The Board of Education of the state of Arkansas has recently released the descriptions of the new Next Generation Science Standards-inspired courses for high school, debuting 2017-2018: Proposed High School Science Courses.
There are a lot of things to like in this plan. It is ambitious. It aims for a future where all students have some measure of competency in the ideas and practices of science and engineering. It incorporates earth and space science objectives at all levels of 6-12 science. And the state will demand that all students take three years of high school science. Under the old “Smart Core” plan, only students who wanted to qualify for the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship had to take three years of science. The NGSS-inspired revised Arkansas frameworks are likely to be much better than the old frameworks, which were heavy on facts to memorize and equations to manipulate, but light on understanding.
There are some significant challenges to this plan. The biggest one might be that every student is going to take “Principles of Chemistry and Physics.” There may be enough physics-certified teachers in Arkansas to accomplish this plan, but I really doubt that there are enough physics-savvy teachers in the state to carry it out. Physics certification is a low bar. Basically, anyone with a degree (a degree, not a degree in science) who can pass the Praxis in a subject can be certified to teach that subject. The Praxis, in my opinion, is not a test that demands deep understanding of the subject. Most teachers in this situation (forced to teach physics without the expertise, desire, or tools) will fall back on memorization, equation manipulation, or reduce the physics content in favor of the chemistry content.
Another challenge is the culture and climate around public education in the state of Arkansas. Most parents and students like the idea of students being college-ready, but their vision of college-ready does not include pushing students to understand and practice science. If students are asked to think, question, and understand, many parents and students will push back, and the pressure on teachers to revert to the status quo will be extreme.
Changing the entire system of Arkansas science education at once is a huge challenge. It’s going to require the cooperation and understanding of parents, students, teachers, and administrators. I hope there is an exceptional plan in place for educating everyone involved about the new frameworks. And more importantly, a plan providing professional development for all those who will be forced to teach science areas they are uncomfortable with. Unfortunately, some of my fellow teachers treat professional development as just a hoop to jump through, and choose to gain nothing from it. A two-day workshop is not going to be enough to change their minds about the importance of teaching for student understanding, or to provide an understanding of physics concepts.