching and learning. First, it is critical to build upon prior interest and identity, just as educators build on prior knowledge. Second, community
cultural “funds of knowledge” can be leveraged to make connections with the subject matter. Third, educators need to leverage the diverse cultural and linguistic assets that learners bring with them to create inclusive and meaningful educational experiences. Together, these practices can open up the possibility to position learners as “knowers and doers” who can apply science education in ways that are meaningful to themselves and their communities, Bell concluded. Davis concurred and added that the Framework sets high yet realistic expectations for children; it views children as capable of exploring questions and solving problems that are meaningful for them, yet at the same time acknowledges that “kids are kids.”
Before the Framework was released, said Neill, the National Academies published America’s Lab Report (NRC, 2006), which outlined science learning goals for educators. At the time, Neill was a high school science teacher, and while the report had powerful ideas, she wondered how they could actually be implemented. For example, the report described the concept of integrated laboratory experiences, in which laboratory activities are integrated with other science learning activities such as intentional discourse and reading. When Neill read the Framework in 2011, she realized “this is the how.” Neill viewed the Framework as “something big” that could help stakeholders—including rural teachers, district leaders, policy makers, and researchers—connect and move together toward a united vision of science education. Lach added that these reports and others highlight the fact that communities, educators, and other stakeholders can work together to make things better for children; he said that this is “incredibly difficult and humbling work” but is worth “dedicating our lives to.”
SUCCESSES IN ADOPTION AND IMPLEMENTATION
The Framework and the NGSS, said Neill, laid out a vision for science education that gives “goosebumps.” When the Framework and the NGSS were first developed, she said, there was a synergy of efforts to advance the vision by engaging teachers and leaders in professional learning. Teachers were trying to understand the vision and what it could look like in the classroom, and there were multiple opportunities for educators to engage with the vision and with other stakeholders to experience those “goose-bump moments.” The Framework and the NGSS also brought resources to an area—science—that had historically been underresourced, said Neill;
the national push for a coordinated vision made professional development and professional supports freely available for educators. Davis added that in addition to new professional development opportunities for in-service educators, the Framework and NGSS also brought opportunities for preservice teachers to think about and engage in science teaching in a way that is fundamentally different. It has been “incredibly powerful” as a teacher educator, said Davis, to see shifts in the way that preservice teachers are engaging with children.
In addition, said Neill, the Framework and the NGSS have disrupted the way that teachers and leaders think about students’ capabilities in science. For example, Bell came to Oklahoma several years ago to work with elementary teachers. He discussed the idea of using formative assessments that resonate with the interests and identities of students; allowing students to share in their own way can open opportunities to see how students are thinking. Teachers in this professional development session became “very emotional,” said Neill, because they recognized how their previous practices had been limiting their students for years. Davis followed up on this point, noting that there is considerable evidence around what children can do at young ages. The recent report on science education in preschool and elementary school (NASEM, 2022), she said, demonstrates that even 3- and 4-year-old children are capable of sophisticated learning through play. For example, a water table allows children to explore disciplinary core ideas around water and water flow, crosscutting concepts around cause and effect and systems thinking, and science practices such as investigation and using data to construct explanations.
The Framework and the NGSS, said Lach, acknowledge that science is “special and different”; the standards are three-dimensional, so there is a different way of looking at science than is done for other disciplines. These efforts have put science at the table in a way that it wasn’t before and show that “science matters.” In addition, the development of the Framework and the NGSS pulled together a team of teachers, administrators, and leaders who are dedicated to working together. Bell agreed and said that he is gratified to see the energy and creativity of people coming together to bring the vision into place over time; he noted that the implementation of the Framework can be viewed as an organic social movement, which is difficult to achieve in the space of mandated educational standards. Bell gave two examples of how science educators are helping children think critically and solve problems rather than simply memorize content. First, a third-grade classroom in Seattle has been bringing a social justice focus to the development of mass transit systems by centering the interests of communities of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color as well as the potential impacts on the ecosystem. Second, Bell shared the story of a high school biology teacher who has engaged youth in an interdisciplinary in-
vestigation into local environmental racism and the sources and impacts of pollutants. It is “amazing” to see educators using the Framework to build science curriculum centered on social justice, he said.
CHALLENGES IN IMPLEMENTATION
Forty-four states have adopted either the NGSS or standards that are inspired by the Framework, said Schweingruber. However, she said, implementation is different than adoption. She asked panelists to comment on where the sticking points are between adoption and implementation. Davis responded that one major challenge is that science is not prioritized in elementary schools. Science and engineering receive less instructional time than language arts and math, and this is exacerbated in schools that serve more students and communities of color. Lach agreed with this challenge and added several others: a shortage of good teachers, insufficient professional development opportunities, and a lack of quality assessments. These “have been sticking points for 20 or 30 or 50 years,” he said, and there is a need for the community to consider why changes haven’t happened. Another challenge, said Lach, is that there is very little overlap between the set of people who know what quality science education looks like in the classroom and the set of people who know how to run a school or school system. “We perpetuate that small overlap at our peril,” said Lach, and until this gap is bridged, it will continue to be a sticking point. In addition, he said, there is a tension between being true to the standards and being true to the students. Lach said that he has seen people prioritizing strict alignment to the NGSS rather than acknowledging the role that context, nuance, and history of a school play in shaping science education to the needs of the students.
