When I teach chemistry in my lab in Zillah in Yakima County, I’m teaching the same concepts that my colleagues in Aberdeen, Seattle and Bellingham teach. In fact, these concepts don’t change whether you’re in Capetown, South Africa, or Katmandu, Nepal. Chemistry is chemistry.
But the standards to which our students are taught are often vague, inconsistent from one place to another or even nonexistent. That makes it harder for students to move between schools or districts.
It makes it harder for teachers in different states to share ideas and best practices. And it makes it difficult for employers and colleges to judge exactly what students have learned.
Also, students have traditionally learned the sciences largely in isolation. They learn biology one year, chemistry the next year and perhaps physics after that — without the holistic integration that characterizes real scientific inquiry. And finally, the real-world field of engineering is often overlooked when we teach science in schools.
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The Next Generation Science Standards, which Washington state just adopted, will help change all this. These new standards are rich in content and practice and arranged in a coherent way across subjects and grades to provide students with an internationally benchmarked science education.
The Next Generation Science Standards come on the heels of the Common Core State Standards in other subjects. Both have generated some controversy. Teachers, parents and the general public should not find these new standards threatening. They are not a radical change, but rather are a carefully judged update and revision of what Washington students have been learning for years. Washington state has had standards-based science education for more than a decade.
Standards are not the same thing as curriculum. Teachers will still be able to teach in their own individual styles, taking into account the unique characteristics of their student populations.
This means that in Zillah I will still teach chemistry using the demonstrations and lesson plans that are relevant to my students, making my teaching personalized to their experiences. The standards provide a common set of goals that science teachers everywhere can use to help their kids achieve. The standards are a common destination, leaving the route up to the teacher and their students.
We have already essentially adopted these standards in my classroom in Zillah. Although nearly half of my students come from low-income families, I challenge them to reach for college-level sciences. I’ve helped forge partnerships with nearby colleges so students can earn college credit in physics, chemistry and engineering. Our graduation rate is 96 percent. These are the kind of effects that come from setting high standards and helping students achieve them.
My fellow teachers are rightfully concerned that learning these new standards and learning how to reach them will require extra time and resources that their schools do not have. That is why the state and local school districts must pair the adoption of these standards with training time and tools to help teachers help students achieve the standards.
We must make these investments and embrace these standards because our students will face global competition when they enter the workforce.
Washington state is home to some of the most prominent employers of scientists and engineers in the world — Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, PATH, GE Aviation, the list goes on. Those employers recruit from around the country and around the world, searching for people educated to the highest standards.
We should be teaching our students to the same standards so our employers can hire homegrown talent. The Next Generation Science Standards will help get us there.
Jeff Charbonneau is the 2013 National Teacher of the Year. He teaches science at Zillah High School.