Nearly a decade since the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), teachers are still struggling to implement key NGSS instructional shifts: focusing on phenomena and problems, integrating engineering practices and content, and incorporating the science and engineering practices (SEPs) and crosscutting concepts (CCCs). However, research suggests that there are effective ways to move the needle: access to sustained professional learning and having a leadership role in implementation helps teachers in their understanding, leadership, and teaching of the NGSS.

We studied teachers’ participation in a large-scale initiative (“the Initiative”) that was formed across eight school districts, wherein a small cohort of teachers first gained foundational knowledge of the standards and then were tasked with leading others in the implementation of the NGSS in their schools and districts. We examined both teachers’ duration of participation, as well as their role in the Initiative. We found that both duration and role had influences on teachers’ understanding of the NGSS, their science leadership practices, and their science teaching practices (to read more findings, see the full white paper here).  

The Initiative lasted a period of six years and teachers’ duration of participation varied within this span of time. There were two primary roles teachers had during the Initiative: Core Teacher Leaders and Teacher Leaders. In the first phase of the Initiative, six to 10 teachers in each district joined the Core Leadership Team to plan and lead NGSS implementation. These Core Teacher Leaders had intensive professional learning with the understanding that they would have a significant responsibility in sharing what they learned with other teachers in their district. In the second phase of the Initiative, each district recruited between 30 and 70 additional Teacher Leaders who would also play an important role in sharing what they learned about the NGSS with their colleagues. Teacher Leaders received less rigorous professional learning than Core Teacher Leaders and only received about nine days of training per year compared to the 21 days Core Teacher Leaders received but were still integral to district NGSS implementation and had substantial leadership opportunities. In this post, we’re referring to the collective group of both Teacher Leaders and Core Teacher Leaders as teacher leaders.

In order to understand how duration and role may have influenced teachers’ understanding and practices through participation in Initiative activities, we asked the following research question:

By the end of the Initiative, Teacher Leaders’ self-reported levels of understanding of these two NGSS dimensions roughly equaled the understanding of the Core Teacher Leaders (Figure 1). This trend may indicate that the supports provided over time by the Initiative, including support provided to Teacher Leaders by the Core Teacher Leaders, influenced these participants over the long-term resulting in both groups of teacher leaders having gained substantial understanding of key elements of the NGSS.

Figure 1

Understanding of SEPs and CCCs Over Time by Initiative Role

This finding may also indicate that teachers with science leadership roles are better positioned to gain a deeper understanding of the NGSS, since they must help their colleagues understand and implement it. Though Core Teacher Leaders received more professional learning opportunities and implementation support in the initial years of the Initiative, their joint, district-wide efforts with Teacher Leaders to help implement the NGSS widely across their school and district systems may have helped equalize their depth of NGSS knowledge. Thus, our findings showed that both duration and role affected teachers’ understanding of the SEPs and CCCs.

In addition, we found that duration of participation in the Initiative had an influence on teachers’ reported instruction, regardless of their role. Survey responses showed that teacher leaders who were involved in the Initiative longer incorporated key NGSS features in their science instruction more frequently as time progressed. When looking at teacher leaders’ implementation of the NGSS by the end of the Initiative, survey results indicated that, overall, Teacher Leaders and Core Teacher Leaders reported incorporating phenomena, engineering, and the SEPs and the CCCs into their science instruction slightly more with each additional year of participation in the Initiative (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Implementation of Key NGSS Features in 2018–19 by Years as a teacher leader

Note: Data are weighted means combined for Core Teacher Leaders and Teacher Leaders.

Our study results have implications for developing and sustaining initiatives for:

  1. Supporting teachers’ NGSS understanding and implementation through intensive professional learning opportunities;
  2. Providing leadership opportunities to teachers to deepen their own NGSS understanding and practice and to help others do the same;
  3. Creating a system of NGSS implementation that includes communities of practice with teacher leaders as change agents for promoting widespread, high-quality science instruction; and
  4. Creating opportunities for the education system to implement changes towards NGSS implementation over a prolonged period.

Overall, these findings point to the value of not only providing intensive professional learning to teachers implementing the NGSS, but also leadership opportunities over an extended period.

What about you? What changes have you seen in your science teaching practice after having professional learning and/or leadership opportunities?

Katherine (Katy) Nilsen and Ashley Iveland are researchers on the Science and Engineering team at WestEd. They lead several research and evaluation projects examining the implementation of the NGSS. To read more about the influences of this large-scale Initiative on teacher leaders, a full white paper can be found here.
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