Six years ago, Kari Koch was pretty confident in her work as a sixth-grade science teacher. Her students at Tierra del Sol Middle School, in California’s Lakeside Union School District, were good at memorizing discrete information and her classroom featured a mix of fun activities.

“My PowerPoint lessons were awesome,” she joked. But now looking back, she knows her students weren’t grasping the concepts behind the experiments and the connections among the technical terms. “I wasn’t really teaching them the practices of how to think and act like a scientist.”

Then, Lakeside Union became one of eight districts and two charter management organizations across the state chosen to participate in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Early Implementers Initiative. Funded by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and co-led by the K–12 Alliance at WestEd, the six-year Initiative worked to build districts’ capacity to implement the NGSS in grades K–8 and make science a core subject.

Science not only helps students learn about the world around them, it can also be a pathway to a promising career, says Burr Tyler, a research associate at WestEd who helped lead an extensive evaluation of the Early Implementers Initiative. But science typically receives less attention than reading and math, particularly in grades K–8. Teachers in the elementary grades often lack a solid foundation in how to teach science, and at the middle school level, they might have a narrow focus, such as Earth science, says Tyler.

Much as the Common Core State Standards revamped English language arts and math by requiring students to demonstrate deeper comprehension, the NGSS are transforming science education. 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.

After six years as an NGSS Early Implementer, Koch is getting much more than one-word answers from her students. Now, her students are designing their own experiments and tapping each other’s knowledge as they gain a deeper understanding of the concepts.

The Initiative has shown “how effective NGSS-aligned pedagogy is with kids,” says Tyler. “If it’s done the right way — with students at the center — it’s transformational.”

Building on over a dozen evaluation reports highlighting important themes and lessons learned from the Initiative, Tyler co-authored the culminating report, What Education Leaders Can Learn About NGSS Implementation: Highlights From the Early Implementers Initiative. The final report offers major takeaways, challenges, and strategies gleaned from the evaluation series, along with recommendations for policymakers and administrators for implementing the NGSS in their own districts.

Fostering equitable learning

Because the NGSS emphasize an interactive, engaged approach to science, students participate in multiple modes of learning and experience a variety of structures for communicating. This approach allows each student to find ways to access learning that are most effective for them, says Tyler.

For Tracy Unified School District elementary school teacher Johanna Zepeda, the Early Implementers project has been a journey. She started her career during the No Child Left Behind era, when the emphasis was on reading and math, not science.

“There wasn’t pressure or expectation to even deliver science instruction,” she says. In the past, she picked scientific topics she felt comfortable with, like butterflies. “I shied away from chemical reactions unless it was vinegar and baking soda.”

But now, she sees English learners in her class write enthusiastically in their science journals, often relating their experiences of growing up in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley region to topics such as water clarity. “This whole process has made me a better teacher, and I know it,” says Zepeda.

Her experience demonstrates one of the report’s findings — “that historically underserved and previously underperforming or unengaged students benefit from NGSS instruction in meaningful ways.” In fact, more than 90 percent of surveyed teachers and principals in the Initiative reported that NGSS instruction was having a positive effect on low-performing students’ learning.

Starting “slow to go fast”

In each district participating in the Early Implementers Initiative, NGSS implementation efforts began with a core group of committed administrators and teacher leaders, then gradually expanded to include additional teachers and administrators. With release time from the classroom, teachers had the opportunity to delve into the standards’ science and engineering practices, such as asking questions, interpreting data, and basing an argument on evidence.

“We would teach a lesson that we had collaborated on, and also observe each other’s classroom teaching, focusing on the science and engineering practices,” Koch says, adding that initially working with colleagues to plan and co-teach a lesson was more valuable to her than focusing on the concepts she was teaching. “After a while, the content came along.”

Not expecting teachers to shift their instruction overnight is one of the recommendations of the evaluation report: “Keep in mind that the strategy to ‘go slow to go fast’ can help alleviate teacher anxiety and give teachers permission to engage in necessary experimentation” to successfully implement the substantial instructional shifts required by the NGSS.

“If it’s done the right way — with students at the center — NGSS instruction is transformational.”

In addition to equipping teachers like Koch and Zepeda to strengthen their science instruction, the Initiative focused on training them to become ambassadors of the NGSS. They learned how to be teacher leaders and to communicate the importance of science with parents, principals, and their colleagues. Because the teacher leaders, the report said, often “bumped up against the prioritization of English language arts and mathematics” and had to compete for substitutes and the attention of principals, these skills were essential in order to elevate the importance of science.

Administrators are key to successful NGSS implementation

The Initiative discovered early on that school administrators played a vital role in NGSS implementation — not just as informed leaders but as engaged participants. According to the report, “Administrator-focused professional learning is necessary in order to empower administrators to take a more active role in implementation.”

But principals are often pulled between competing priorities. In 2013, the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District was among the first districts in the nation to receive a Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Understandably, when teachers sought McCaffrey Middle School Principal Ron Rammer’s approval to be part of the Early Implementers Initiative, he thought the timing was not in their favor.

However, as a former biology teacher whose instruction never overlapped with chemistry, Rammer understood the need for integrating the sciences in his school. Hearing from a shark expert who talked about why it was important in his field to understand weather and ocean currents “was a life-changing moment for me,” he said.

His teachers, however, initially took sides — the life science teachers against the Earth science teachers.

“That was a big roadblock, and we talked and talked about it,” he said. But the Initiative’s professional and respectful approach toward teachers helped them feel valued and opened their minds toward integrating the sciences so students could make the necessary connections.

“Science walk-throughs” and professional learning opportunities specifically for school leaders were essential parts of building administrators’ support and the success of the Initiative, says Tyler. In fact, the report indicates that by 2020, two-thirds of K–8 science teachers in the participating districts said their principals were supportive of NGSS implementation in the classroom.

Rammer remembered one walk-through when students were studying landslides. Instead of simply talking about snow tumbling down a hill, their conversations included references to particle size, friction, and different types of soil.

“They were learning to be scientists and how to back up their evidence with things they found through research,” says Rammer.

Moving forward

In the midst of a crisis like COVID-19, schools may narrow their focus to reading and math, thinking that a hands-on subject like science might seem too challenging to implement remotely over Zoom. In fact, WestEd research associate Ashley Iveland conducted a survey that showed both elementary and middle school teachers have cut back on NGSS instruction while teaching virtually.

But the survey results also showed that some teachers believe continuing science investigations and phenomena-driven questions have actually been critical to keeping students engaged while they’re learning from home.

Using items around the house, Koch’s students, for example, designed their own experiment to learn how much energy it takes to heat different materials — like sand, water, and grass.

Even with the Initiative officially over, leadership teams from the participating districts and charter management organizations have continued to meet virtually during the pandemic. The Early Implementers Initiative, says Tyler, took teachers and administrators from wherever they were and guided them toward a more integrated and engaging way to teach science — much in the same way good teachers build on students’ prior knowledge.

“Everyone was moving in the direction of NGSS teaching and learning,” says Tyler, “and that progress matters.”