The Next Generation Science Standards: A potential revolution for geoscience education



The first and only set of U.S.-nationally distributed K-12 science education standards have been adopted by many states across America, with the potential to be adopted by many more. Earth and space science plays a prominent role in the new standards, with particular emphasis on critical Earth issues such as climate change, sustainability, and human impacts on Earth systems. In the states that choose to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), American youth will have a rigorous practice-based formal education in these important areas. Much work needs to be done to insure the adoption and adequate implementation of the NGSS by a majority of American states, however, and there are many things that Earth and space scientists can do to help facilitate the process.


The first and only set of U.S. national K-12 science education standards are currently being adopted by states across America. Earth and space science plays a prominent role in the new standards. The majority of future Americans could soon have rigorous practice-based formal education in critical Earth issues such as changes to climate systems, human impacts on Earth systems, and human sustainability.

A quiet but crucial revolution occurred in 2013. Quiet at the university level, though not at the K-12 level, where elementary, middle, and high schools have been turned upside down. America's primary and secondary educational system has been revolutionized with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the first set of science standards [Achieve, 2014] to be adopted by multiple states (12 states and the District of Columbia, as of April 2014). Based on a National Research Council report, A Framework for K-12 Science Education [National Research Council, 2011], and written in conjunction with 26 of the nation's states, the NGSS provide America's best opportunity yet in its almost 240 year history to educate its citizens about the complex and critical issues of Earth science.

This journal is dedicated to investigating the delicate and challenging relationship between humans and their planet. Its mission, however, will ultimately be irrelevant if it functions in academic isolation from a geologically ignorant, illiterate, and indifferent society. As the vestigial artifact of an ancient 120 year old curricular structure, most Americans receive no high-school education in Earth and space science (ESS) [Blank et al., 2007]. The current structure of teaching biology, chemistry, and physics in high school (to the exclusion of ESS) stems from the 1893 report by the “Committee of Ten” [National Educational Association, 1893], which relegated geology to a middle-school “physical geography” class and intentionally excluded all astronomy from secondary education. The new NGSS, however, have a K-12 learning progression for ESS that includes a full year in high school, taught at an advanced level that not only focuses on the complexities and feedbacks among systems but also highlights the role of humans as the dominant force of change on Earth's surface. A future generation of Americans, educated within this framework, would not only provide an eager workforce for the much-needed future research into Earth's systems but also demand a political landscape that both funds and responds to the discoveries of this research. However, the same qualities that make the NGSS so remarkable also pose significant challenges for their adoption and implementation.

The NGSS are remarkable for their innovative structure, which weaves together three dimensions of science and engineering practices, content, and crosscutting concepts into a small set of broad, big-picture performance expectations (PEs) that all students should be able to achieve. They are not a list of what students must know, but rather a set of PEs that students should be able to do. The science content is taken from the NRC Framework, and in the case of Earth science, is based upon four important geoscience community literacy frameworks that had culled and vetted the big ideas in the areas of Earth, atmospheric, ocean, and climate science [for details, see Wysession, 2012; Wysession et al., 2012]. The eight different science and engineering practices were also based upon current research, but in the areas of education and child psychology [National Research Council, 2007b, 2008]. The third dimension of the crosscutting concepts is an innovative way to teach science by building upon broad transdisciplinary themes such as “Patterns,” “Energy and Matter,” “Cause and Effect,” and “Systems and System Models,” which extend across all STEM disciplines (details can be found at

The biggest changes proposed by the NGSS, however, are clearly in the area of ESS, in both quantity and quality. A year of ESS is proposed for high school, compared to roughly a semester of chemistry and a semester of physics. Just as importantly, ESS is presented at a very advanced level. For example, memorizing mineral or cloud names is expressly not to be assessed. Instead, the PEs are based upon an Earth Systems Science approach, stressing students' understanding of the interconnections and feedbacks among the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and anthroposphere [e.g., see Ireton et al., 1996].

ESS curricula based upon the NGSS would stress an evidence-based approach, with students quantitatively analyzing and interpreting real geoscience data sets. Two significant areas of focus for the ESS standards are (1) climate systems and climate change, and (2) human impacts on Earth systems and issues of human sustainability. The PEs push students to examine current global and regional multiparameter geoscience data sets, make projections for the future, and to use engineering design concepts to evaluate future societal choices.

