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It Takes More Than Teacher Professional Development: Building Systems-Level Capacity for NGSS Implementation

By Dr. Vanessa Lujan

Posted on 2019-10-18

When informal science institutions (ISIs) offer professional learning opportunities to teachers to support science in schools, they create the potential for dynamic science educators and classrooms that can support high-quality science learning for students. Our field recognizes that it is critical for teachers to participate in ongoing, integrated professional learning that builds teacher knowledge, interest, confidence, and skill for science instruction. Often these professional learning opportunities address timely, relevant topics in an engaging way to educators and draw from the expertise and research of ISIs.

Our own research at the Lawrence Hall of Science (the Hall) indicates that ISI-led professional learning opportunities are unique and attractive for teachers in distinct ways. Teachers report that they seek out ISI-led professional learning as sources for inspiration, depth of expertise, and high-quality facilitation. Informal education professional learning settings promote a sense of authenticity and can promote change in teacher instructional practice, supporting increased interest and curiosity among learners in the classroom and giving teachers insight on what Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science instruction looks like. We know high-quality professional learning for teachers is essential. We also know the system in which teachers work must also be addressed to ensure teachers have the opportunity to enact their learnings in the context of the classroom. 

Research tells us that successful NGSS implementation within school districts requires a sustained and coordinated effort, leadership at all levels, and both immediate and long-term changes over a course of multiple years. Districts and schools must have instructional leadership and infrastructure focused on science, and equitable science instruction must be an obvious and explicit priority. Rigorous standards, like the NGSS, are needed to guide a coherent system of curriculum, instruction, assessment, teacher preparation, and professional development. Instructional materials, the classroom, outdoor learning experiences, and field trips should give students opportunities to learn science by engaging in the practices of science that approximate what scientists actually do. Districts and schools must develop and align policies to support science education. External/community resources and partnerships should be strategically prioritized to achieve district science goals.

Drawing on systems-level and organizational change efforts, we created a program, BaySci, that assists districts in building system-wide capacity for supporting high-quality, equitable science education through well-designed professional learning experiences for district leaders and teachers. For more than a decade, it has remained a partnership among science education leaders, districts, schools, and teachers who are committed to improving the quantity and quality of K–12 science teaching to provide meaningful access to equitable science learning opportunities in districts and schools. BaySci is one of a handful of efforts engaging in this work through systematic district-level capacity building, working closely with district administrators/leaders, principals, and K–12 teacher leaders to implement the NGSS and progress toward achieving coherence between NGSS and the Common Core State Standards. The theory behind the BaySci effort is stated very simply:

  1. Student success and engagement in K–12 NGSS-aligned science depends upon classrooms that provide a steady and daily diet of high-quality NGSS science instruction.
  2. Good classroom instruction in every classroom in the district depends upon the presence of a solid district-wide, K–12 science program. Such a program includes good curriculum, readily available and well-designed materials, equitable secondary course sequences, and supportive professional learning activities.
  3. To establish such a program is a complex undertaking. Few districts across the United States can boast of a high-quality K–12 NGSS-aligned science program that reaches all of its students. To introduce such a program and sustain it, the attention of leaders at many levels in the district is required. A district must develop a set of capacities—each of which is necessary, but not sufficient—to create a high-quality, standards-based district-wide K–12 science program.

What does “capacity-building” look like in the context of NGSS implementation at the district and school level?

BaySci support for district capacity-building includes increasing the prominence of and priority placed on science by district administrators, principals, and teachers through the creation and sustainability of a strong and coherent vision for science education. Another support and related capacity is increasing district leadership for science among superintendents, associate superintendents, and curriculum and instruction directors. In particular, we ask these leaders to become part of the district science leadership team that will lead the development and implementation of district-level plans for science and NGSS implementation. These leaders, with their perspectives and responsibilities, are asked to bring a mindset of systematically removing barriers to science improvement and implementation in the district. We encourage our district partners to consider the composition of the district science leadership team, and include members of or advocates for the vulnerable and marginalized groups of the communities they serve who often receive little to no science and may be disenfranchised from science. As we support and plan with the team and develop designs and solutions for the district science program, we consider the needs/perspectives of those on the margins of the district science program.

