New approach to teaching science gets test run

September 2, 2015

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Ten school districts across California are riding another wave of education reform that could significantly change how a core subject is taught throughout the state – the Next Generation Science Standards.

Over the next three years the districts will lead the “California K-8 NGSS Early Implementation Initiative,” which will try out lesson plans, instructional materials and professional development programs aligned with the new science standards. Often compared with the Common Core standards for math and English language arts, the new science standards stress the deeper learning of broad scientific concepts over the memorization of facts, and place a greater emphasis on introducing students to the workplace practices of scientists and engineers.

“The idea is, you take a school or a district that’s willing to bleed on the cutting edge, and then share those lessons so the next district doesn’t have to bleed as much,” said Kathy DiRanna, statewide director for the K-12 Alliance, the teacher professional development organization that is spearheading the initiative. The K-12 Alliance is a division of the nonprofit research organization WestEd.

The hope is that lessons gleaned in these “early implementer” districts could be shared with other districts before students start taking new statewide science assessments slated for the spring of 2019.

“The idea is, you take a school or a district that’s willing to bleed on the cutting edge, and then share those lessons so the next district doesn’t have to bleed as much,” said Kathy DiRanna, statewide director for the K-12 Alliance.

While many states have not adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, California has been relatively quick to buy in. California was one of 26 states to participate in writing the new science standards, and is currently one of 15 states to adopt them. By contrast, 43 states have adopted and are implementing the Common Core.

Launched last summer, the early implementer initiative is just now kicking into high gear, with roughly 450 teachers attending training institutes orienting them to the new standards over the past two months.

San Diego and Oakland unified are the two largest districts participating. The others are the Southern California districts of Palm Springs Unified, Lakeside Union and Vista Unified, and the Central Valley districts of Kings Canyon Unified, Galt Union Elementary and Tracy Unified. Charter organizations Aspire and High Tech High are also participating. Collectively, these districts and charter organizations represent more than 200,000 students.

WestEd selected the pilot districts from a field of 27 applicants based on each district’s commitment to the new standards and its record of innovative science instruction. Factors such as whether the district had appointed a district-level science teacher on “special assignment” to assist other instructors, developed professional learning communities around science, and completed most aspects of Common Core implementation were considered in the selection process.

The four-year project is funded primarily by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, with additional support for charter school involvement from the Hastings/Quillin Fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Bechtel has awarded $6.6 million for the first two years, and based on the results of the pilot may consider additional funding for the latter two. The California Department of Education, the State Board of Education and the national education nonprofit Achieve, which helped develop the national standards in 2011, are also sponsors.

Initiative organizers hope the size and geographic diversity of the early implementer districts can build statewide momentum around the new standards, which for many districts has taken a backseat in the rush to implement the Common Core. While the State Board of Education adopted the Next Generation Science Standards in 2013, a recent review of California’s largest school districts found that less than a third mentioned training teachers on the new standards in their Local Control and Accountability Plans.

“Even in these districts that have chosen to do this, we are still sometimes fighting the battle with them that Common Core is important, but you signed up to say science matters,” said DiRanna, who has been advocating for changes in science curricula for more than two decades.

‘Teacher leaders’ to push new standards at schools

The impetus for the new science standards sprang from a growing consensus among educators and policymakers that K-12 science education was outdated and relied too much on rote memorization of facts.

The new standards, based on an academic framework created by the National Academy of Sciences, divides science instruction into three equally weighted dimensions:

The early implementer initiative hopes to alleviate concerns expressed by some teachers that the standards are confusing by appointing a “teacher leader” at nearly every participating school. Teacher leaders will serve as advocates for the new standards in their respective science departments, consulting with colleagues on reframing lesson plans, answering questions about the new standards and ensuring the new standards receive the same attention as the Common Core.

Over the last two months teacher leaders attended three early implementer institutes in Southern California, the Bay Area and the Central Valley. Many of the participating teachers were familiar with the key components of the standards but were eager to see specific lessons and activities.

“I know there will be some resistance,” said Loren Nikkel, an 8th-grade science teacher at Silas Bartsch K-8 School outside Fresno, who attended the early implementer institute at CSU Hayward. “When I was first given all the NGSS standards, just the way they’ve outlined them and structured them, it’s kind of confusing at first.”

