Middle school science standards divide teachers

November 4, 2013

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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.


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.

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.

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