Keeping the Promise of Science Education

By Sam Shaw, EdReports Director of Science Review

Tue Jul 17 00:00:00 UTC 2018

I’ll never forget the day a student attempted to bring a baby rattlesnake into my seventh grade life science class. He’d caught the snake on his farm and wanted to share it with me and his classmates. While I knew we couldn’t have a rattler, no matter how tiny, in school, I didn’t want to squash the student’s initial curiosity and interest.

So I told him he could bring in a bullsnake instead. With the bullsnake as an example, I worked with the student to do research on how different species behave in captivity and why. The student began to see the animals on his farm in new ways and with greater understanding for the roles they play in the larger ecosystem.

That’s the true promise of science education: it allows kids to engage in the natural world and to figure out why things exist and how they work, while showing us that such exploration and discovery is a universal human act.

Lessons from the Classroom

As a middle school science teacher, I saw the impact science has on kids every day. However, it was often challenging to find a way to connect to all of my students’ interests. I experienced this firsthand during my first year teaching. I was required to use instructional materials that were previously selected with little to no record of how they were chosen or how they aligned to the existing state standards. And I soon learned that without rigorous standards and materials designed to meet these standards, the quality of science education varies considerably from classroom to classroom and from lesson to lesson.

As a new teacher, I was trying to engage students in deep science learning while struggling with all the issues that new teachers go through, including little exposure to materials in teacher training. Because of the state of the curriculum, student success depended on my novice ability to adjust those materials to get kids engaged. I was not always successful.  

I began to understand that the promise of science education could never be equitably fulfilled unless we had a rigorous model for our instruction and materials to support that model.

The Next Generation Science Standards

My experiences as a teacher led me from a South Dakota classroom to the South Dakota Department of Education. We were a lead state in the creation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and I learned so much from guiding that process.

As we began working with South Dakota districts to implement the NGSS, it became increasingly clear that our next great challenge was providing our teachers with materials aligned to these standards. We lacked the knowledge about not only what was being used across the state, but about science materials in general: What materials were NGSS-designed? What was high-quality? What would ensure our students were college and career ready?

As I had learned in my own classroom, all of the work that went into developing the NGSS would be essentially meaningless without the materials to support those standards in the classroom.

Reviewing Science with EdReports

My commitment to high-quality instructional materials is the reason I came to EdReports.org. Since 2015, EdReports has reviewed hundreds of ELA and Math programs providing data to the field on what aligns to the standards and what doesn't. As we move into our next phase, reviewing science, we’ll be in a position to offer districts the information they need to choose the best aligned materials to support their local communities.

Our first round of reviews is getting underway now, and it’s been an exciting journey to this point. We began with a listening and learning tour which involved conversations with organizations such as the Council of State Science Supervisors, Achieve, Inc., National Research Council Board on Science Education, and the National Science Teachers Association. We also reached out to numerous state and district leaders, teachers, researchers, professional development providers, and curriculum designers.

The purpose of these conversations was to elicit challenges and successes related to the development and implementation of the NGSS, as well as understand how the NGSS innovations play a role in evaluating instructional materials claiming to be NGSS-designed.

The listening and learning tour resulted in an amazing amount of information that led to a foundation for our science review rubric, criteria, and indicators.

As we developed the review rubric, we also brought in educators from all levels to provide feedback and shape the final product. Their expertise was instrumental in developing a rubric that embraces the innovations in the NGSS that really inform what science learning should look like. Because of their collaboration, our rubric evaluates for NGSS design including the three dimensions (core ideas, cross-cutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices), the role of scientific phenomena/engineering problems in the learning process, and coherent learning progressions, with a focus on science for all students.

In April, we convened our first comprehensive reviewer training. It was an inspiring three days for us all. The educator reviewers who are evaluating our first sets of middle school science materials come from 21 states across the country and average nearly 17 years in education (500+ years total experience in education!). When selecting this cohort, we also looked at expertise across grade bands and subject areas to ensure deep content knowledge and a diversity of expertise.

What's Next?

We don’t yet know what the first EdReports science reviews will tell us about the materials in the field. We do know that information alone is powerful. We know that these reports can be a crucial entry point for districts to start making decisions about the curriculum that will be integral to teacher and student success. By showcasing what high-quality materials look like, we will be one step closer to ensuring all students have access to the science education that can change their lives.

Throughout this process, I’ve thought about my former students every day. I’ve thought about that kid who couldn’t wait to show me the rattlesnake he’d discovered. He is a constant reminder that science can be especially transformative when students are able to explore and explain experiences that matter to them and to their communities.

Let’s keep working to provide materials that harness that wonder and equip kids with the tools to understand and shape the world. 

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