State Board of Education delays vote on new science standards

Photo from Flickr

Proponents say the proposed science standards for California schools include more hands-on experimentation. Photo from Flickr

It was a rare moment of harmony in education reform at the California State Board of Education Wednesday morning. Everyone, from business leaders to university deans and educators to advocates, praised the new science content standards and urged the State Board to implement them. Board members agreed that the standards are excellent, but delayed the vote to formally implement them until their next meeting in September.

The reasons: To give teachers an opportunity to comment on them, to ensure that standards are aligned to tests and to provide time for professional development.

“The concerns we’re getting are not with the content,” said Sherry Griffith, a legislative advocate with the Association of California School Administrators, whose members support the new standards. “We think that it would benefit the State Board to provide that full breadth of time and have the next 90 days to solicit input from the on-the-ground teachers that will be impacted.”

California was one of 26 states that developed the Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States (NGSS). The voluntary consortium was concerned that too many students in the United States graduate without the knowledge and critical thinking required for 21st century jobs. NGSS were designed as an alternative to the current standards, which teachers have complained are too dry and uninspiring because they rely on book learning rather than experimentation. The new standards call for more hands-on work both in classroom labs and in nature.

The proposed standards also contain “learning progressions” to ensure that students learn the big concepts in one grade that they’ll need to know the next year; subsequent courses build on one another.

“Science is not a list of facts, it’s a way of thinking about the natural world; ask questions, gather information, find patterns, make predictions,” said John Galisky, a longtime science teacher at Lompoc High School in Santa Barbara County. “These next-generation science standards require students to think like a scientist, to do science.”

An example of a sixth grade science standard.  The blue box tells what the students will do, orange is what's known about this discipline and green is how it fits into the big picture of all the fields of science. (Source:  California Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

An example of a sixth grade science standard. The blue box tells what the students will do, orange is what’s known about this discipline and green is how it fits into the big picture of all the fields of science. Source: California Dept. of Education. (Click to enlarge)

Despite the overwhelming support for the new standards indicated at Wednesday’s meeting, some critics have assailed the proposed change. Last month, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave the new standards a “C” grade and gave California’s current science standards an “A.” The Fordham evaluation said 13 states, including California, have current science standards that are “clearly superior” to those being proposed. The Institute praised the effort of NGSS, but said they lacked substance, didn’t include teacher preparation and were missing an effective implementation system.

California teacher Paul Bruno expressed similar concerns in a commentary for EdSource. California already has “some of the strongest science standards in the country,” Bruno wrote, and the new ones are overly confusing. 

The 400-plus pages of standards were released in April, when teachers’ attention was focused on wrapping up the school year, administering or preparing for state tests and getting students ready for final exams.

It wasn’t until June, when most schools had let out for the summer, that the state posted the science learning progressions for middle school. These took longer to develop because of differences of opinion among the 26 states involved in developing the new standards.

Phil Lafontaine, the point person at the California Department of Education working with the other states to develop the NGSS, said that about a third of the states wanted specific standards for each grade, while another third wanted standards for middle schools and to let districts figure out where to teach them. The final third, including California, wanted grade-specific standards, but wanted to make sure that what students learned in one grade would properly follow what they studied the prior year and would give students the knowledge they needed to be successful in their next science class.

California’s science standards are also correlated with the new Common Core math standards, said Lafontaine, to ensure that students have already learned the math they will need for scientific experimentation. They won’t be faced with a physics problem that requires math that won’t be taught until the following semester or grade, for example.

Testing quandary

There is time to address these concerns. Although some schools may start teaching the new science standards in the next school year if the

State Board of Education President Mike Kirst said the new science standards are "really impressive," but delayed the vote to give teachers time to review them. (Source: State Board of Education meeting video).

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said the new science standards are “really impressive,” but delayed the vote to give teachers time to review them. Source: State Board of Education meeting video.

Board approves them in September, it’s not required that they do so. Senate Bill 300, the 2011 legislation that established the process for approving new science content standards, which was introduced by Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, gives the State Board until November to adopt them.

“We’re not in a hurry-up mode. We’re not going to require that districts implement these next year,” Lafontaine said. “We’re going to try to be a little bit more thoughtful on the process because it’s really a state process and not a federal process.”

Another reason for holding off until the fall to adopt the science standards is to ensure that California’s tests are in some way aligned to the new standards once they are adopted. State Board of Education President Michael Kirst was particularly concerned that students not be tested on something they haven’t yet learned. 

Because California does not have a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, the state is bound – Kirst said “forced” – by the federal education law to test students from grades 3 to 11.

He asked the State Department of Education to come back at the September meeting with some options to address “this glaring juxtaposition that what you’re testing is not what you’re teaching.”


"The next generation standards demand next generation teachers," said Harold Levine, Dean of the UC Davis School of Education.

“The next generation standards demand next generation teachers,” said Harold Levine, Dean of the UC Davis School of Education.

