The State of K-12 Science Curriculum

While the availability of aligned, high-quality materials lags what science standards demand, states can press the market for better ones.

Teacher and kids school learning ecology gardening. Image credit: iStock
Image credit: iStock

More than a decade ago, the K-12 Framework for Education and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) shifted states’ notions of what constitutes the core of science skills and knowledge that students need to thrive in school and beyond.[1] The majority of states adopted standards based on the framework as well as the NGSS. Yet because of the standards’ complexity and an overall lack of emphasis on science instruction, districts have few quality curricula and materials to choose from.

Extensive research on what students need to become informed, science-literate citizens—and also on how students learn science best—underpins NGSS. Similarly, the framework promotes learning that is both relevant and meaningful to students and authentic to the practices of scientists and engineers. The standards seek to drive science learning through the study of phenomena—observable events students can explain or predict using science knowledge. Tides, sunrise, leaves changing color, and the way dew collects on grass are all phenomena students can explore.

Recognizing Quality

What does it mean for science instructional materials to be high quality? Quality materials focus instruction on “sense-making and problem solving with true phenomena or problems—rather than topics, concepts, or construction projects.”[2] In addition, quality materials connect phenomena to learning goals across the science disciplines so that problems are purposeful and lead students through a specific scope and sequence. Both the framework and NGSS call for building and applying knowledge as students practice and develop related skills. This represents a deviation from past standards, which set inquiry apart from content and spawned materials and teaching practices that addressed them separately.

Quality science materials integrate three dimensions: scientific and engineering practices such as developing and using models, crosscutting concepts such as cause and effect, and disciplinary core ideas such as earth systems. Materials should be designed to “support students to both learn and use the dimensions in an integrated way… to sense-make or problem solve.”[3] The three dimensions should not be incorporated haphazardly but in a manner that is directly connected to specific learning goals.

Instructional materials should support this kind of coherent learning that increases students’ experience and depth across all three dimensions. For example, students might develop models of an earth system, examine a change that occurs in it, and determine the cause of the change and its ultimate impact. Throughout, students would revise their models to explain what caused the changes and resulting effects, predict events, or both. Reflecting on crosscutting concepts like cause and effect gives students a lens for future scientific work in different contexts and across science disciplines and courses.

Quality science materials connect directly to students’ curiosity, questions, past experiences, home lives, and communities. They provide common entry points and opportunities for students to ask their own questions, collect their own evidence, and construct their own explanations. They also provide opportunities for students to share their thinking, get feedback, and iterate and improve their explanations.

Quality science materials provide common entry points and opportunities for students to ask their own questions, collect their own evidence, and construct their own explanations.

Assessments are an often-overlooked component of quality curriculum and instruction. Strong materials not only include a scope and sequence around content but incorporate ways for teachers to evaluate what students have learned. Assessments should be embedded within the materials and directly connected to curriculum-specific, three-dimensional learning goals.[4] When designed well, such assessments help teachers better understand gaps in student knowledge, possible approaches based on student responses, and ways to differentiate instruction to reach every member of their classroom.

The State of the Market

In addition to its reviews of materials for mathematics and English language arts (ELA), EdReports now reviews instructional materials for K-5, 6-8, and high school science, and we rate each program based on the aforementioned criteria for quality: We look for three-dimensional learning and assessment, phenomena and problems as drivers of learning, coherence and the full scope of the three dimensions, as well as instructional supports and usability, including supports for diverse learners. Our reports offer evidence for alignment with NGSS and with research on how students learn.

Currently, science classrooms in 44 states are implementing standards connected to the K-12 Framework for Science Education. Because these standards require high-quality science instructional materials to support student learning, information about existing programs has never been more important. EdReports convenes expert educators to lead comprehensive, calibrated reviews. The educators design our review rubrics and meet over several months to examine programs, gather evidence, and come to a consensus on scoring recommendations.

Currently, science classrooms in 44 states are implementing standards connected to the K-12 Framework for Science Education.

