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