Thorough, comprehensive teacher training and textbooks that appeal to a diverse array of students will be key to successfully implementing California’s new science standards, according to guidelines released by the standards’ creators.

“Implementation is complex. There’s a lot of moving parts,” said Vanessa Wolbrink, program associate at Achieve, the education nonprofit that helped craft the new Next Generation Science Standards. “We hope this will help.”

The new standards, adopted by California in 2013, focus on hands-on science projects, critical thinking over rote memorization, and crossover between scientific disciplines. They also include curriculum for all grade levels, which will be a major shift for some elementary schools that have not in the past emphasized science instruction.

So far, 19 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the new standards. California is in the process of training teachers and introducing the standards to students and their families. The California Department of Education expects to launch a pilot test this spring, with students taking the fully operational test in 2019.

The process of recruiting, reviewing and selecting textbooks and other instructional materials begins this spring. The State Board of Education is slated to make final selections in fall 2018.

Meanwhile, hundreds of schools have already begun teaching the new standards, with teachers improvising their own instructional materials. Eight districts and two charter organizations in California are part of an “early implementation initiative,” sponsored by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, a nonprofit education organization that’s been studying the Next Generation Science Standards and how they should be implemented.

Teachers in the early-adopter districts, interviewed by EdSource in January, said the new standards require more work because of the emphasis on science projects, and are difficult to grade because of the focus on critical thinking rather than memorization. But overall, most said the standards are rewarding, effective and fun to teach, and students seem engaged and excited about learning science.

The “NGSS District Implementation Indicators,” released by Achieve last week, are intended to address some of teachers’ concerns and help ease the transition. The 19-page document is based on feedback from teachers and administrators nationwide, as well as the National Research Council’s “Guide to Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards,” a 114-page book released in 2015 that costs $38 in paperback.

“Making sure teachers feel comfortable with the standards is a key to the success of NGSS,” said Chad Colby, Achieve spokesman. “That’s why high-quality, ongoing professional development is so important.”

The implementation guidelines are divided into categories:

  • Steps a district can take before rolling out the new standards, such as ensuring all students have equal access to learning science and districts have a comprehensive planning process;
  • Things to consider when implementing the standards, such as teacher training, instructional materials and collaboration among teachers, district leaders and the community;
  • Measuring the standards’ success, judging by how well students understand the abstract, cross-cutting concepts promoted by the standards and how much they’re engaged in science generally.

A district does not have to meet all the criteria in the guidelines, or meet them in any particular order, to be successful, Wolbrink said. Furthermore, districts should expect the process to be ongoing, she said. The guide is intended to offer accessible, realistic direction for districts as they embark on implementing the new science standards during the next several years.

Any help with the new standards is welcome, said Jonathan Rhodea, science curriculum specialist at the Sacramento County Office of Education, which oversees 242,000 students.

“So many teachers are just learning Common Core, they haven’t had much of a chance to learn NGSS yet. Not that they don’t want to. They just haven’t had time,” he said, noting that some districts have depleted their professional development funding on Common Core training and might not get to science training for another year or two.

And without textbooks or other materials, the teachers that have embraced the new science standards are “piecing it together on their own,” Rhodea said.

“Implementation might be a challenge, but it’s pretty obvious that Next Generation is a step in the right direction,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”

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