As California revamps how it teaches science to K-12 students, teachers are playing a bigger role in vetting the new instruction materials.
Adopting a new curriculum is no simple task, as the switch to Common Core nine years ago demonstrated. The materials a district selects will guide how teachers implement the state’s new science standards — and ultimately shape how students prepare for the state science test and, perhaps, a future science-based career.
“If the selection doesn’t work for teachers, then that’s a lot of money spent and it will be difficult for teachers to implement the new science standards,” said Anna Babarinde, curriculum coordinator for science at the Sonoma County Office of Education. The selection is especially crucial, she said, because the adoption cycle won’t repeat for several years.
In 2013, California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, new academic standards that emphasize hands-on projects and integrate several scientific disciplines. This past spring, the state began administering a new test aligned to the standards.
It wasn’t until last November, however, that California approved a list of science instruction materials for elementary and middle schools — affording districts little time to assess them before the new test rolled out. There is a separate evaluation process for high school materials.
“Teachers have said you’re asking me to teach things I don’t know and without any resources or information,” Babarinde said. “A lot of teachers have been holding off on full implementation of the standards until materials are adopted.”
Things are slowly starting to shift. Some California districts, including the ones that Babarinde works with, are beginning to sift through curriculum materials this year.
To evaluate science materials, education leaders are encouraging districts across the state to use a new rubric called the California Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Toolkit for Instructional Materials Evaluation, or TIME.
The initial version of the toolkit was designed so that any of the 19 states that have adopted the new science standards could use it. In California, it was refined to meet specific state standards by the NGSS Collaborative, which consists of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, California Department of Education, California Science Project, California Science Teachers Association and the K-12 Alliance at WestEd.
County offices of education in California are charged with leading workshops on the TIME framework to prepare teachers and administrators to select materials. While teachers were always involved in previous textbook adoptions, the TIME model aims to deepen teachers’ understanding of the new standards throughout the process.
The evaluation model builds in teacher preparation time, so it takes longer to complete the process than previous approaches, said Shawna Metcalf, president of the California Science Teachers Association. For example, when adoption committees meet to learn how to assess materials, they could receive lessons on implementation. The idea is that as they progress through the rubric, teachers refine their understanding about key shifts in the standards, such as centering lessons on everyday scientific experiences students might encounter.
“There are significant shifts in instructional strategies that are required to teach NGSS effectively. And to be blunt, there were a lot of mistakes with previous adoptions where they rushed through it and teachers realized they didn’t fully understand it,” said Metcalf, referring to the state’s most recent math curriculum adoption.
In 2010, California adopted the Common Core, new academic standards in English language arts and math. Similar to science, the new math standards also required dramatic changes in teaching styles.
But when districts selected new math textbooks, there wasn’t a strong emphasis on professional learning throughout the adoption process, according to Kathy DiRanna, statewide director of the K-12 Alliance at WestEd.
Common Core math standards required teachers to move away from memorization and focus on teaching a more conceptual understanding of math. Without enough preparation, the change caused confusion among some teachers and parents as the state switched to new math standards and a new math test.
As a result, DiRanna said, some districts adopted new math materials again once teachers had a better grasp of the standards.
“The math materials they were adopting addressed the standards but left out a lot about the instructional shift,” said DiRanna, who is on the executive committee for the NGSS Collaborative. “As teachers became more familiar on Common Core math, they realized their materials were lacking.”
The goal with the new science evaluation toolkit is to better prepare science teachers to select high-quality materials and use them, but some teachers are concerned about how long that in-depth process might take.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Jen Worstell, a 7th-grade math and science teacher at Piner-Olivet Union School District in Santa Rosa. “I really wish someone could say here are three great ones and try them out. To me, this is the work that a curriculum specialist would do. Not us.”
Another potential challenge is cost of attendance. Several county offices of education charge schools and districts to attend the TIME trainings. The San Joaquin County Office of Education, for example, requires $125 per person per day to attend the trainings, the same price of attending many other professional learning opportunities in the county. Kirk Brown, director of STEM for the county, believes the upfront investment in selecting materials “helps save money in the end.”
The TIME framework involves six broad steps. DiRanna estimates most districts can complete it within a year, but that timeframe can vary widely and some districts have not started the adoption process at all.
“The TIME rubric might take longer,” said Metcalf, “but it’s more likely to ensure we don’t have to backtrack and double up on adoption.”
This month Babarinde led a workshop with about 10 teachers and administrators in Sonoma County on the TIME model to get them started on textbook adoption. Out of 40 districts in Sonoma County, she said about 15 have started evaluating materials and few are close to a final selection.
At the workshop, Babarinde explained ways that the new standards differ from previous science instruction, such as centering lessons around students’ questions. To drive the idea home, teachers and principals at the workshop participated in an experiment in which they designed a parachute for a replica spacecraft to test how different materials might help land the device more safely.
“This is the science class I wish I had in middle school,” said Alex Finnegan, an 8th-grade math and science teacher at Piner-Olivet. “We think of a scientist as someone in a lab coat, but that’s not me. This type of lesson is science for the masses.”
While some teachers are already teaching the new science standards and have found free materials online, others are nervous entering another school year and preparing for the state science test without new materials — again.
“You can’t just learn information and regurgitate it on this test,” Babarinde said. “If a student hasn’t had practice with the new standards, it would be hard for them to pick that up.”
Even districts that had a head start on implementing the science standards are still in the early stages of adoption.
Vista Unified School District in San Diego County and Palm Springs Unified School District are both part of the California NGSS Early Implementation Initiative, a statewide project that aims to fast-track eight districts and two charter school management organizations in implementing the new standards. Both districts are using the TIME framework to evaluate science textbooks.
Vista Unified is aiming to begin reviewing materials next spring, then pilot materials in the fall of 2020 for grades K-8, according to Jeff Schmitz, NGSS resource teacher at the district. But those plans have already hit delays due to budget constraints, he said, which will make it difficult to pay for substitutes when teachers miss class to vet textbooks, or to purchase materials.
Palm Springs Unified has already adopted materials for middle school and officials said the district will start reviewing science programs for elementary grades this school year.
“This is not just about evaluating materials,” DiRanna said. “It’s an experience that allows you to plan for implementation and get everyone smarter along the way.”