Middle school science standards divide teachers

Emily's science Class

Students in Emily Williams’ 7th grade science class at South Pasadena Middle School display drawings of what their children might look like as part of a genetics project. Credit: South Pasadena Middle School

The State Board of Education will grapple with physical and metaphysical principles this week when it considers how middle school science should be taught. The question is, does each field of science exist in a vacuum?

When the State Board approved the Next Generation Science Standards in September, it postponed the issue of whether middle school science should continue to be taught by discipline – earth sciences in 6th grade, life sciences in 7th and physical sciences in 8th – or if the subjects should be integrated with a bit of each, plus some engineering, in every grade to lay a foundation for more difficult concepts later on.

A Science Expert Panel, of 27 teachers, researchers, professors, and prominent scientists, that was established by the State Board unanimously recommended the integrated approach, splitting teachers and triggering a mild combustion reaction. Some veteran teachers say they’re being adequately trained to teach the new standards effectively, while others say the shift makes sense in a subject like science, where so many of the concepts are interwoven.

“First, we all panicked,” said Tracy Tegtmeier, describing when she first heard details of the proposal at meeting in Pasadena over the summer, one of three forums sponsored by the California Science Teachers Association. About 80 teachers attended, including 10 from Will Rogers Middle School in Lawndale Elementary School District in Los Angeles County, where Tegtmeier teaches 7th grade biology.

As the meeting progressed, the Will Rogers group started to come around to the idea that integrated science makes sense.

“There’s not just biology and then there’s a line, and then there’s chemistry, it kind of blends together,” Tegtmeier said.  “Some of us sat there and said, ‘OK, I understand, it’s a big change but I understand the overall picture and it’s probably a really good thing.’ Others left shaking their heads, going, ‘No way, there’s no way this is going to work.’”

Emily Williams counts herself among the doubters. The nationally board certified teacher said she’s concerned about the efficacy of requiring someone like her, who has been teaching 7th grade life sciences at South Pasadena Middle School for 15 years, to get up to speed in physics and chemistry.

“If our goal is to help the kids understand things in greater depth and to make real life connections, then having their teachers really feel like experts in a subject area is going to benefit the kids,” Williams said. “I know I can learn all different kinds of things and I know I can be successful, but I genuinely believe the students will struggle.”

What’s more, she feels that middle school science teachers should have been more involved in the decision-making process.

Memorizing isn’t understanding

Bruce Alberts, a member of the state’s Science Expert Panel, understands Williams’ concerns and acknowledges that the transition will be a process for teachers.

“You’re going to stumble the first year, the second year will be a little bit better, by the third year, you’ll be happy you did it,” said Alberts, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, when asked how he would respond to skeptical teachers.

Concepts 6th graders should learn under the Next Generation Science Standards.

Concepts 6th graders should learn under the Next Generation Science Standards.


Alberts was a long-time president of the National Academy of Sciences and editor-in-chief of Science magazine. Yet, his grandson hates science and, given the way it’s been taught in California, he’s not surprised. Under the so-called world-class standards developed by California in the 1990s, scientific experimentation was replaced by reading about science in textbooks.

“What he was learning was to dislike having to memorize all these words in science and not really getting any understanding for the beauty of the world around him, which is what we really want people to get out of education,” Alberts said.

The Next Generation Science Standards put students in the role of scientists – teaching them to observe, to ask questions and make rational decisions about the world around them. But discipline-based science threatens that method of learning because it doesn’t give students all the information they need to make connections, Alberts said.

“The fundamental aspect of life that we’re all made out of cells is really a beautiful and amazing fact,” said Alberts, but that’s lost on 6th grade students when they learn in earth sciences every organism is made up of cells. They can point to a diagram and name the parts of the cell, but because they haven’t yet taken biology and chemistry they never “understand what a living cell is and how amazing it is that it’s able to reproduce itself,” Alberts said. “All the joy of the subject is missing.”

The laboratory school

The science teachers at Will Rogers were so eager to move ahead with an integrated science curriculum that they worked on it over the summer and implemented it at the start of this school year, joining a handful of other schools in the state.The district gave them some of the money from the professional development funds for Common Core State Standards to work collaboratively on a new curriculum and offered them time to observe each other’s classes to see how well it’s working.

Students with Oobleck

Alexis Chacon, Giuliana Bendezu and Alexis Pozos with their spaceship and the oobleck for a science experiment in Tracy Tegtmeier’s 7th grade science class at Will Rogers Middle School in Lawndale. Credit: Tracy Tegtmeier

One of Tegtmeier’s first labs was an old school experiment popularized by Dr. Seuss. Using cornstarch and water, the students made oobleck. The substance feels hard if you tap it quickly, but touch it softly, and it feels like a liquid.

Her students had to figure out the properties of oobleck and design and make spaceships that, when dropped from 50 centimeters (almost 20 inches), wouldn’t sink.

In just the few months since they started integrated science, Tegtmeier said all the science teachers have seen incredible transformations. The same students who were unruly last year now come into class asking what activity they’ll be doing that day.

“I heard, ‘I love chemistry,’ five times last week,” Tegtmeier said.

