Rachael Barron is a science teacher at Wakefield Memorial High School in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Rachael teaches AP Biology, Honors Genetics and Microbiology, College Prep Anatomy & Physiology, and College Prep Introduction to the Physical and Life Sciences. Rachael holds a bachelor of science in biology with a minor in education from Brandeis University. She earned her master of arts in teaching biology from Salem State College and a Teacher Leadership Certificate from Cambridge College.
How have teachers been reacting to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) over the course of this year? To find out, I interviewed one of my former high-school science teachers, Rachael Barron, who offered her insight and involvement with the standards. Massachusetts, which was a lead state partner of NGSS development, has chosen to adapt NGSS to better fit with the state’s existing standards, rather than to fully adopt the standards with no changes. The following is a summary of the interview.
Q: When did you first start hearing about the NGSS? Had they reached their official release, or were they still in the drafting stage?
A: I started hearing about NGSS while it was still in its drafting phase, but I was never personally asked for feedback. I followed its progress through science education newsletters and blogs. I was also aware of it because of my involvement with the College Board; it was brought up through AP biology workshops. [A few years ago, the College Board revised its AP science standards, and this revision was taken into consideration during NGSS development. —Ed.]
Q: What do you think of the construction of the NGSS?
A: I like that the focus is more on developing skills and participating in labs. With the changes in technology, information is at students’ fingertips, and a focus on memorization isn’t as necessary in the classroom setting. If students don’t understand how to run an experiment and manipulate data, they won’t be successful after college. However, this is higher cognitive learning, and some high school students still haven’t quite developed this part of their brains. It can be a struggle for students on the lower end of the learning spectrum.
Q: Did you feel like the standards were needed?
A: I do think they were necessary and good, but they are going to be difficult to implement [at the high school level]. High school feeds directly into college, so high school teachers face a lot of feedback about [getting students ready for] college. If learning gaps occur beforehand, high school can be very difficult for students; I have seen a great focus, at the elementary [school] level, on literacy and math, but I think students need more focus on science at this age, too, especially with the new focus on those higher cognitive skills.
Q: What do you think of Massachusetts adapting the NGSS for its own use, rather than adopting as is?
A: Massachusetts is adapting them more around the themes and type of learning than in specificity. [The state] also want[s] the focus more on practices and skills rather than memorization of knowledge. [But Massachusetts is adding a greater degree of specificity in the language of its standards to better prepare students for college and careers. —Ed.] Science careers are varied based on regions; here, we focus on preparing students to work in the biotechnology industry.
Q: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of integrating new standards?
A: If the textbooks are older, they don’t have the focus on higher-order thinking and practice skills. They also don’t have many data sets to analyze. There are financial constraints to ordering new textbooks; often it is on the teachers to find their own resources and make new experiments, which can be expensive. Not all teachers would even be able to put forth additional time to “design a model” [as the standards require] that will demonstrate a skill. The focus on more engineering is good, but it takes more time and can be difficult.
Q: Have you received many student or parent reactions?
A: Most parents have reacted more positively than I expected to the “flipped classroom model” for the AP biology curriculum. I use Bozeman biology because it is more technologically advanced. It’s allowed for more time on labs and data analysis in the classroom (AP requires 25 percent of time spent on labs). I have received some complaints that this is not teaching; but the idea is to teach students how to work in the outside world. They need to figure out why experiments fail and how to design them better. My students learn more from their mistakes in field experiments than from me telling them how to build a perfect experiment. This is realistic to how science works in the real world, but parents don’t always realize the importance of the focus on skills.
Q: What do you think will be the short- and long-term results of changing the focus to higher cognitive learning and skills?
A: The scores on state exams will probably go down during early implementation. Even though students will be better off, there will be complaints. Eventually, the work population will be better prepared for STEM jobs.