At a minimum, NGSS-aligned curricula would prepare students to be well-informed voting citizens, ready to make informed decisions on complex Earth-science-related issues that face society, such as energy futures, resource management, land use, environmental impacts, and pollution regulation. In addition, the NGSS could help inspire increased numbers of the next generation of scientists to consider the ESSs as an equally exciting and challenging career option to those in biology, chemistry, or physics. The need for recruiting students into STEM disciplines has been identified by many reports such as Rising Above the Storm [National Research Council, 2007a] and Engage to Excel [President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012], but NGSS provide the pedagogical mechanism to get students excited and interested in science enough to do so.

The impact could potentially extend beyond the United States, as the progressive research-based approach of the NGSS might cause other nations to look to these new standards as a possible model for future science education reform. At the same time that the United States remains a world leader in scientific research, it has fallen far behind many other countries in the scientific education of its children [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2012]. These two are not compatible in the long run. If successfully implemented in the United States, the NGSS could serve as a model for the development of high-school ESS in other countries, particularly as many developed countries also teach limited high-school Earth science. The current U.S. emphasis on NGSS-aligned curricula and textbook development combined with the internationalization of textbook companies could help to facilitate this.

There are still many challenges that face widespread adoption of the NGSS, but they are not insurmountable. For example, there have been previous attempts to create national standards at a high level of excellence, such as Project 2061 and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy [American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989, 1993] and the National Science Education Standards (NSES) [National Research Council, 1996]. These projects also advocated for modern ESS to be part of high-school curricula. However, the geoscience communities did not sufficiently rise to the opportunity, and geosciences made little gains in high school. Another part of the challenge is that many states reject outright the idea of national educational curricula (the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act expressly forbids a national curriculum). What sets the NGSS apart from previous efforts such as the NSES, however, is that it has been a bipartisan states-led project, supervised by the bipartisan Governors-created organization Achieve and written cooperatively with 26 participating states; though the NGSS are national standards, they are not federal standards, as not a cent of federal money went toward their creation. The NGSS are also closely aligned with the Common Core of math and English language arts, which is an independent national curriculum that has been adopted by more than 40 states [National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010]. The Common Core was also organized by the states-run organization Achieve, but it was tied to Federal incentive funding through the Race to the Top initiative. For states that are already implementing the Common Core, the standard-by-standard connections to the NGSS may serve as an incentive for states and schools to also adopt the science standards; however, for states that are reexamining and even pushing back against the Common Core, the connections may actually hinder adoption of the NGSS.

The assessment of a new kind of practice-based NGSS-aligned curriculum will also be a challenge, though the recently released NRC report Developing Assessment for the Next Generation Science Standards [National Research Council, 2014] provides insightful guidance for it. There is also a tremendous opportunity for geoscientists in higher education to play a prominent role in developing appropriate assessment instruments as well as to carry out education research on how the NGSS will actually play out in classrooms. Similarly, significant assistance from university geoscientists will be needed to develop and carry out the extensive professional development required for K-12 teachers to be able to teach Earth science in a systems-oriented practice-based approach and to learn the advanced ESS content that has previously not been a part of high-school curricula.

Those of us who do research in ESS will need to focus some of the “broader impacts” activities required by funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation toward the creation of relevant, accurate, challenging, interesting, and up-to-date data-based educational materials that can be brought into K-12 classrooms to meet the new demand for ESS evidence-based learning. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Finally, after 120 years, modern research-based ESS is poised to become part of the high-school education of most American students. The geoscience communities need to become fully aware of this revolutionary development and to organize to help make this a reality for as many states as possible. The process of state adoption and the implementation within states will last for years, and so will the opportunities for participation by the ESS community. Geoscientists from the research and education communities will be needed over the next several years to (1) create data sets and data products usable in K-12 classrooms, (2) help construct NGSS-aligned educational materials, (3) participate in the development of NGSS-aligned curricula and textbooks, (4) become involved in the professional development (in both geoscience content and pedagogy) for current K-12 ESS teachers as well as for instructors of preservice training, (5) help in the creation of Earth science teaching certificate programs, (6) carry out educational research that assesses the efficacy of NGSS-aligned curricula, (7) continue research into learning progressions to work toward an optimal K-12 progression of ESS education, (8) work with state and local school boards to convince them of the necessity of including ESS courses in their curricula, and (9) work with universities to make sure that high-school ESS courses qualify as precollegiate preparatory courses. The opportunities are here now, and it is incumbent upon geoscientists to make the most of them.


Work related to the NGSS has been an extension of work carried out under NSF-EAR-0832415. The author thanks Dave Mogk and an anonymous reviewer for insightful and helpful comments. The author thanks the many geoscientists who gave their time to help in the writing and reviewing of the Earth Science Literacy Principles and the Earth and space science parts of the NRC Framework and the NGSS.