The participants, joined on different days by administrators from their school sites and experienced secondary science teachers in the district, began by examining what was needed at their school to effectively roll out NGSS instruction. Answers ranged from the need for more resources and materials aligned to the standards to more professional learning for teachers.
Shifts in CA NGSS instruction
With the new standards comes a new model for exploration and instruction for students and teachers alike. These instructional shifts highlight the need to place students at the forefront of every lesson as the ones engaging in scientific inquiry. Gone are the days of teacher lectures, students reading out of the text and a focus on rote memorization as the primary models for science instruction. The CA NGSS promotes a curriculum focused on building scientific concepts over time, from kindergarten through high school. Teaching science across all grades — and in the early grades, in particular — is a critical change from the previous standards.
A November 2019 CSBA governance brief “Shifting K-5 Science Instruction with Next Generation Science Standards Curriculum Adoption” noted challenges that many elementary school teachers face in making the transition to NGSS. In a recent national study, only 33 percent of third- through fifth-grade teachers felt that they were “very well prepared” to teach science. Elk Grove’s Elementary Science Instruction and Leadership (ESIL) program — funded through a CalEd Grant — aims to address those feelings of being unprepared. “Our CalEd Partners grant focuses on school and teacher leadership — the focus of our program stemmed from the lack of science instruction in the elementary schools,” said Kelli Quan-Martin, Elk Grove USD science program specialist. “This is something that is pretty prevalent among California schools and even nationally — that there is a greater focus on English language arts and math, and time for science has dwindled over the years. Along with that, the preparation for elementary teachers in science is very minimal. So, their competence level and their content mastery varies.”
Teaming up for professional development
The ESIL program is a continuation of a partnership that Elk Grove USD formed with the Sacramento Area Science Project to help facilitate professional development in 2007. A 2016–18 collaboration with SASP and neighboring Folsom Cordova USD, the Integrating Science and Engineering Education (iSEE) project, focused on intensive NGSS professional development for secondary school teachers. Quan-Martin said finding the right partners is critical and that SASP stays up to date on educational research and science education, specifically. She also sees the benefits extending beyond the program recipients. “It’s helped benefit higher ed’s teacher prep program to see what the needs are of K-12 teachers, but it’s also helped bridge university faculty who are doing research in science fields right now with our teachers,” she said. These assertions are echoed by the National Science Teaching Association’s position paper on Elementary Science Education.
After identifying any barriers to NGSS instruction on their campuses and participating in intensive professional development at the summer institute, each team of three teachers is paired with an experienced secondary science teacher (often someone who completed the iSEE training) to advise the team, as well as a site administrator to provide support. Quan-Martin believes that having elementary school teams partner with secondary science teachers contributes to a successful model that leverages knowledge already gained through the iSEE program to “cultivate regional STEM articulation.”
Quan-Martin also believes having a site administrator participate provides them with an insider’s view of the challenges teachers face in implementing NGSS. Recent science education research concludes that school and district leaders are “an integral part of the process” and “a critical factor missing from current professional development models” (Whitworth & Chiu, 2015). Quan-Martin says that participating in the ESIL program allows administrators to increase their understanding of the instructional shifts of NGSS, identify ways in which science can be leveraged to address literacy and math standards, and provide support for teacher leaders in identifying research problems and creating/implementing action plans. “This may include allocating funding, providing time at staff meetings for science-specific professional development or offering release time for teacher leaders to conduct demo lessons or work with grade-level teams,” said Quan-Martin. “It helps them to recognize the need to prioritize science instruction within site goals and visions.”
How can boards support this work?
District and county office boards can support the implementation of NGSS instruction by approving resources to begin, and to continue, professional development for teachers and administrators. While there are many teacher professional learning programs for NGSS, board members should prioritize those that (1) engage educational staff in a cycle of continuous improvement by using multiple data sources and active inquiry, and (2) reflect continuous professional learning through follow-up, feedback and reflection to support implementation in the classroom. Quan-Martin suggests that board members can also provide support by arranging to observe classrooms where NGSS is taught and attending events when appropriate, such as the culminating showcase event for the ESIL program.
Sacramento Area Science Project Director Rich Hedman recommends that districts looking for professional learning partnerships begin with the California Subject Matter Project. “It’s the best way for districts to begin partnerships with their local CSU or UC — the California Subject Matter Project is designed to serve as the primary link between school districts and local universities,” Hedman said. “For NGSS preparation, I recommend starting with the California Science Project.”