Some speakers encouraged the board to delay implementation, saying it would give the state more time for professional development. Unlike the $1.2 billion in the new state budget to help implement the Common Core state standards, there is no money allocated for professional development, instructional materials or technology for the science standards.

Harold Levine, dean of the School of Education at University of California, Davis, also said teacher education programs need more time to develop a new curriculum to instruct the state’s teachers in training how to teach the new standards.

“The next-generation standards demand next-generation teachers,” Levine said. Most of them learned science the old way, which is what these new standards are designed to change.

“In order to break this cycle, teacher education programs must evolve innovative ways of educating our new teachers into a world of hands-on learning, interactive teaching and new habits of mind that prioritize conceptual understanding, learning how to learn and learning across academic fields,” he said.

Filed under: State Board, STEM



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14 Responses to “State Board of Education delays vote on new science standards”

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  1. Gary Ravani on Jul 17, 2013 at 2:32 pm07/17/2013 2:32 pm

    • 000

    Allow me to correct my self: Rep. George Miller’s words re the phonics intensive Bush era Reading First Initiative was not as I stated above “a criminal conspiracy.” Rep. Miller’s words were: “sounds like a criminal enterprise to me.”

    WP, April 2007. It was some time ago.

  2. Gary Ravani on Jul 17, 2013 at 2:08 pm07/17/2013 2:08 pm

    • 000

    The above in anticipation of Ze’ev thanking me for the lesson on whole language. LOL.

  3. Gary Ravani on Jul 17, 2013 at 1:51 pm07/17/2013 1:51 pm

    • 000

    Glad to oblige, Ze’ev. I am, after all a 35 year, classroom teacher, a certificated Reading Specialist, and the “middle school representative” of the CA Literature Project class of 1986. It’s the least I can do.

  4. Anne White on Jul 12, 2013 at 2:45 pm07/12/2013 2:45 pm

    • 000

    Ze’ev –
    Thanks for the Whole Language- Phonics history lesson.

  5. Ze'ev Wurman on Jul 12, 2013 at 11:55 am07/12/2013 11:55 am

    • 000


    “What “whole language disaster” was that Ze’ev?”

    I am sorry to see you suffer from memory loss. I hope it’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s. Here, read this to refresh your memory.

    “And “federal..incompetence?” Weren’t you in the federal USDE a few years ago Ze’ev? Is that what your talking about?”

    Yes I am. Seeing it from inside the belly of the beast can be quite sobering. Yet you have lived inside the belly of the CFT and see no evil. Either CFT is a perfect and benevolent bureaucracy or … see my previous answer.


    • navigio on Jul 12, 2013 at 4:13 pm07/12/2013 4:13 pm

      • 000

      Silly rabbit, trix are for kids.

      IMHO there are always two ways of doing things. One is the traditional but slow way, the other is the modified way that must account for our new, non-traditional lifestyle. We tend to argue about why the new ways never measure up to the old ones without realizing that is the trade off we’ve implicitly accepted by selling off tradition. There is always a ‘best’ way to do something, but it rarely works the way it’s supposed to when matrixed in with other priorities. That is part of the deal. We’ve become so polarized and often single-issue that we’re blind to the possibility that our issues don’t exist in a vacuum.

      And what if different kids actually learn differently? Without knowing too much about either of these movements, during the learning-to-read process, I’d say one of my children was decidedly whole language, the other was by nature a deconstructionist. More importantly, I didn’t tell them, they told me.

      Maybe the best paragraph in that story:
      ‘If elementary schools were ever golden, a great deal more than whole-language is responsible for their not being so anymore. During the 1970s first the “revenue limits” policy of Ronald Reagan’s governorship and then Proposition 13 severely reduced school funding in California. In 1965 the state was fifth in the nation in per capita funding; now it is thirty-seventh [and that was written in 1997]. Class sizes mushroomed. Immigration filled the schools with non-English-speakers. Public school libraries in the state now have three books per child, when eighteen is the standard nationwide. “The thing that troubles me is, What if it wasn’t whole-language?” says Jerry Hayward, a veteran California educator who co-directs a policy-research organization in Sacramento. “What if it was the teachers? Or the textbooks? Or class size? Or money?”‘

      In the words of my kids, ‘um, duh!’

    • Gary Ravani on Jul 16, 2013 at 5:44 pm07/16/2013 5:44 pm

      • 000

      I am amazed at how often people put links to articles as “supports” to their arguments that they don’t appear to have actually read.

      Below is a quote from from the article Ze’ev linked to that actually does explain the “whole language disaster:”

      ” The mythos of the state holds that public institutions, including freeways, law-enforcement agencies, and universities as well as public schools, have fallen in just one generation from a state of grace during which they worked much better than their equivalents back east and formed the foundation of a casual, open, efficient, democratic society. Terrible reading scores also tap into the large reservoir of emotion about the decline of reliable government as the basis of a good society in California. Real fury has been directed at whole-language.”

