I really, really like the idea of teaching science to kids. Maybe one day we'll even try it. But the Next Generation Science Standards, as currently written, won't get us there.
The drive behind the standards is economic, not philosophical. It's about children being prepared "to succeed in a global economy," about "essential preparation for all careers in the modern workforce," for fixing our "high-tech trade deficit."
Even so, I had hope--science is science, and a child immersed in studying the patterns of the natural world, learning how to analyze, mastering the logic needed to pull us out of our culture of magical thinking would make for happier children and a healthier culture.
There are at least three fundamental flaws in the standards:
Fundamental Flaw One:I get why NGSS is split into "major science disciplines" (though it all boils down to physics), but in its fetish to maintain order in a coherent, tiered system, the lower grades have multiple performance expectations in different disciplines.
The obsessive need to stick to a tiered script creates an unnecessary and artificial separation of science disciplines in the early grades. The emphasis should be on science practices, not science disciplines. Children should be able to "do" science at the local level.
This shouldn't matter in a world of bright teachers with autonomy, it does matter in our world of scripts and Federal oversight (aka "testing"). Teachers will be charged with creating multiple units on simple concepts. A child could spend hours in kindergarten studying plants on a windowsill, and only a plants on a windowsill, and gain as good (or better) appreciation of science practices as she will get through a march of BOE-approved commercial materials aligned with the mish-mash of NGSS expectations
Fundamental Flaw Two:Grades 4 through 6 present concepts that require a nuanced background in science to teach well--and most public schools do not have the staff to do this.Here's an example. The introduction to the 5th grade standards includes a statement that should make every science teacher cringe:
"Students develop an understanding of the idea that regardless of the type of change that matter undergoes, the total weight of matter is conserved. "
I can hear the apologists already--it's just semantics, and the committee acknowledges that "at this grade level, mass and weight are not distinguished." Well, why not? If "mass" is too much for a fifth grader to grasp, why not just call it "stuff"?
(If you teach a child that matter is something that has mass and takes up space and leave it at that, you're teaching religion, not science.)
The biggest hurdle in teaching high school science is getting kids to unlearn what they know to be true. These standards in the wrong hands supplemented with commercial products that allow administrators to tick off a checklist of standard will worsen our students' grasp of science.
Fundamental Flaw Three:The insistence on placing engineering design as part of the heart of the science curriculum confounds (and dilutes) the standards. Science and engineering are related, true, but are very different disciplines--squeezing the two together highlights the economic nature of the standards.Lumping science and engineering together is like lumping together physical education and ballet together--while ballet is an extension of physical movement, and could be a fine elective in a phys ed class, giving it the same stature as, say, aerobic exercise would skew gym class towards something (fine arts) that it's not.
I'm not opposed to teaching engineering any more than I am opposed to teaching ballet. Heck, if ballet had economic import, we'd all be wearing tutus. But it wouldn't make me a better dancer.
Gonna grab my old slide rule and a pocket protector and pretend I know something about engineering until we come up with something better.