When Ron Rammer walked into the seventh-grade science class at McCaffrey Middle School in Galt, California, the principal sensed something out of the ordinary. The students were studying mudslides, “but instead of just describing mud coming down a hill after a heavy rain, these kids were talking about particle size, gravity, friction, the destruction of the environment, and the loss of plant and animal life and how it might be renewed,” said Rammer, a former science teacher. “It was a whole new kind of conversation — one I’d never before heard among seventh graders.”

What Rammer observed was a result of a schoolwide effort he has been supporting to align science instruction with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). That lesson on mudslides, for example, had come about only after he had made time for the school’s science teachers to collaboratively redesign the way it was taught. “It’s absolutely worth it,” Rammer says of prioritizing NGSS-aligned science instruction at McCaffrey. He notes that students are gaining “a much better awareness of life on earth, and a deep understanding of science that hopefully keeps them interested enough to continue studying it in high school and college.” The downside: “Making these kinds of instructional changes happen takes a ton of time and work.”

Rammer and his district have been participating in the NGSS Early Implementers Initiative, which since 2013 under a grant from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation has been helping eight California school districts implement the new science standards in grades K–8. Increasingly, that means working closely with administrators like Rammer. “Because teachers look to administrators for consent and encouragement to try out the substantial pedagogical and logistical shifts required by the NGSS, the success of the new standards depends on the expertise and support of school and district leaders,” says Kathy DiRanna, director of WestEd’s K–12 Alliance, which is leading the Initiative. What’s more, adds Burr Tyler, a research associate at WestEd, “We’re finding that once principals see the students in action — how much more engaged and motivated they are, how much they’re developing their speaking and writing skills, and how much more deeply they are understanding science — they become inspired to make science education a priority.”

The support the Initiative provides to administrators is paying off, according to Administrators Matter in NGSS Implementation, a WestEd report on the Initiative coauthored by Tyler. Among its findings: In 2017, more than half of participating administrators reported spending over 20 percent of their time at school supporting science instruction. And, as of 2017, all participating administrators reported that they knew how to help teachers transition to NGSS implementation; in 2014, only half of those administrators reported having that understanding.

The NGSS revamp science instruction

Tyler notes that for decades K–8 education prioritized English language arts and math. However, that focus is starting to broaden, as 19 states and the District of Columbia have now adopted the NGSS, and California will incorporate them into statewide science assessments in the 2018–19 school year.

“In the past, science teaching was put on the back burner,” says Tyler. “But now we are in the midst of a perfect opportunity in California: the state is interested in science, the funders are there to support the Early Implementers Initiative, and the K–12 Alliance at WestEd has the expertise to help districts implement the NGSS.”

Much as the Common Core State Standards revamped English language arts and math instruction by requiring students to demonstrate deeper comprehension of complex text and mathematical concepts, the NGSS are transforming science teaching. Lectures and rote learning are giving way to activities that simulate science and engineering practices, such as having students design and lead investigations, construct scientific arguments, and record their findings in science notebooks. Science concepts once taught in isolation are being presented “in the context of figuring things out,” explains DiRanna. “You start by having students examine a real-world phenomenon and then use crosscutting concepts — ideas that cut across different scientific disciplines — to explain its origins. The goal is more authentic learning that helps students internalize and build comprehension in ways that will stick with them.”

“It was a whole new kind of conversation [about science] — one I’d never before heard among seventh graders.”

To help science teachers bring about such changes, WestEd’s K–12 Alliance has been providing professional learning — through summer institutes, targeted training, and ongoing on-site technical assistance — to hundreds of teacher leaders and dozens of administrators involved in the NGSS Early Implementers Initiative. Workshops specifically for principals help them understand the NGSS and their implementation, the need to provide teachers with planning time and materials, characteristics of effective science classrooms, and the importance of prioritizing science instruction. The Initiative equips administrators with a variety of practical tools and processes, such as the “NGSS Evidence of Learning Protocol,” a classroom observation tool that principals can use to observe and provide feedback on science instruction.

Informed by this guidance and training from the Initiative, participating districts have been integrating science in new ways. The Vista Unified School District, for instance, has centralized the scheduling of release time that teachers can use to plan science instruction together. Beyond that, says Matthew Steitz, Vista’s interim chief academic officer, “our principals now know exactly what to look for when they go into a science classroom. And they’re holding NGSS nights at their schools to get the word out to parents and community members that we believe science is important.”

Findings signal progress

The Bechtel Foundation supported the evaluation of the NGSS Early Implementers Initiative, with a focus on sharing outcomes and lessons learned with the field. According to the evaluation report entitled Administrators Matter in NGSS Implementation, administrators participating in the Initiative are increasing their support for teachers in important ways.

One sixth-grade teacher told evaluators she was grateful that her principal allowed her the flexibility to try new instructional approaches in the classroom, noting that “The NGSS are a little messy, and my principal knows that kids are going to be all over the place in certain lessons. We’re all learning together.” And a third-grade teacher reported that “our school district is embracing science again — it’s so motivating to both the teachers and students. We really feel the support of our district administration.”

Survey results support the anecdotal evidence: Between 2014 and 2017, the percentage of administrators in the Initiative reporting that they understood the NGSS “fairly well” or “thoroughly” jumped from 58 to 100 percent. And two-thirds of teachers surveyed in 2017 reported that science had become a priority in their schools, compared with just one-third of respondents three years earlier. In other findings, two-thirds of administrators reported that providing time for collaboration in science was a major way they supported NGSS implementation, and 75 percent of teacher leaders reported that their principals made sure they had the materials needed for teaching NGSS science.

Challenges overcome, lessons learned

To be sure, some administrators have been reluctant to carve out extra time and allocate all the necessary resources to support implementation of the NGSS. That’s partly because few elementary school principals have science backgrounds, notes DiRanna, and “it’s difficult to support things you don’t understand well and may feel uneasy with.” What’s more, says Tyler, “they are used to prioritizing English language arts and math instruction.” Yet both are gratified that many principals are coming to realize that science can be used as a vehicle for reading instruction.

“Once principals see kids writing up descriptions of what they learned, or reluctant readers turning to their textbooks to find answers to their questions, it helps them get over their fears,” says DiRanna.

Another challenge: convincing administrators that even very young children have the ability to engage in scientific practice. “Often we hear, ‘They can’t do that,’” says Tyler. “But the fact is, even kindergartners can use engineering practices to solve real-world problems if they find the process engaging.”

Overall, notes Tyler, the evaluation findings suggest that when administrators are provided with appropriate professional learning and assistance, many will advocate for and actively support teachers’ NGSS implementation. And, ultimately, that sort of support is crucial for enabling students to get the science learning they need to thrive as they move forward in life, she says. “Taught effectively, the NGSS promote 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication, that help pave the way for students to succeed in college and careers in a fast-changing world.”