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Q and A With Jim Short on Instructional Materials

By Cindy Workosky

Posted on 2018-01-25

Why do instructional materials for science need to change?

The vision of A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (Framework; NRC 2012)—embraced in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States 2013) and in many other similar state standards—differs significantly from prior science education standards. In the NGSS, Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), and Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs) form the three dimensions of learning. The objectives of this learning are clearly identified by means of performance expectations (PEs), which are statements of competency that describe the content and skills to be assessed following instruction.

A comprehensive instructional program should provide opportunities for students to develop their understanding of DCIs through their engagement in natural phenomena and their ability to design solutions to problems using SEPs and the application of CCCs. This three-dimensional learning leads to eventual mastery of performance expectations. The key innovations in the NGSS include:

  • Explaining Phenomena & Designing Solutions. Making sense of phenomena or designing solutions to problems drives student thinking.
  • Three-Dimensional Learning. Students making sense of phenomena or designing solutions to problems requires student performances that integrate elements of the SEPs, CCCs, and DCIs in instruction and assessment.
  • Building K-12 Progressions. Student three-dimensional learning experiences are coordinated over time to ensure students build understanding of all three dimensions of the standards, nature of science concepts, engineering design concepts, and practices as expected by the standards.
  • Alignment with English Language Arts and Mathematics. Students engage in learning experiences with explicit connections to and alignment with English language arts and mathematics.

These innovations set forth in the Framework and the NGSS will not only cause a shift in instructional programs and practices but should also affect and refocus the efforts of curriculum developers and the design of courses and K–12 science programs.

Researchers have found that the mere adoption of new, higher standards is not enough to raise student achievement. They have also found that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning and that the impact of those effects is similar in magnitude to that associated with differences in teacher effectiveness (Chingos & Whitehurst 2012).

Implementation of the NGSS and similar three-dimensional standards is dependent on high quality, open and iterative instructional materials combined with robust, innovative and sustained professional learning for teachers and school leaders.

Do high quality instructional materials that are three dimensional in nature currently exist and how do teachers find them?

There are very few programs available across the PreK–12 spectrum that model and feature the science and engineering practices, and limited examples or instructional units that model and support crosscutting concepts. Currently, people looking for materials find them by speaking to a vendor or publisher they already know; through a professional learning program; and word of mouth and conferences. There is no one place—website, catalogue or organization to find these materials. To help address this issue, Achieve is planning to collect and publish an inventory of existing science instructional units and courses. This inventory will include free, open, and/or commercially available science instructional materials, as well as basic details such as grades and science discipline. Their plan is to create a searchable digital resource on their website that will be available later this spring. The Science Peer Review Panel (PRP) was launched by Achieve last year to addresses the issue of insufficient and inadequate examples of science instructional materials designed for the NGSS. The Science PRP reviews materials that are free and publicly available and shares out the best examples here. The Science PRP is an elite cohort of educators from across the country with expertise in the NGSS and the EQuIP Rubric for Science that reviews lessons and units to determine the extent to which they are aligned with the NGSS.

What needs to happen to develop new instructional materials for science teaching?

School districts need to develop stronger instructional support systems for teachers of science, including elementary teachers. In particular, supporting teachers with a mix of standards-based instructional materials and effective professional learning focused on transforming their beliefs and practices using high-quality instructional materials designed to address the innovations in the NGSS. Districts need to work with outside partners in order to develop better support systems by building infrastructures for improvement that include resources and people (such as facilitation leaders of professional learning, instructional coaches, and designs for adult learning) that are positioned to improve the system. In order to obtain access to these resources, districts should consider partnering with non-profit organizations with expertise in professional learning, school improvement, instructional design, and disciplinary content.

What is being done to guide the development and selection of standards-based materials?

The current marketplace has limited examples of high-quality, well-aligned instructional materials. To help guide the development or selection of high-quality instructional materials, many tools have been created to establish criteria for evaluating materials. They include:

  • EQuIP Rubric for Science: The Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuIP) Rubric for Science is a tool developed by Achieve in partnership with NSTA to evaluate the quality of lessons and units aligned with the NGSS, and it is available for download. Following the publication of the NGSS, publishers, developers, and educators began designing and modifying materials to align with the new standards, but it is often not readily apparent which materials are well-aligned and which materials should be modified. EQuIP provides criteria for evaluating the degree to which lessons and units are designed for the NGSS and a recommended process for applying the rubric to review existing materials and provide criterion‐based feedback and suggestions for improvement. The EQuIP Rubric for Science was designed to evaluate a lesson or a unit that includes instructional tasks and assessments aligned to the NGSS. A lesson is defined as a coherent set of instructional activities that may extend over a few class periods, and a unit is a set of lessons extending over a longer period of time. The rubric works best when a number of reviewers are examining the same materials, which supports the opportunity for discourse and allows deeper professional learning to occur. However, in order for this discourse to be constructive, it is essential that reviewers begin the process with at least an initial understanding of the Framework and the NGSS.
  • Primary Evaluation of Essential Criteria for NGSS Instructional Materials Design (referred to as PEEC): PEEC builds on the criteria in the EQuIP Rubric for Science and focuses on evaluating the degree to which an instructional materials program is designed for the key innovations of the NGSS. Prior to doing a deeper dive into a unit of a program, PEEC offers a simple tool to narrow the number of resources examined, if necessary, and then the EQuIP Rubric for Science is applied to a parallel sample of units or instructional sequences across the program being reviewed. Materials that are found to have at least a “High Quality Example, If Improved” rating are further evaluated for the degree to which this type of learning opportunity occurs throughout the program and the degree to which there is coherence across the lessons and units.
  • Next Generation Analyzing Instructional Materials Process and Tools: To support professional learning on analyzing and selecting instructional materials and to provide educators with a manageable process and applicable set of tools to learn about standards-based instruction, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) and its partners at the K–12 Alliance at WestEd and Achieve have created the Next Generation Analyzing Instructional Materials Process and Tools (referred to as NextGen AIM). NextGen AIM is a process and a set of tools that base the analysis of instructional materials on criteria selected to evaluate the design of the materials for the NGSS. NextGen AIM includes two important components: (1) a set of tools for K-12 science teachers for collaborative evidence-based selection of instructional materials designed for the NGSS; and (2) a professional development process for use by professional development leaders to guide and support teachers’ use of the set of tools. NextGen AIM unfolds across five sequential phases: Prepare, Prescreen, Paper Screen, Pilot, and Plan. In the first phase, districts can undergo professional learning experiences that will Prepare educators to engage successfully in the analysis of instructional materials (e.g., learning the structure of the NGSS; understanding what is meant by ‘phenomena’) and plan for the use of NextGen AIM (e.g., forming their team or committee, organizing instructional materials, logistics). Districts use the prescreen tools and process to reduce the number of programs under consideration. This is followed by completion of a systematic in-depth paper screen of the remaining programs to further reduce the number of programs to pilot test. Classroom teachers pilot test the top one or two programs by teaching at least one unit of each program. Using all the evidence gathered through the paper screen and pilot phases, the district selects instructional materials that best meet the district’s needs and develops and enacts a plan for full implementation of the selected program.

These tools and processes will begin to define and clarify high quality as more units and programs come online and become available. And, states, school districts, and science teachers have progressed beyond an initial awareness of the NGSS and are taking the matter of classroom assessments, teacher professional learning, and instructional materials aligned with the NGSS into their own hands.

What can/should teachers do on their own to adapt lessons?

The NGSS are still relatively new, and while developers and publishers may be revising current materials, in many schools and districts, teachers are already beginning to implement these standards by developing their own lessons and units.  For many, this means some type of blended process where teachers piece together some combination of adapting old lessons and planning new ones. In order to create sequences of learning activities that meet the objectives of the NGSS, educators need a clear process that enables them to develop coherent, three-dimensional lessons that are designed to inform instruction through the use of embedded assessments and promote student achievement of performance expectations.

Teachers can also use the following resources:

  • The Five Tools and Processes for Translating the NGSS were designed to help professional development leaders work with teachers on curriculum, instruction, and assessment. In collaboration with BSCS and the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, the Gottesman Center for Science Teaching and Learning at the American Museum of Natural History developed and field-tested the Five Tools and Processes for Translating the NGSS (referred to as the Five Tools) for professional development leaders. These tools are a timely and appropriate response to the challenges of translating the NGSS into classroom instruction and assessment. These tools and processes help teachers establish a meaningful context for teachers of science to develop an understanding of the Framework and the NGSS, and they serve as a means through which teachers can begin implementing changes in their classrooms. The Five Tools are a professional development curriculum that includes facilitation guides, slides, handouts, and templates. This curriculum is available for download and leaders can use it to help teachers translate the NGSS into practice. The main purpose of the Five Tools is to facilitate the translation of science concepts, practices, and performance expectations into multiple instructional sequences that form a NGSS-based unit. Additionally, the professional development curriculum includes suggestions for preparing more in-depth plans for instructional sequences and assessment tasks and for collecting evidence of student learning focused on a bundle of performance expectations. These processes help teachers plan for conceptual coherence. Tools 1 and 2 begin the planning process and Tools 3-5 engage teachers in design and development.
  • NGSS@NSTA Hub: NSTA has engaged a cadre of curators who for the past few years have been identifying classroom resources and lessons and suggesting ways to adapt them to make them more in line with the goals of the NGSS. Over 800 resources now are available on the NGSS@NSTA Hub and NSTA is inviting the science education community to upload and share their own resources and add to the growing library of resources.
  • NGSS Lesson Screener: The purpose of the lesson screener is to quickly review a lesson to see: (1) whether a lesson being developed or revised is on the right track; (2) if a lesson warrants further review using the EQuIP Rubric (see above), and (3) to what extent a group of reviewers have a common understanding of the NGSS or designing lessons for the NGSS. There is a recognition among educators that curriculum and instruction will need to shift with the adoption of the NGSS, but it is currently difficult to find lessons that are truly designed for the NGSS rather than just connecting existing lessons to the standards. The power of the lesson screener is in the productive conversations educators have while evaluating materials (i.e., the review process). Even with high-quality materials, teachers use their professional judgement in selecting and shaping lessons in their classrooms.


Chingos, M. and G. Whitehurst. 2012. Choosing blindly: Instructional materials, teacher effectiveness, and the common core. Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC; National Academies Press.

Jim Short

Jim Short is Program Director of Leadership and Teaching to Advance Learning at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.



Editor’s Note: Learn more about promising professional learning and the importance of high-quality, NGSS-aligned instructional materials in the upcoming book, Preparing Teachers for Three-Dimensional Instruction, now available for pre-order from NSTA press. The book includes the chapter, Promising Professional Learning: Tools and Practices, authored by Rodger W. Bybee, James B. Short, and Dora E. Kastel.

This article was featured in the January 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 access other articles from the January issue on instructional materials. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

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

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