Nikkel sat in on a workshop specially designed for 8th-grade science in which teachers acted as students in experiments and lessons aligned with the standards. In one example, teachers were asked to conduct a series of small experiments on gravity, including a replication of Galileo’s famous experiment dropping two objects of different masses to prove that gravity exerts an equal force on all objects.

While the experiment was 400 years old, the way in which students will be asked to conduct it may be new for many teachers. With little prior instruction about gravity and air resistance, teachers were put in groups to collaboratively speculate on the forces at play, and to draw their own diagrams illustrating those forces. While science teachers may have an easier time coming up with explanations than students, the point of the lesson was clear: let your students come to their own conclusions through experimentation and investigation, and then guide them to the key scientific facts afterwards.

“I’ve been using NGSS as a way of broadening my kids’ knowledge of science without just throwing facts at them,” Nikkel said. “We want to teach the kids the core ideas we want to connect together. Yes, you can memorize facts, but they’re just memorizing them for the test.”

As part of the early implementer initiative, Nikkel and three other teachers from the Kings Canyon district will co-teach a standards-aligned lesson they design, once in the fall and once in the spring. They will then report back to other teachers in the district on the success of the lesson plan, and what modifications could be made to improve it. More teacher institutes like those held this summer will be held in the summer of 2016.

In addition to the teacher leaders, the initiative has also assembled 10 “core leadership” teams each composed of nine teachers and three district administrators. These teams are intended to serve as de facto steering committees at the district level, and are required to work on incorporating the standards into their district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan. 

Early returns from Oakland

Oakland Unified in particular has been assertive in rolling out the standards in its classrooms, even prior to participating in the early implementer initiative.

Theresa Jeffrey-Clark, a 5th-grade teacher at Community United Elementary School in Oakland, started experimenting with lessons based on the new standards in 2011, just after the standards were published nationally.

Jeffrey-Clark, one of Oakland’s core leadership team members, said that some of the peculiarities of the standards still perplex her. She had to remove the words “atom” and “molecule” from her lessons on mixtures and solutions, as the new standards deem 5th grade too early to introduce that terminology to students.

But overall, she said, it looks like the standards are working in her classroom. She sees her students much more engaged in a hands-on, collaborative approach to science. And she counsels teachers to resist the urge to “broadcast” information to students, and instead help guide students to their own conclusions.

“You have to change from the teacher-led classroom to one where your students are collaborating and teaching each other,” Jeffrey-Clark said.

The battle for middle school science

Organizers of the early implementer initiative are paying particular attention to their pilot districts’ middle schools, where the new science standards are most controversial.

Historically, most California students took a discipline-specific science sequence in middle school – earth sciences in 6th grade, life sciences in 7th grade and physical sciences in 8th. But proponents of the new standards recommended replacing the sequential path in favor of an integrated model where elements from all three disciplines would be taught each year.

The State Board of Education ultimately approved two approaches schools could offer, one that was fully integrated and one that allowed for more discipline-specific instruction with a nod toward other subjects.

Early implementer districts were required to adopt the fully integrated model as a condition of being in the pilot program. But even if there was buy-in at the administrative level for the change, not every teacher is on board.

“What we’re finding is that not every teacher in the district has agreed to (the integrated curriculum),” DiRanna said. “They weren’t necessarily brought into the decision. There’s a little bit of helping them understand the rationale, helping them understand that it’s better for kids.”

Some teachers who participated in the early implementer training institute expressed concerns that veteran colleagues may resist teaching the integrated curriculum because they’ve taught the same scientific topic for decades.

Some of the dissension reminds DiRanna of her experience in 2013, when she participated in regional town halls introducing the new standards to science teachers. The meetings were often heated. Middle school biology teachers were particularly skeptical of abandoning the discipline-specific framework, she said.

DiRanna said that she empathizes with teachers reluctant to shift their instruction away from the subjects they enjoy teaching the most and toward subjects that may be new to them. But she argued that the common sense underlying an integrated approach eventually sways most teachers.

“How can you teach natural selection without teaching the Earth’s history?” asked DiRanna. “You can’t; you have to have both of them together. So one’s in earth science and one’s in life science and it’s stupid to say you have to teach them separately. I can’t think of anybody who would disagree with that statement.”

EdSource receives funding from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. EdSource maintains sole editorial control over the content of its coverage.

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