From ScienceWriters: New standards to shake up science writing for kids

By Andy Boyles

For many who write about science for kids, the ground is about to shift, or is already trembling. When the tremors stop, the altered landscape may hold new opportunities for science writers.

The movements come in the form of nationwide initiatives to rewrite the standards for literacy, science, and mathematics. Designed for use in the classroom, the new standards are nevertheless likely to touch nearly every type of science publication for young readers, both in and out of school. In addition to tests, curricula, “institutional” (school-library) books, and school magazines, author-driven trade books for kids also rely for at least some of their success on sales to teachers and librarians.

Even my employer — Highlights for Children, Inc., where sales in the home and commercial trade-book outlets are paramount — has an eye on the coming changes. Leadership expects to see little impact on our magazines since the overwhelming majority of subscriptions are bought for home delivery. But the new standards may create opportunities for Boyds Mills Press, the trade-book division of Highlights.

The standards are aimed, in part, at restoring science to the place it held before the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind). As a result, they offer hope for the future children’s science books.

The plan at Boyds Mills Press is to use various means, such as educator guides, to show teachers how they can use Boyds Mills books to teach to the standards. “Our books naturally connect to the standards, so we just need to make people aware of that,” says Editorial Director Liz Van Doren.

The changes with the broadest sweep across the curriculum are the CCSS — the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. These standards call for much more reading, writing, and class discussion in all subject areas, especially the sciences, and for language-arts teachers to give up much of the fiction and poetry they currently use and increase the amount of nonfiction to at least 50 percent. The CCSS were finalized in June 2010, and the states and territories that have adopted them are now implementing them, each at its own pace. (Those that have not adopted the standards include Texas, Alaska, Nebraska, Minnesota, Virginia, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands.)

Coming later, the NGSS — the Next Generation Science Standards — are narrower in scope. These standards are designed to raise engineering to the same level as science and to reduce the number of science subjects being taught to make time for deeper exploration of the science process, in particular through reading, writing, and class discussion. As of this writing, these standards had been delayed twice and were scheduled, amid some skepticism, to be released in spring 2013.

Here now: The CCSS

The CCSS Initiative is led by an organization of state-level school officials and the National Governors Association. The plan is to solve the stubborn problem of too many new high school graduates who are not ready for college-level work.

For writers and publishers, a key component of the CCSS is a call for more language-arts instruction in nonfiction, which translates to reading and writing nonfiction not only in “reading” class but also in the physical sciences, life sciences, earth sciences — in short, nearly every subject area.

Melissa Stewart, a science writer and educator with more than 150 children’s science books to her name, closely watches both the progress of the standards and educators’ responses to them. She thinks the changes will increase the demand for longer, more in-depth treatments of fairly narrow subjects — that is, books. In that scenario, trade publishers are likely to benefit more than curriculum publishers.

“The curriculum companies just don’t have the ability to create what CCSS demands, but trade publishers have been producing it all along,” Stewart says. “I’ve seen a lot of [out-of-print] nonfiction books coming back into print, so that’s good, too. Of course, for science books that can be tricky because some of the information in older books may be out of date.”

She also thinks CCSS may motivate schools to re-hire school librarians, many of whom have lost their jobs due to budget cuts. “And that will lead to even better book purchasing decisions,” she says. “Certified school librarians are more adept at recognizing high-quality books than most teachers or parents.”

Many language-arts teachers are already grieving the impending loss of half the literature they love to teach. No one can predict whether they will grow to love the large, growing, and underappreciated collection of literary nonfiction for young readers.

The NGSS — Coming soon?

The NGSS began with the National Research Council (NRC) report A Framework for K-12 Education. A team assembled by the NRC, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science is writing and revising a draft of the standards, which is now in a second round of public comment.

The potential impact of the NGSS is less predictable. One reason for uncertainty is that the final standards were delayed when the first draft drew more comments, and more substantial comments, than anticipated. Perhaps a more important reason is that few insiders foresee a smooth meshing of gears between the NGSS and the statewide testing required for school districts to receive federal funding.

“I don’t see where this is going,” says Steve Miller, a freelance writer who spends many of his working hours developing science textbooks and tests for curriculum publishers.

One hurdle he sees is the apparent need to develop statewide, multiple-choice tests for hands-on standards such as “Design, build, and evaluate devices that convert one form of energy into another form of energy.”

Miller also thinks many teachers will simply not understand some of the standards. As an example, he cites: “Construct models to represent and explain that all forms of energy can be viewed as either the movement of particles or energy stored in fields.”

Maybe the document makes some standards sound more difficult than they really are. Even if that’s the case, few publishers are taking bets on how the standards will be implemented or tested. After all, the states that have signed on as “leaders” have so far agreed only to “give serious consideration to adopting” the NGSS as written.

So far, only one of Miller’s clients has approached him to write materials that align with the current NGSS draft. “Most publishers aren’t going to do that,” he says. “It’s too big an investment. Unless the states adopt this as their approach, nobody will write the curricula.”

At least one key player in the NGSS effort has also noticed a gap between good intentions and good tests. Rodger W. Bybee was a leader in writing both the Frameworks report and the life-sciences section of the NGSS. He has been keeping teachers up to date on the progress of the standards.

“There are several initiatives relative to assessment or NGSS, but few discussions of new instructional materials,” he writes in the February issue of Science & Children, NSTA’s journal for elementary-level teachers. “The absence of a curriculum based on the new standards will be a major failure in this era of standards-based reform and assessment-dominated results. When science teachers at all levels K-12 ask 'Where are the materials that help me teach to the standards?,' the educational system must have a concrete answer.”

While Bybee calls for action, Stewart suggests that despite the many positive aspects of the NGSS, these standards may simply be losing steam. The NGSS have not enjoyed the endorsement (or funding) of the Department of Education’s Race-to-the-Top program, which the CCSS received. In addition, the delays in delivery may have eroded teachers’ confidence in the effort, making them a harder sell to schools.

“As far as NGSS is concerned, I think it’s too soon to tell,” Stewart says. “What I am really happy to see in NGSS is a much stronger commitment to elementary science. There seems to be a growing backlash to the recent all-out focus on math and literacy in the elementary grades, and I’m very glad to see it.”

Andy Boyles is science editor for Highlights for Children, Inc., and a freelance science writer and editor.

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