Even as the political blowback against the rapid adoption of the Common Core math and English language competency benchmarks during the Obama administration was reaching a crescendo, backers of the national standards movement had shifted their sights to science. To date, 18 states and the District of Columbia have formally agreed to the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which lay out what students should know in which grades to be on track for college and career readiness. Another dozen or so have adopted substantially similar benchmarks that don’t carry the NGSS tag, and still more states may adopt the standards in the coming months and years.
A coalition of major philanthropies, led by the Carnegie Corporation, funded the effort to update science standards nationally. After recruiting the National Research Council, a government-chartered non-profit, to determine what should be included, another constellation of nonprofits, led by Achieve, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and delegations from 26 states adapted the hard science into an actionable package of standards. The process was completed in 2013.
Chad Colby, the vice president of strategic communications and outreach for Achieve, spoke with InsideSources about the processes that led to the creation of the NGSS, and how the groups involved were able to sidestep much of the political controversy that engulfed the Common Core. Colby, a former official at the U.S. Department of Education, is a proponent of the NGSS, which he said takes a more holistic view of the subject and encourages active exploration rather than passive memorization. Though the NGSS were created separately from Common Core, the standards are designed to link up together—should educators decide to take a cross-disciplinary approach to curricular development.
What distinguishes the NGSS from the Common Core, said Colby, is the amount of stakeholder feedback and buy-in that was solicited from the public, educators, and states as the standards were being crafted. After the content was developed by the outside group of scientists, participating states and organizations that wrote the standards included two public comment periods and were encouraged to get support from K-12 science teachers during a lengthy process that was “public and transparent,” according to Colby.
Another factor working in the NGSS’s favor: the federal government did not get actively involved. When the Obama administration tied Common Core adoption to large federal grant incentives, nearly every state rushed to adopt the math and English benchmarks, which left a bitter taste in the mouths of some local educators who felt cut out of the process. The science standards on the other hand, have no federal incentives attached, have been adopted more slowly, and have therefore been insulated from criticisms of a top-down imposition.
Still, not every state that participated in the writing of the standards went on to formally incorporate them. Colby conceded that, in some cases, states underwent changes in leadership while the standards were being formulated, and like the Common Core standards, “there is politics involved.”
West Virginia is a notable example. When the science standards were first issued, the Mountain State adopted NGSS entirely. However, objections emerged from some on the state board of education who questioned the inclusion of climate science standards that reflected the mainstream scientific consensus that climate change is real and a result of human activity. West Virginia’s board of education has since voted to amend the standards to soften the climate science language, while still keeping much of the NGSS in place.
Other groups, like the center-right Fordham Institute, which was a central player in the push for the creation of the Common Core, levied a broadside against the NGSS in a 2013 paper. Fordham gave the NGSS a “C” and criticized the final product for being light on important scientific content knowledge. (New Hampshire’s top educator recently failed in an effort to get the state to “review” the adoption of the NGSS, in part on the back of the Fordham report.)
Colby pushed back on both points of criticism, arguing that Fordham’s review used a flawed methodology and failed to account for the distinction between a set of standards and the curriculums that states and local districts were drawing up around the NGSS for real-world, in-class instruction. He also shrugged off the West Virginia concerns over the climate science standards by pointing out that the content was written by experts at the National Research Council, not advocacy groups with a political bent.
“The study of climate change is part of a scientific education, so it is part of the standards,” he said.
The final hurdle for the NGSS standards to clear before they become thoroughly inter-woven into the education system is for states to formally adopt NGSS-aligned standardized assessments. Under federal policy, K-12 students are to be tested on their knowledge of the subject once in each of their elementary school, middle school, and high school years. Colby said that the states are in different stages of the formulation of these assessments, and pointed to California in particular as a model of a state that is taking a healthy approach to the testing challenge.
Ultimately, the adoption of the NGSS is moving ahead steadily and with far less fanfare than the high-profile battles that engulfed the Common Core. Part of the advantage for Colby at Achieve and other backers was their opportunity to watch and learn from how the national math and English standards were formulated and rolled out.
Colby described the underlying philosophy for how the NGSS came about thusly: “Let the scientists and the scientific community determine the science, then let the K-12 educators decide how to organize it all by grade level.”