      The “terrible reading scores” and their connection to the “mythos” the author talks about were the 1992 NAEP scores that showed CA near the bottom in state comparisons. That “demonstrated” how whole language had “caused” reading scores to “plummet.” Of course, that was the first year the NAEP had done state by state comparisons, so CA scores actually had nothing to plummet from. LOL

      The real disaster in the state was that Republicans took control of the legislature in 1994 and decided to use whole language, as opposed to CA’s changing demographics and Prop 13 driven plummeting revenues and support for the schools, as a scapegoat.

      It was interesting that during the 1990s those states with the highest NAEP scores all used whole language derived, literature focused, reading programs. Nationally NAEP scores were improving and “achievement gaps” were narrowing during the same period. (It should be mentioned that the NAEP was not designed to do state-by-state comparisons, as the NAEP people tried to explain.)

      With the coming of NCLB there also came a basic skills based, relentlessly intensive phonics, program called the Reading First Initiative, or RFI. After Congressional hearings on scandals attached to RFI (I think Rep George Miller called RFI a “criminal conspiracy” or something like that) its funding was cut. NAEP scores during the NCLB/RFI period have flatlined. Now that is a disaster.

      As to your other point Ze’ev, you found yourself in a Republican led US Department of Education and found it was living in the “belly of the beast.” i, on the other hand, am within the embrace of the CFT, A Union of Professionals, and don’t see it that way at all. OK. Point taken.

  6. Paul Bruno (@MrPABruno) on Jul 11, 2013 at 11:02 pm07/11/2013 11:02 pm

    • 000

    My sense is that the “testing quandry” is really what’s giving the Board pause at this point:

    (I’d love to think dissenting voices and the various critiques of the NGSS were finally breaking through, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening.)

    A question, though: A few other states have already adopted the NGSS, and presumably have a similar problem in terms of existing tests not aligning well with the NGSS. What are they doing? Do they all have NCLB waivers? Are they testing science but not using it for accountability purposes (as NCLB allows)?


    • Kathryn Baron on Jul 12, 2013 at 12:19 pm07/12/2013 12:19 pm

      • 000

      Hi Paul,

      These are the 26 states represented in NGSS: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.

      Of those, Illinois and Iowa has waiver requests under review and California and Montana have no current requests for a waiver. California, as you know, had its first waiver application rejected; a current application from a group of 9 districts remains under review.

  7. Gary Ravani on Jul 11, 2013 at 6:09 pm07/11/2013 6:09 pm

    • 000

    What “whole language disaster” was that Ze’ev? And “federal..incompetence?” Weren’t you in the federal USDE a few years ago Ze’ev? Is that what your talking about?

  8. Ze'ev Wurman on Jul 11, 2013 at 3:16 pm07/11/2013 3:16 pm

    • 000

    Thanks, Kathryn, for the update. Not that it matters a lot.

    The State Board will approve the mediocre science standards after appropriate huffing and puffing. Just like it approved the mediocre ELA and math standards in 2010, and just as it dumbed down the math standards even more last Spring. Nothing new here.

    In a sense, I am happy. Since California has adopted its strong standards in 1997-98, the parental anguish across the state has considerably subsided. With the adoption of the Common Core (and NGSS, and whatever other gruel SBE and CDE will keep stuffing down our throats), we should prepare for a lot of screams and rebellion. So I stopped fighting it — the faster things will get worse, the faster they will get better.

    My only big disappointment is with people like Mike Kirst and Bill Honig. They have been around and if they have learned anything from that, they should have easily recognized federal and CDE incompetence. But they don’t. I just wonder if and when will Honig walk to Canossa again to apologize for the Common Core or NGSS … just like he did after he brought the Whole Language disaster on California.

  9. Aaron Glimme on Jul 11, 2013 at 11:52 am07/11/2013 11:52 am

    • 000

    As a high school science teacher I think it is very clear to say that there is nowhere near “nearly unanimous approval” of the new standards. A majority of the science teachers that I talk to have major issues with NGSS, there is plenty to like in them but throwing out the content of the current standards and focusing only on process is a huge mistake.

    Do our current standards need an update with more practice oriented items, definitely – but the new standards leave out most of the content that students need to make sense of new data that we want them to come up with. You cannot create new knowledge with out a solid understanding of the foundation you are building upon.

  10. Kim Bess on Jul 11, 2013 at 9:38 am07/11/2013 9:38 am

    • 000

    This article which presents the lone dissent of one teacher and the review of the Fordham Foundation, who’s review process has been seriously questioned, fails to provide an accurate picture of the nearly unanimous approval of K-12 teachers, the California Science Expert Panel, and university and business partners. Shameful reporting.

  11. Paul Muench on Jul 11, 2013 at 5:57 am07/11/2013 5:57 am

    • 000

    Good experimentation requires repetition. That can get dry quickly. For a hands on experience, it seems to me that kids are much more interested in designing and making things (engineering and technology). And we shouldn’t discount book learning as not real science. If a scientist repeats already established results he’s not practicing relevant science. This unfortunately does happen in the real world :)

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