Another challenge, said Davis, is that some teachers find it difficult to build upon children’s cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and to value the resources and ways of knowing that children bring to the table. Both preservice and in-service teachers, she said, need support around leveraging diversity and working toward equity and justice. She noted that the Brilliance and Strengths report made several recommendations in this area. First, curriculum developers work in partnership with others to develop materials that explicitly work toward equity and justice, and state and district leaders ensure that schools have access to these materials. Second,
teacher educators need to foreground issues of equity in teacher education experiences; schools have a responsibility to ensure that teacher educators are prepared to do this work. Finally, said Davis, federal agencies need to fund research and development in this space to move it forward. Bell commented that these recommendations speak to the “deep structural problems and complexities” of the educational system itself, and the need to shift the existing systems and formal accountability structures. Bell shared the results from a survey of 650 science education stakeholders illustrating how they spend their time doing equity work (Bell, Campanella, and Rhinehart, 2022) (see Figure 2-1).2 The survey found that 60 to 80 percent of these stakeholders are engaged in using meaningful phenomena, diverse sensemaking, and place-based science education. He noted that about half utilize cultural pedagogies in implementation; however, racial justice and disrupting ableism are not pervasive practices and are areas for deeper growth.
2 These data come from the National Science Foundation-funded ACESSE (Advancing Coherent and Equitable Systems of Science Education) project.
Bell said that some have critiqued the NGSS for not centering equity. He said that Alberto Rodriguez (2015) suggested an approach of creating a fourth dimension around engagement, equity, and diversity. Bell said that he worries that equity is a jumping off point, rather than the centering focus, in much of the implementation work being conducted. He gave two examples of exceptions to this rule. First, the state science supervisor in Washington, Ellen Ebert, has “systematically built a bridge” with the Native Education Office; this sustained effort to coordinate across agencies has resulted in improved science education opportunities for Indigenous youth. Second, Mary Margaret Welch of Seattle Public Schools is building a deep partnership with a department focused on supporting emergent multilingual youth; this partnership has opened up possibilities for science-specific collaboration. These types of efforts are needed across the country, he said, but are difficult and require a lot of energy.
“Change takes time,” said Neill. While the Framework and the NGSS have been enormously impactful over the past 10 years, it is crucial that the community “stay the course” to see widescale implementation of the vision. Many teachers have not yet had the opportunity or the support that they need to be part of the conversation, which means that “hundreds or thousands of students” also miss out on the opportunities presented by the vision. Neill urged Summit participants to commit to “not leaving a teacher behind,” and noted that this process is a marathon, not a sprint. Neill also urged stakeholders to get involved in policy, whether at the district, state, or federal level. For example, teacher certification standards are being lowered in many states, which will lead to teachers coming into the profession without a strong background in science or science education. It is critical, said Neill, that stakeholders are able to articulate and advocate for the standards, funding, and professional development that are required to fulfill the vision of the Framework and the NGSS.
One area that has shifted since the publication of the Framework and the NGSS, said Davis, is our understanding of how science can effectively be integrated with other subject areas. Educators worried that integration would mean “losing what is special about science.” However, evidence has accrued that integration can be an effective approach; the Brilliance and
Strengths report identified three evidence-based opportunities for integrating science and engineering with language arts, and two opportunities for integrating with math. This approach is particularly relevant for elementary teachers, said Davis, because they typically teach all subject areas in a self-contained classroom. Despite the benefits of this approach, there is a lack of resources to implement integration, including a lack of curriculum and materials, and challenges with the design of the school day.
Another area that has changed over the past decade, said Bell, is our understanding of equity in science education. A broad community has long been working to center ideas of equity, and the racial reckoning that has been unfolding since the death of George Floyd served as a catalyst for this transition. Bell said that he is heartened by the work being done around solidarity-based partnerships; the centering of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color family and community interests; and educational transformation. While these efforts are still not widespread, there have been “great developments in that direction.”
Panelists shared their lessons learned from the past 10 years of work on implementing the vision of the Framework and the NGSS. These insights included the following:
- Intellectual and trusting relationships between stakeholders are the foundation for implementing science education that is meaningful for students. (Bell)
- Collaboration and networks are essential for purposeful continued implementation of the vision. (Neill)
- It is critical to center the voices and interests of marginalized communities when planning educational design and implementation efforts. (Bell)
- Teacher educators, facilitators of professional learning experiences, and school and district leaders need to support teachers’ efforts to teach science and engineering well. (Davis)
- Implementation is a marathon, not a sprint; allow time and support to observe how changes play out in the classroom before making further changes. (Neill and Lach)
While the Framework and the NGSS were national efforts, said Lach, the work of implementing the vision happens on the local level. The day-to-day relationships and the “sweat and the grit” are in classrooms, departments, and schools, he said. Schweingruber asked panelists to comment on how national leadership can ensure coherence across the system while also honoring the local nature of change and the inclusion of diverse communities in the work. Bell responded that ideally, national policy and leadership provides openings to meaningful local engagement; rather than starting with the NGSS, communities can start with the learning and use the standards as a foundation and guide. Neill added that the Framework and the NGSS were structured as “offerings for the learning goals that states would adopt.” At the state level, adoption of standards happens through bringing committees of diverse representatives together, and at the local level, committees of teachers come together to select materials or give guidance on professional development. Of course, said Neill, these processes are not perfect, and efforts are needed to train teachers and teacher leaders to be advocates and to ensure that decisions are made with the input of a broad and diverse group of people. Bell added that making decisions that serve the local interest requires not just input from diverse and marginalized communities but working in solidarity with these communities. Lach said that while there are parts of the system that need changing because they are “inefficient and unjust,” there are “limits to that kind of work.” Lach urged Summit participants to consider ways to improve science education for children regardless of whether there are changes in the system, “because there are a whole bunch of kids out there that we have to do better for.” Schweingruber concluded that implementing the vision of the Framework and the NGSS may require setting both short- and long-term goals, and that “we have to do both at once.” Structural change may take years to accomplish, she said, but in the meantime, science educators can respond to the needs of communities and facilitate local action and innovation.
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