As of September 2023, EdReports had reviewed 97 percent of the K-12 math and ELA programs in the materials market. Of those materials reviewed, 48 percent of math programs and 53 percent of ELA programs meet expectations for alignment with learning standards.[5] EdReports has reviewed 41 percent of the K-12 core curricular science market.[6] Of the K-12 science programs EdReports has evaluated, 17 percent meet expectations for alignment, 14 percent partially meet expectations for alignment, and 69 percent do not meet expectations for alignment with learning standards.

In sum, aligned science programs are scarce. Teachers’ experiences reinforce the point. An overwhelming 96 percent of science teachers surveyed in 2020–21 say that materials aligned to their state’s science standards are somewhat or extremely important to them. Yet only 37 percent believe their materials meet this need.[7] Other surveys confirm this view. In a 2022 survey by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, 60 percent of a national sample of science educators said that “there is a substantial need to change instructional materials to make them more aligned with the NGSS.”[8]

Supplemental and Teacher-Created Materials

Given the lack of quality choices, it is no surprise that only 30 percent of teachers indicate that they use any core programs as their primary instructional materials.[9] Consequently, the majority of resources teachers use are supplements—whether they buy them, find them online, or create them themselves. In fact, half of all science teachers indicate that they use supplements as their primary source of materials.

Half of all science teachers indicate that they use supplements as their primary source of materials.

Another survey found that 62 percent of middle school teachers and 84 percent of high school teachers “routinely used science materials they created.”[10] The survey revealed that more than half of teachers use YouTube and Teachers Pay Teachers as sources for additional instructional materials.

This reliance on unvetted supplements and teacher-created materials can affect coherence significantly. It is much harder to develop a coherent learning experience for students when piecing together multiple lessons from multiple sources to create a year’s worth of learning. It is also harder to simultaneously ensure that instruction adheres to grade level and incorporates a progression of the three dimensions of quality science instruction.

Curriculum-Focused Professional Learning

With only a quarter of teachers using any core comprehensive program in science, access to curriculum-focused professional learning is a particular challenge. Twenty-eight percent of science teachers receive no curriculum-focused professional development at all.[11] Two-thirds of science teachers report receiving zero to five hours annually of ongoing support related to their instructional materials.

Even when teachers do get professional development, they often say it does not meet their needs. While elementary school teachers are more likely to say that their professional learning prepared them to at least a moderate extent, 28 percent of middle school teachers and 32 percent of high school teachers indicate that their professional development did not prepare them at all to use the provided curriculum.[12]

Even when teachers do get professional development, they often say it does not meet their needs.

A compounding challenge is science teachers’ lack of understanding of the standards their states have adopted. According to a 2021 RAND survey, almost a quarter of teachers said they did not know whether their schools were implementing NGSS.[13] In a 2022 landscape survey, more than two-thirds of science educators indicated a substantial need for professional learning to “better prepare teachers for Framework-aligned science instruction, and most saw the work as either not having started or just beginning.”[14]

It is important to note that use of high-quality materials themselves offer opportunities for deepening teacher content knowledge and understanding of the context of student learning standards. By implementing a high-quality curriculum, teachers get practice in applying the research-based strategies that meet the demands that science standards make of students. Selecting high-quality materials and investing in curriculum-based professional learning are mutually reinforcing for student and teacher success.

A Changing Market

The science materials market is beginning to change. The pipeline of programs we review is increasing, including review of open education resource products for educators to access and use in a variety of ways.

Publishers are also redesigning their materials. Given the dearth of programs currently meeting expectations for alignment, there is clearly more work to do. EdReports has only been reviewing science materials since 2019. This situation is analogous to what happened after the release of our first reports in math in 2015. Out of nineteen inaugural programs reviewed, only one was standards aligned. Now there are dozens of quality options. With more information came an increased demand for quality, and with increased demand, the market supplied better materials.

Calls to Action

There is no single policy or set of policies that will address all the challenges teachers and students face in accessing and using high-quality science instructional materials. Even as teachers wait for the market to catch up to their demands for quality materials, state leaders can take several steps that will make a real difference in science classrooms.  

