Adopting new teaching standards: Fun or folly? Teacher professional knowledge on new science teaching standards in Illinois

Featured Scientist: Michael Burt (he/him/his), Doctor of Education (Anticipated: Spring 2022), Department of Teaching and Learning, Illinois State University

Michal Burt stands in the woods with a camping pack and smiles at the camera.

Birthplace: Rockford, IL

My Research: I want to learn more about how science teachers (especially chemistry teachers) build their curricula and how they change them based on their goals for their students. A curriculum is everything students need to learn, how they learn it, and why it is important.

Research Goals: I’d like to explore how science teachers use their knowledge to create chances for all students to learn. I would also like to learn more about how teachers understand their role as science teachers, what ideas they have about how best to teach science, and what they are doing to bring their ideas into their classes.

Career Goals: I currently teach science (mostly chemistry) at Normal Community West High School in Normal, IL. I plan to use my research to improve student learning.

Hobbies: I love backpacking, hiking, and anything that goes on outdoors.

Favorite Thing About Science: Science provides us with great tools to learn about ourselves and our surroundings. It allows us to learn new information that can challenge or expand our understanding of the world.

Organism of Study: People (teachers)! Specifically, for this research, I studied high school chemistry teachers.

Field of Study: Science Education

What is Science Education? Science Education is a field focused on the methods that teachers use to teach science in the classroom and the way that students learn science in the classroom. We refer to this more generally as the teaching and learning of science. We work with students in K-12 and at the university level.

My Team: This research was completed as part of my initial coursework in the doctoral program at Illinois State University. I was doing an independent study with a faculty member, Dr. Sarah Boesdorfer, in the Department of Chemistry.

Check Out My Original Paper: “The implementation of reform-based standards in high school chemistry classrooms influenced by science teaching orientations”

Citation: Burt, M. B., & Boesdorfer, S. B. (2021). The Implementation of Reform-Based Standards in High School Chemistry Classrooms Influenced by Science Teaching Orientations. The Electronic Journal for Research in Science & Mathematics Education25(1), 71-92.

Research At A Glance:  Teachers use learning standards, or state-wide expectations about what students should know at their education levels, to make lesson plans. These standards are made using the latest research, but it is not known how strictly teachers use the standards in their classrooms. To understand how one common set of standards, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), have been used to change how teachers teach, it is important to find out how widely they are used. In our study, we looked at how some of the science content included in the NGSS had been used in teachers’ curricula throughout the state of Illinois. We found that the NGSS were not fully used in classrooms across the state and that several topics were either left out or only partially covered. Additionally, other topics not included in the NGSS were covered more thoroughly. This suggests that professional development might be required and/or that teachers’ previous knowledge affects how much of the NGSS they use in their teaching.

Highlights: We sent a survey to Illinois high school chemistry teachers across the state of Illinois to gather our initial data. In the survey, teachers reported how much time they spent teaching different chemistry topics. Figure 1 shows the topics that teachers covered for only a short period of time (0-2 days) each school year. The blue bars show the chemistry topics that are included under NGSS and the orange bars show topics that are not included under NGSS. Figure 1 shows that most of the topics under NGSS were covered for only a short period of time in the classroom.

A bar chart that shows the percent of teachers teaching different chemistry topics for 0-2 days. Most teachers teach organic chemistry and kinetics for 0-2 days. Atomic structure is not on the NGSS standards list and very few teachers teach that topic for 0-2 days.
Figure 1. Chemistry topics that Illinois teachers covered between 0 and 2 days each school year. The x-axis shows the percentage of teachers covering each topic. The y-axis shows the chemistry topics covered. The letters in parentheses (indicated by the format: HS-XX#-#) show each topic represented in the NGSS relating to chemistry.

Figure 2 shows the topics that teachers covered for a longer period of time (more than 11 days each school year). Similar to the previous graph, the blue bars show the chemistry topics that are included under NGSS and the orange bars show topics that are not included under NGSS.  Figure 2 shows that many of the topics that were covered extensively were not directly tied to NGSS.

