It is hard to believe that we are nearly a decade out from the release of A Framework for K–12 Science Education (Framework) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Also noteworthy is that we are now at a point where the vision for science education put forth by the Framework has become part of education policy in many corners of the U.S. This vision recasts science proficiency as not only what students know, but also how they can use and apply what they know. In today’s science classrooms, students are expected to engage in three-dimensional learning as they make sense of phenomena and design solutions to problems. And within classrooms in many states, three-dimensional learning is now the means through which students build proficiency with the NGSS performance expectations.

Middle School Girls with test tubesBecause the Framework and NGSS are so different from prior standards, it is taking time to develop and make available the instructional materials and resources needed to advance the vision across K–12. Having the right kinds of instructional materials is critically important because they guide what teachers and students do in classrooms. The good news is that new materials and resources are becoming increasingly available to support teachers in providing instructional experiences that will engage their students in three-dimensional learning. Also, there have been processes developed for evaluating instructional materials for their NGSS design. With promising new instructional materials now arriving at schools around the U.S., the timing is right for conducting evidence-based research on their implementation and impact on student learning. This research is greatly needed and is just getting underway. I have been fortunate to be part of this emerging research effort and recently collaborated with colleagues to conduct one of the first experimental studies of materials designed for the NGSS.

My research colleagues and I at WestEd recently led a study of middle school instructional materials expressly designed for the NGSS. The randomized-controlled trial examined the efficacy of the Amplify Science Middle School program, which received high marks for their NGSS design in a review by EdReports. In this study, we collected data from fifteen middle schools in three districts across two states to examine the impact of the materials and aligned professional learning. We conducted the study in seventh grade classrooms. Schools were randomly assigned to either a treatment or comparison group during the 2019–20 school year. Science teachers in the treatment group implemented the Amplify Science Middle School program and received accompanying professional learning support. Teachers in both groups were asked to cover the same topics in physical science and implement instruction that aimed for the same NGSS performance expectations.

As part of our study, we were interested in examining what it takes for NGSS-designed materials to be implemented in schools, taken up by teachers, and ultimately beneficial to students. Our findings suggest two main things:

First, investments in NGSS-designed materials with accompanying professional learning can make a real difference for achieving next generation science learning outcomes. We found that students in treatment classrooms significantly outperformed students in comparison classrooms on aspects of NGSS performance expectations for physical science. Importantly, the findings demonstrate evidence of the promise of well-designed instructional programs for supporting three-dimensional teaching and learning.

Second, taking on a systemic approach for supporting the implementation of NGSS-designed materials can benefit everyone in the long run. In our study, we examined more broadly the district ecosystem within which instructional materials are implemented. While implementing instructional materials is typically thought of as primarily a classroom-level undertaking, we found that implementing NGSS-designed materials required districts to take on more of a systemic perspective. An important takeaway for district and school leaders is that when planning for implementation, it is imperative to consider

  • the various levels of the system (e.g., district, school, classroom),
  • the multiple critical components that influence the system (e.g., policy, instructional resources, professional learning), and
  • the key participants and their roles within the system (e.g., district leaders, principals, teachers, and students).

This is because the capacity for developing and sustaining change with instructional materials is a function of the interactions of the components and people within and across the levels in the system. For instance, introducing school leaders to the vision and new expectations for science education can, in turn, better enable them to identify resources and set or refine policies to support teachers in making the instructional shift called for by the NGSS-designed materials.

We are in an exciting new era for NGSS-designed instructional materials. As they become more widely used within schools and districts across different geographic regions and with varying student populations, the research base will continue to grow. This current and future research work, grounded in the reality of schools, is greatly needed and will be critical for ensuring that the vision of the Framework and the NGSS is realized for all students.

To learn more about our study and the initial findings on student learning outcomes, see the WestEd research brief, Curriculum Materials Designed for the Next Generation Science Standards Show Promise.

Christopher Harris is Senior Director of Research in Science and Engineering Education at WestEd.  He leads large-scale multiyear, multi-institutional research, development, and evaluation projects and has been involved in developing scalable approaches to address the NGSS through curricula and assessments. His research often involves collaborative work with districts and schools for the purpose of informing both research and practice.
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