Maintain rigorous science standards and demand high-quality curriculum options. States can keep the bar high for science education. Maintaining quality learning standards is part of this effort, as is setting graduation and seat time requirements, even if most resources do not yet meet the mark they set. Without continued state commitment to the standards, aligned products will not materialize. Where districts are struggling with the lack of options and professional development, states should lean in. If state and district leaders get schooled in what makes materials high quality and demand it, publishers of science curricula will respond.[15] At the same time, education leaders need to support science educators now, without waiting for better materials.

Assess your state’s instructional materials landscape. Improving access to high-quality science curriculum and fostering its use begin from an understanding of the current landscape. What are teachers using? Are core comprehensive programs in place? If so, how old are they, how often are they used, and why? Are teachers primarily creating their own resources? To what extent are materials or supplementals being procured, and from where do they come?

Most states do not require reporting of what materials districts select or any information on their use. However, there are other ways to track this information. Schools and districts could share their core curriculum materials as part of existing state reporting such as state accreditation processes or school improvement plans. A state accreditation process is an excellent opportunity to learn more about all facets of the state context. Along with materials in use, districts can share narrative details and examples of how teachers attend to the state standards. In this way, state board of education members can learn what supports are available for teachers and the gaps that need to be filled in order to improve standards and materials implementation.

State board of education members can learn what supports are available for teachers and the gaps that need to be filled in order to improve standards and materials implementation.

Surveys are another way to learn more about the state’s materials landscape. For example, the Nebraska and Massachusetts education agencies both collect and provide access to data on where materials are in use.[16]

Understanding how programs are selected is just as important as knowing what is in use. State boards can investigate and consider what adoption processes, if any, have been developed. When was the last time most districts adopted instructional materials, and what is the timeline for the next science adoption? What does it even mean for districts to select instructional materials? Are there comprehensive processes in place that engage teachers and stakeholders, and do they use independent information to make adoption decisions?

Help districts identify and select quality materials. Even districts with significant capacity can struggle to identify and select quality materials, particularly in science. States can support them by emphasizing the importance of having core, comprehensive science materials and highlighting available quality options. Our work at EdReports serves as a resource for states and districts. States have also created state-specific websites that draw upon our reviews while contextualizing the reports around state standards and policies.

How materials are selected matters if states and districts expect them to be used and used well. Educators need to understand why the materials were chosen and how they will help them support their students, and the best way to do that is to center them in a comprehensive selection process. States can provide adoption guidance and direct schools and districts to work with regional entities such as education service centers and board of cooperative education services to provide support for adopting quality materials.

States can provide adoption guidance and direct schools and districts to work with regional entities to provide support for adopting quality materials.

Rhode Island has convened district teams that are making adoption decisions in similar content areas. The teams have shared best practices, examined data, and leveraged vital conversations to guide district decision making. They have been able to learn together as they consider the benefits and limitations of curriculum choices, share input from pilots, and collaborate on implementation, all with support from the state’s education department.[17]

States can also leverage their purchasing power to make quality materials easier to procure. Louisiana negotiates pricing and contracting for districts as they buy quality materials. In Louisiana’s teacher-led state adoption process, materials may be designated to be Tier I (exemplifying quality) or Tier II (approaching quality) to qualify for state help with purchasing, but not for materials in its third tier (not representing quality). This approach makes it easiest for districts to buy the best materials.[18]

States can also leverage their purchasing power to make quality materials easier to procure.

Let’s be clear: Adopting curriculum is not enough. Implementation and professional development are keys to actual classroom use. Along with signaling quality and supporting strong selection processes, states can set policies and provide resources to aid implementation, including curriculum-based professional learning.

Invest in professional learning tied to standards and quality curriculum. In science education, professional learning is key for understanding both state-specific science standards and how to animate these standards in instruction through the use of aligned materials. Yet there are few good options, and education leaders must reckon with the strength and gaps in materials as they target training to teachers.

What does this investment look like? First, states can harness their role in signaling what quality professional learning looks like, incentivizing participation, and requiring that educators get access to it. In science specifically, this professional learning will also likely require significant support for learning about the standards, standards implementation, and curriculum adaptation.