She said behavior problems have declined in science classes as a result. But she cautions that it hasn’t been easy.  “It takes a lot of work changing curriculum, there’s no doubt about it whatsoever,” Tegtmeier said. “We’re not necessarily comfortable, but we’re willing to give it a try.”

If the State Board approves the integrated guidelines at its meeting on Wednesday, that’s just the beginning. There is still no timeline for implementing them and tests aligned to the new standards could be years away.

“Adoption is a very important first step, but that’s all it is, a first step,” said Laura Henriques, president of the California Science Teachers Association.

“We need to do this well,” agreed Art Sussman a scientist with WestEd and a member of the Science Expert Panel. He said the state department of education must give teachers the tools they need, the professional development they need, the curriculum resources and the assessment systems that all support each other.

“We can’t just have top down reform, say, ‘Go out there and thou shall now do this,’” Sussman said.

Filed under: Curriculum, STEM, Teaching, Testing and Accountability

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6 Responses to “Middle school science standards divide teachers”

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  1. Karyn O'Hearn on Nov 14, 2013 at 6:10 am11/14/2013 6:10 am

    • 000

    First I want to acknowledge that I am a current science teacher who tends towards embracing the new standards. I REALLY do not like the old ones. That said, I take issue with this statement in the article, “The Next Generation Science Standards put students in the role of scientists–teaching them to observe, to ask questions and make rational decisions about the world around them.” The NGSS will not be doing any of the teaching. It doesn’t matter what the standards are if the teacher does not know how or have any interest in developing the curriculum to get the most out of the standards. When we address teacher culture and teacher training pitfalls, and create an environment conducive to nurturing master teachers then the ideal of standards may benefit all.

  2. Tracy Tegtmeier on Nov 6, 2013 at 4:24 pm11/6/2013 4:24 pm

    • 000

    I know I am preaching to the choir, but the success of any change has to do with attitude and especially the action of the change agents. The teachers and not the students will make or break the curriculum change — no matter what it looks like.

    I am pretty sure what we are doing is not working across the board because of the statistics (low number of students entering STEM fields/high school drop-out rate/kids taking remedial courses because are not academically ready for college – not raising CST scores). I don’t know if this is going to work, but I know for sure it won’t work if I don’t give it a real try.

    If the fear is not being qualified to teach out of science content area – we are science teachers …we share stuff and can pick it up fast.

  3. K. Lee on Nov 5, 2013 at 2:27 pm11/5/2013 2:27 pm

    • 000

    Integrating the sciences would be exciting. I am a former science teacher and think this is a great approach. The question I have is about the proper credential patterns for such a program. Under the current patterns, it may not be possible to teach this and still meet the highly qualified teacher issues under NCLB.

  4. paul swain on Nov 5, 2013 at 10:41 am11/5/2013 10:41 am

    • 000

    The new science standards will force teachers to skim content, never truly going in depth. I find it very strange that the decision making process was mostly left to college professors and academics, who have never been in a middle school classroom. I hate the new standards and will be looking to transfer to high school position because of them.

  5. Paul Bruno on Nov 5, 2013 at 5:50 am11/5/2013 5:50 am

    • 000

    I disagree that the question is whether “each field of science exists in a vacuum”. After all, the current middle school science arrangement is *already* integrated. For example, I teach chemistry, physics, and astronomy to 8th graders, and I don’t know anybody who things any of those fields “exist in a vacuum”.

    The real question is whether middle school students are as well-positioned to appreciate the connections between more distantly related fields as their teachers and other science experts are, and whether it makes sense to give up the various advantages of the current arrangement (e.g., that many teachers have preferences for certain content, or are more expert in certain fields).

    I elaborate some here:



    • navigio on Nov 5, 2013 at 1:17 pm11/5/2013 1:17 pm

      • 000

      Well-written letter Paul. Independent of the science-specific arguments, I think this general move toward an ‘integrated’ sequence of classes is an extremely important paradigm shift. The same thing is happening in math (and I expect to some extent with writing and technology). In the math context, supposedly the history of the ‘traditional’ Alg/Geo/Alg sequence is a result of an increasing level of expectation over the years (ie simply a layered response to society’s expectations rather than as a result of an analysis of whether it is the most effective learning process). In the math context, the integrated change seems to make sense, as the various concepts are much more closely related, and I believe this will contribute to a more ongoing use of basic math concepts (something that traditional approach actually works against). I strongly agree with El that constant use of math is more important than what particular level happens when, however, that is simply my (our) bias. It is noteworthy that a large majority of districts have already chosen against an integrated approach or have not yet made up their minds. This means to me there is a valid argument against the idea of an integrated sequence in math. I dont know what it is, and I hope its not just a fear of lower test scores initially.
      That said, I see Paul’s point about this integration between science concepts not always being as obvious or close. However, I would love to see more discussion about this integrated strategy in general and why it does or does not apply to a particular field. I hope we dont just choose ‘integrated’ everywhere, because we happen to believe it makes sense in one area.
      On another note, CC specifically mentions technology and computers and even the internet. To me this means that part of our core educational expenditures should go toward technology. We currently do not do this if Im not mistaken. This would be a huge shift in responsibility for funding computer labs and curriculum and teachers from parents to the district (state), yet I dont see it happening. Why not? (may be a good separate discussion).

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