More recently, with the ongoing implementation of the NGSS, our support to our K–12 district teams has focused on course access at the high school level for various identified student groups. Currently, access to high-quality, standards-based learning opportunities in secondary science courses is often inequitable. This has serious consequences, as students without access to NGSS-aligned courses are less likely to complete high school with enough knowledge and/or credits that make them “college- and career-ready.”

Our most vulnerable populations—e.g., students of color, those receiving free or reduced-price lunch (low-income), English Learners, foster youth, homeless—are the most likely to be impacted by this lack of equity. Research tells us that only 54% of high school graduates complete the science entrance requirements for state universities and colleges (Gao and Johnson 2017). African American and Latino students disproportionately attend high schools with lower completion rates (Gao 2016). Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathways, in which underrepresented students are overrepresented (Wolzinger and O’Lawrence 2018), may not be aligned to NGSS, unlike other “core” science courses taken by most high school students (e.g., Biology + Earth/Space Science; Chemistry + Earth/Space Science; Physics + Earth/Space Science).

In addition, idiosyncratic course placement practices may occur. For example, counselors have been reported to advise students to select non-NGSS-aligned ninth-grade science courses, missing the opportunity for students to begin NGSS-aligned learning in high school early on. Uncovering historical and current practices related to science course access and analysis of student data is the first step in helping our districts identify the current reality of school and district practices for supporting secondary science learning opportunities for all student groups.

School systems require time and space for unpacking explicit and tacit practices that exist around student science learning trajectories in high school, the variability of which is well known but seldom discussed. Education leaders, school administrators, and researchers must examine and revise policies and practices in schools and districts so that existing inequities are better understood and can eventually be eliminated (NRC 2007). The work of district capacity-building for science through the Hall’s BaySci effort highlights the unique role and value-add that informal science institutions/science centers play within the professional learning and capacity-building landscape. Unique affordances of ISI-led partnerships with schools and districts exist for designing effective engagement of all players within the larger systems and contexts in which they reside. When ISIs develop genuine partnerships with educators, schools, and districts, we believe science education expertise, leadership, and capacity is increased.


 Gao, N. 2016. College readiness in California: A look at rigorous high school course-taking. Public Policy Institute of California.

Gao, N., and H. Johnson. 2017.  Improving college pathways in California. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.

National Research Council (NRC). 2007. Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K–8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Appendix D: All standards, all students: Making Next Generation Science Standards accessible to all students.  In Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Wolzinger, R., and H. O’Lawrence. 2018. Student characteristics and enrollment in a CTE pathway predict transfer readiness. Pedagogical Research 3 (2): 08. 

About the Lawrence Hall of Science: At the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, we create, disseminate, and evaluate high-quality educational materials, professional development programs, and hands-on learning experiences in math and science for educational centers, districts, schools, community-based organizations, and homes. Hall staff, programs, and materials support educators and learners across the science, technology, engineering, and math  (STEM) learning continuum. Since opening in 1968, the Hall has provided quality hands-on learning experiences to more than 137 million students, educators, and families in the Bay Area and worldwide. Visit the Hall and BaySci at and

Dr. Vanessa Lujan is deputy director of the Learning and Teaching Group at the Lawrence Hall of Science, focused on supporting capacity-building among leaders and educators to provide high-quality science, math, and environmental learning experiences in both formal and informal learning environments, including K-12 schools, school districts, universities, science centers and other educational organizations and non-profits. Lujan is also program director of a California statewide initiative to help support district-wide capacity building for the implementation of high-quality STEM education and environmental literacy, titled BaySci. Lujan has a Ph.D. and M.A. in Science Education from the University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University.

Note: This article is featured in the October 2019 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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