States can sponsor statewide forums and communities of practice to accomplish these goals. The forums can address some important broad questions: What materials are districts using, and what learning supports do they need for implementation? This includes exploring potential gaps in various programs that need to be the focus of ongoing adaptation work.

States can also convene and support narrower communities of practice. Working in cohorts, districts that are considering or using similar materials or districts with similar communities and student populations could be good candidates. Such communities of practice are most beneficial when they are sustained, allowing teachers to practice, reflect, and identify needs for cohort consideration iteratively.

Knowing that many products currently on the market only partially meet expectations, the materials that make the most sense for a district may still require adaptation. Communities of practice can aid teachers in using the materials at hand without lowering standards and to continue to help students build crucial science knowledge and skills. Further, a state may leverage communities of practice to support better understanding of the standards as a whole.

Knowing that many products currently on the market only partially meet expectations, the materials that make the most sense for a district may still require adaptation.

Another option is for states to provide grants to help districts adapt materials. Grants can distinguish between professional learning for materials that meet expectations needing little adaptation and professional learning focused on programs that require varying degrees of adaptation. Any state-sponsored learning should ensure a high bar of quality and be conducted by a certified provider.

The Future of Science Instructional Materials

State policies, practices, and legislation can move the needle toward increased access to and use of high-quality instructional materials in science, just as it has for other content areas. Just one example: In 2019, Rhode Island’s legislature passed a law requiring districts to select from a state list by the end of 2023 ELA and math curricula that, among other components, meet EdReports’ expectations for alignment. Between October 2018 and November 2021, access in ELA had increased by 128 percent for elementary students, 235 percent for middle schoolers, and 697 percent for high school students.[19]

Science materials are not yet what students and teachers need them to be. But given the evolution in the ELA and math markets over the past five years, there is reason for optimism. But no need to wait for this evolution! Much can be done right now to ensure that each and every student can build the science knowledge and skills today that will make a difference for their futures.

Sam Shaw is the vice president of content at EdReports and Eric Hirsch is its executive director.

Notes

[1] National Research Council, A Framework for K-12 Science Education—Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2012); Next Generation Science Standards (2013), https://www.nextgenscience.org/.

[2] NextGen Science and EdReports, Critical Features of Instructional Materials Design for Today’s Science Standards: A Resource for Science Curriculum Developers and the Education Field (2021).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Margarita Alvarez, “What You Need to Know about Curriculum-Embedded Assessments” (EdReports, 2021).

[5] EdReports, “The State of the Instructional Materials Market 2021: The Availability and Use of Aligned Materials(2022).

[6] EdReports, “The State of the Instructional Materials Market: Use of Aligned Materials in 2022” (2023).

[7] RAND American Educator Panels and American Teacher Panel, American Instructional Resources Survey (AIRS) Project, web page (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021).

[8] P. Sean Smith and Courtney L. Plumley, “K-12 Science Education in the United States: A Landscape Study for Improving the Field,” report (New York City: Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2022).

[9] EdReports, “2022 Data Snapshot: K-12 Science Instructional Materials” (Winter 2022).

[10] Sy Doan et al., “American Instructional Resources Surveys: 2021 Technical Documentation and Survey Results,” research report (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021).

[11] RAND American Educator Panels and American Teacher Panel, AIRS Project, web page.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Smith and Plumley, “K-12 Science Education in the United States.”

[15] EdReports and NextGen’s report Critical Features of Instructional Materials Design for Today’s Science Standards is one tool to help states and districts press product designers for changes and improvements to current options.

[16] Nebraska Instructional Materials Collaborative, Instructional Materials Map, web page; Massachusetts Department of Education, CURATE, web page.

[17] EdReports, “Building Buy-In: Rhode Island’s Comprehensive Approach to Selecting High-Quality Curricula” (2021).

[18] Louisiana Department of Education, “Instructional Materials Reviews,” web page.

[19] Council of Chief State School Officers, “Impact of the CCSSO IMPD Network” (Washington, DC: CCSSO, January 2022), p. 11; EdReports, “Access to Quality Curriculum Is Making a Difference: Highlights from the Field” (2023).





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