A bar chart that shows the percent of teachers teaching different chemistry topics for 11 or more days. Most teachers teach Stoichiometry for 11 or more days, but few teach organic chemistry for that long.
Figure 2. Chemistry topics that Illinois teachers covered more than 11 days each school year. The x-axis shows the percentage of teachers covering each topic. The y-axis shows the chemistry topics covered. The letters in parentheses (indicated by the format: HS-XX#-#) show each topic represented in the state standards relating to chemistry.

What My Science Looks Like: After the survey, we interviewed nine teachers about the teaching and learning of chemistry and how that might affect how they make their curricula. Our results suggested that teachers were changing their curricula based on what they thought would help their students be successful. Six out of the nine teachers felt the goal of an introductory chemistry class was to prepare students for a higher-level chemistry class. These teachers felt they had to “give” their students key knowledge important for success in later coursework. This knowledge is part of what is considered to be “essential” chemistry knowledge that many teachers feel they have to teach their students. Three out of the nine teachers felt that their introductory class was a chance for students to develop skills they can use outside of class. These results fit well with the initial survey and were similar for teachers at different sized schools, experience levels, etc. The results of our survey are shown in the image below.

A picture of a woman with a thought bubble that says, "How can I best ensure student success?". Beside the image are two options: 1) "Prepare students for future chemistry classes" and 2) "Teach students to apply their chemistry knowledge". Then there is an arrow that points to "Use of NGSS in the classroom".
The teachers interviewed were changing their curricula based on what they thought would help their students be the most successful. This is impacted how they used NGSS in the classroom.  

Our results suggest that we need a deeper look at how teachers with different beliefs might approach each NGSS topic. My dissertation will explore these ideas for less thoroughly covered topics like kinetics and nuclear chemistry.

The Big Picture: It’s important to check how learning standards are being used in the classroom and how their use affects student learning. Our study helps us understand how the NGSS are being used in chemistry classrooms across Illinois. Our study shows that simply having state standards may not be enough to change student learning because teachers may be using them differently in the classroom, depending on their perception of student needs. We need to think about how we can support teachers so that all students reach the NGSS learning goals.

Decoding the Language:

Content: A specific idea or principle covered in a class (e.g. chemical bonding).

Curriculum (singular)/Curricula (plural): Includes the type of knowledge students “need”, how that knowledge is developed or acquired, and why it’s of value to students and/or society.

Kinetics: A topic within chemistry that focuses on the speed that chemical reactions occur as well as the factors that influence those rates.

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): K-12 standards that describes what students should know and be able to do.

Nuclear chemistry: A topic in chemistry that deals with changes in the nuclei of atoms and radioactivity.

Standards: The intended learning or performance outcomes that teachers are expected to have all of their students reach in a given class, school year, or over a high school career.

Professional Development: Training and learning experiences designed for teachers that can be used to improve their curriculum planning, classroom teaching, and support students’ learning.

Learn More:

Website on Next Generation Science Standards

Book on Next Generation Science Standards:

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 

Other peer-reviewed papers on similar topics:

Friedrichsen, P., van Driel, J. H., & Abell, S. K. (2011). Taking a closer look at science teaching orientations. Science Education, 95(2), 358-376. 

Roehrig, G. H., & Kruse, R. A. (2005). The role of teachers’ beliefs and knowledge in the adoption of a reform-based curriculum. School Science and Mathematics, 105(8), 412–422. 

Veal, W. R., Riley Lloyd, M. E., Howell, M. R., & Peters, J. (2015). Normative beliefs, discursive claims, and implementation of reform-based science standards. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 53(9), 1419–1443.

Synopsis edited by Josselyn Gonzalez, M.S. in Biology, Illinois State University, School of Biological Sciences, and Jordyn Kosai, B.S. in Environmental Design (Anticipated June 2024), University of California Davis.

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