The science of change: How Delaware is transitioning to new science standards

 Fifth-grade science teacher Jacquie Kisiel is leading the charge to implement new science standards in Delaware. (Avi Wolfman-Arent, NewsWorks/WHYY)

Fifth-grade science teacher Jacquie Kisiel is leading the charge to implement new science standards in Delaware. (Avi Wolfman-Arent, NewsWorks/WHYY)

The First State’s shift to a new set of science standards is happening one basket at a time.

You’ve probably heard a lot in the last five years about Common Core, the set of math and reading standards most states have adopted to determine what students should know.

Unless you’re a policy wonk or a school teacher, you probably don’t know there’s a similar effort afoot in the world of science education.

In 2013, Delaware became the seventh state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards. Since then it has gradually and quietly implemented them. By 2018-19, this shift to a new way of learning science should be nearly complete.

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At the forefront of this implementation plan are a group of inconspicuous blue baskets marked with bright green labels. They contain collections of materials used for classroom activities—think food coloring, eye droppers, etc—and are designed to help teachers carry out lesson plans aligned with the Next Gen standards.

This year, roughly 75 teachers across the state are piloting 11 units—each with its own corresponding basket. The results of these pilots will be used to refine the lesson plans and eventually replicate them in every science classroom in the state. Next year, another 11 or so units will be tested. And another 11 the next year, until science classrooms statewide are teaching almost exclusively Next-Gen-aligned units.

In the video above you’ll meet Jacquie Kisiel, a teacher at Rehoboth Elementary School in Sussex County who is leading the way in this effort. Through Kisiel’s teaching you’ll get a sense of how Next Gen contrasts with old methods.

So what are the Next Generation Science Standards?

From about 2010 to 2013, 26 states teamed with the National Academy of the Sciences, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, an education reform nonprofit, to create a new set of K-12 science standards.

In essence, Next Gen is a set of expectations for what students should know in the sciences. They cover every grade and every scientific discipline, with a special emphasis on integrating engineering and design with the traditional array of disciplines.

Who uses Next Gen?

So far, 13 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, according to the national education publication, Ed Week.

What makes it different?

Broadly speaking, Next Gen wants students to see science more as an interrelated world of inquiry rather than a set of distinct disciplines. There’s a focus on cross-cutting concepts, broad ideas that pop up across the scientific world. Think things like finding patterns or cause and effect.

Next Gen also emphasizes a different way of teaching science. Teachers are encouraged to use real-world examples and let students discover, instead of providing answers.

What’s Delaware’s plan for implementing Next Gen?

Delaware’s plan has two fronts. The first is what you’ll see in Jacquie Kisiel’s classroom. Groups of teachers are working with the state to develop Next-Gen-aligned units of instruction. Those units will be rolled out in batches each year through 2018-19.

Meanwhile, there’s already professional development happening at the district and school level to help science teachers transition to the new way of teaching that Next Gen encourages.

Will students be tested on Next Gen knowledge?

Eventually, yes. But details are scant.

Delaware recently put out a formal request for bids to develop a new statewide science test. The new test, according to the formal request, would first be administered in the 2016-17 school year. One can reasonably assume this new test would be aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards.

Right now, Delaware tests students’ science knowledge in grades 5, 8, and 10. It’s unknown if this new test will do the same.

Delaware has received four bids from vendors hoping to create the new test. They are: testing giant Pearson, American Institute for Research, Strategic Measurement and Evaluation, Inc., and MetriTech, Inc.

Is this connected to Common Core?

Yes and no. Common Core wasn’t developed in tandem with Next Gen, but both reflect a broader push to raise standards and firm up expectations of what students should know.

The so-called “standards movement,” dates back to the 1980s. But it’s become far more visible in the last decade with the rise of Common Core. The basic premise is that American schools need to raise the bar so that its graduates can compete in an increasingly skilled and globalized job market.

Another interesting note:  Achieve, the ed reform non-profit mentioned above, worked to develop both Next Gen and Common Core.

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