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State board adopts middle school science standards

Students in the engineering academy at Dublin High School. (click to enlarge)

The State Board of Education is grappling with how to teach middle school science aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. Credit: EdSource file photo

In a surprise move that disappointed California’s top educator but relieved some teachers, the State Board of Education on Wednesday backed away from a proposal that would have radically changed the way middle school students learn science.

The State Board had been expecting to vote on a recommendation to teach integrated science in middle school as part of a conversion to the new Next Generation Science Standards. The change would move away from the traditional discipline-based science education of teaching single subjects each year – biology in one year, for instance, followed by physics or chemistry in subsequent years – to an approach that includes some of each discipline in every grade. Advocates say the “integrated” approach creates a more holistic understanding of science concepts that allows students to better understand connections between, say, the parts of cells and the chemical reactions that allow them to reproduce.

When the proposal came up for a vote, however, the staff of the California Department of Education introduced an alternative plan that would let school districts either teach integrated science or continue to separate the disciplines. The proposal was developed in response to teacher feedback in opposition to the integrated framework.

“I would have preferred the integrated approach,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson after the State Board voted unanimously to support the alternative. Over time, however, Torlakson said he believes the board’s vote will clear a pathway to eventually move schools to a fully integrated approach.

Torlakson, a former high school biology, marine biology and health teacher, said he always integrated other fields of science into his classes.

“It didn’t really make sense in isolation,” said Torlakson, who found that his students grasped biology better when they understood concepts of chemistry as well. 

The integrated approach was also recommended by a 27-member Science Expert Panel convened by the state Department of Education to recommend the best way to implement the Next Generation Science Standards in middle school.

The State Board approved those standards in September, but held off on a decision about the model for middle school in order to hear back from teachers and the expert panel.

Phil Lafontaine, the Department of Education’s point person in the national process of developing the science standards, said he realized about two weeks ago that there was so much pushback from some teachers and administrators about the integrated approach that there should be an alternative option available.

Although none of the opponents spoke at the meeting, Lafontaine – also a former high school science teacher who used an integrated approach in his classes – said an online survey created by the department found some teachers were very concerned about the lack of curriculum materials and the amount of professional development required to make the new method work. Others worried that an integrated system wouldn’t be best for their students.

Much like the new Local Control Funding Formula, which allows each district to decide where to focus its budget, Lafontaine said the alternative middle school science proposal lets districts assess their students’ needs and the capacity of schools in their “local context.”

Trish Williams, one of the two state board members involved in the middle school science standards, said she, too, sees the benefits of an integrated curriculum, but also understands that it’s a lot for teachers to deal with while they’re already implementing new Common Core State Standards and the overall Next Generation Science Standards.

It will be better for students to have teachers who are comfortable with the material they’re teaching, Williams said.

“They’ll still be delivering on Next Generation Science Standards,” she noted, but, “It’s better to come with great enthusiasm on the part of the teachers even if it’s not as strong a model.”

The new plan calls for reconvening the science expert panel to develop a strong model for discipline-focused science education aligned to the new science standards. Lafontaine said he wants to move on this as fast as possible to bring it back to the state board in the spring in order to give districts time to develop their science programs for the following school year.

He also suggested to the board members that the Department of Education seek out grant funding to establish pilot programs around the state to study the best way to implement each model.

There isn’t a plethora of research out there about the integrated approach to teaching middle school science, said board President Michael Kirst.

“I don’t think we have the feedback from teachers in the field about the potential problems. It’s conceptual at this point,” he said. “We should take another look at this over time.”

Filed under: Deeper Learning, Policy & Finance, State Board, Testing and Accountability


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6 Responses to “State board adopts middle school science standards”

  1. Gary Ravani said

    on March 5, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    “We also have to decide what to do about elementary school science. Teachers at that level need training in almost every field of human knowledge (at the elementary level)”

    And that disrespectful statement is backed up by what scientific and empirical evidence exactly?

  2. Jerry Matchett said

    on March 5, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Perhaps we should start with asking major universities to offer degrees in integrated science. I remember attending a university where I wanted a degree in biology but their zoology and botany schools were not integrated. It is natural for a public school teacher who has a degree in a single science to formulate thoughts largely within that single science. I ended up taking botany, zoology, molecular biology, medical microbiology and a few other courses, but it was entirely up to me to integrate them.

    We also have to decide what to do about elementary school science. Teachers at that level need training in almost every field of human knowledge (at the elementary level)

  3. Trish Williams said

    on November 8, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    Kathy got the story right but whomever wrote the headline didn’t. As an NGSS liaison for the State Board, I can definitely declare that the State Board did NOT back off Integrated Science Standards for the middle grades. We adopted the Science Expert Panel’s recommendation for Integrated as the SBE’s preferred model. Out of consideration for LEAs that feel they cannot move quickly to Integrated, we authorized an “alternate” discipline specific model to be developed and available. The CDE and the SBE are both committed to supporting implementation of the Integrated Model.

  4. Doug McRae said

    on November 6, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    navigio: Smarter Balanced’s contract with the feds is for E/LA and Math tests only, not Science. Choice of a consortium (if available) and/or vendor for Science tests is several years down the road . . . .

    • Navigio replied

      on November 7, 2013 at 5:32 am

      Whoops, forgot about that. Then with whomever we have our science test contracts.

  5. navigio said

    on November 6, 2013 at 7:58 pm


    Anyway, I think the same option is already being given for high school math. Will sbac be able to provide tests aligned with both approaches (like in math)?

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