Next Generation Science Standards and Physics Teaching

Scott Bonham, Western Kentucky University

The development and implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will have a potentially significant impact on K-12 physics instruction and beyond. NGSS is a collaborative effort to develop new state-level standards for K-12 science education, 1 building on previous standards and research on learning, and following up the recent wide adoption of the Common Core Standards in Mathematics and Literacy.2 The development of NGSS is being carried out in a two stage process: the development of the conceptual framework by the National Research Council, and the writing of the standards themselves, organized by the non-profit educational foundation Achieve, Inc.1 As of June 2012, feedback on draft standards has been collected from various sources and a review of revised standards is expected in Fall 2012. Twenty-six states are currently involved as Lead State Partners, which will seriously consider adopting the final standards.3

The vision laid out in the NRC report A Framework for K-12 Science Education1 would improve science education in a number of important ways. First, is calls for more depth and less breadth, consistent with findings of research.4 Towards this end, two to four core ideas in each discipline have been identified which will guide what is and is not included. Second, there is an intentional building on the core ideas from early ages; for example, the concepts of forces, energy and waves would first be introduced in elementary school and then built upon in middle and high school. Third, there is a much greater emphasis on the process of science and connecting ideas; the framework envisions scientific knowledge as three dimensional, with practices and crosscutting concepts as well as the discipline-specific concepts (see Figure 1). Specific performance expectations in the standards themselves are organized so that each performance item contains a practice, a core idea and a cross-cutting concept with explicit links and explanations, as well as links to other standards in science, math and literacy. Fourth, the standards recognize the interrelationship of technology with science, and explicitly include engineering/applied science within the framework. Fifth, there is an explicit concern about college and career readiness, asking what students need to know to be ready for college or the workforce.

The vision laid out in the framework would lead to significant improvements in K-12 science education. However, there is much that needs to happen for this vision to be realized. First, all involved in science education need to ensure that the standards themselves are well written and provide high but achievable expectations for all K-12 students in learning science in general and physics specifically. The first public draft released by Achieve in May of 2012 was commendable in many ways, but also included expectations that were poorly developed and with other problems. Achieve promised that all the feedback they received will be used to improve upon the first draft, but it is incumbent on our community to do all we can to ensure that does in fact happen. There will be at least one more round of feedback on the revised standards in the fall of 2012, which will be collected from departments of education in lead state partners, professional societies like APS and AAPT, and the general public through the NGSS website. Second, the implementation of the standards will require significant changes in K-12 education, professional development, curricular materials, and post-secondary instruction in support and as a result of new standards.1 This will include ensuring K-12 teachers from elementary school up have sufficient content understanding, particularly in areas of new emphasis like waves and engineering. The emphasis on practices will require a shift in instructional methods from telling to activities that better reflect the process of doing science, which will need to be modeled for future teachers in both science and teacher preparation courses. There will need to be significant development or modification of curricular materials such as textbooks and science kits to fit the new standards. The development of state-level assessments that well reflect student understanding of not only concepts but scientific processes and cross-cutting concepts will be a key part of ensuring that what happens in the classroom reflects the new standards. There will also need to be significant research to support all of this.

Figure 1

While NGSS will most directly impact K-12 instruction, it is important that those at the post-secondary level be aware of and involved in the development and implementation. First, we have the knowledge of both the content and process that should be reflected in the standards, as well as in teacher preparation, curriculum, and assessments. Second, teacher preparation programs will need to look closely and make changes as needed to ensure that future teachers have the foundations they need. Third, if NGSS is successfully implemented, it will change preparation and expectation of what happens in a science class of the students coming into introductory post-secondary science classes. This may require restructuring of those classes and possibly introducing remedial classes the way they exist in math and English. The Next Generation Science Standards represents an opportunity to improve science instruction in our country, but realizing that potential will require significant effort of all those involved in science education.


1. National Research Council, A Framework for K-12 Science Education, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 2012.
2. Common Core State Standards, In the States, 2012.
3. Next Generation Science Standards, Lead State Partners, 2012.
4. See for example, Marc S. Schwartz, Philip Sadler, Gerhard Sonnert and Robert H. Tai, Science Education, 93 (2008) pp. 798–826.

Scott Bonham is Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Western Kentucky University. He served among over a hundred college and workforce development personnel brought together in June 2012 for a panel review of NGSS focusing on college and career readiness. He has served several years as a university representative on a state-level science standards taskforce for the state of Kentucky.

Disclaimer–The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.