Lawmakers advance standards

(Kathy and John combined efforts on this post.)

Heading into the final week of the session, the Legislature has sent bills to Gov. Brown that would revise state science standards and build a bridge to the approaching Common Core with instructional materials, curricula and professional development.

California will revise K-12 science standards for the first time since they were adopted 13 years ago, a light year in a fast-changing world.

The Assembly passed yesterday and forwarded to Gov. Brown SB 300, which will authorize Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to appoint a committee of experts, including elementary and secondary science teachers, school administrators, and university professors. Under a tight timeline, they will present the revised standards to the State Board of Education by March 2013, in order for for the Board to modify and adopt them by July 30, 2013, four months later. There will be at least two public meetings before then at which the public can comment on the standards.

SB 300, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Loni Hancock of Berkeley, was written by the California Science Teachers Association, which has been calling for standards revisions for years – and not only because they were outdated, without mention of stem cells and biotech. Many teachers have argued there are too many science standards, leading to too little opportunity for in-depth science exploration and little understanding of scientific concepts.

The division of opinion dates back to 1998 and a bitter split between scientists who favored an inquiry-based or hands-on approach to science education and those focused on a content-based curriculum. The latter, led by then 86-year old Nobel Prize winning physicist Glenn Seaborg, won out, and California’s science standards reflect that philosophy.

The pendulum is already swinging. SB 300 directs the new standards to be based on the Next Generation Science Standards, which will be the science version of the Common Core standards, a multistate effort, led by Achieve Inc. The standards will be an elaboration of the Framework for K-12 Education, written by the Board of Science Education of the National Research Council. In an interview in TOPed last month, the chairwoman of the board, Stanford physicist Helen Quinn, said that the new standards will provide a “coherence” and integration of core scientific ideas over multiple years that have been missing in the current state standards. The standards, she said, will focus on “crosscutting concepts” that stress similarities in the scientific method and approaches – analyzing data, developing models, defining problems, carrying out investigations – common to physical science, biology, and engineering.

California is competing to be named among a handful of states that will work with Achieve to create the standards. The winners were to be announced in August.

Among the critics of the new Frameworks is Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer from Palo Alto and former adviser to the U.S. Department of Education who helped write the state’s math curriculum frameworks. Wurman fears that the new standards will be light on actual science and heavy on science appreciation. The frameworks did not call for the application of mathematical equations and techniques; the lack of integrating algebra and trigonometry would appear to be a fundamental flaw that will produce “good consumers of science and technology,” rather than prepare them for training in actual science, Wurman wrote in a blog entry.

A head start on SMARTER Balanced

Lawmakers also sent Gov. Brown the first of three bills aimed at keeping the state one step ahead of planning for the coming of Common Core.

SB 140 by State Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) requires the State Department of Education and State Board of Education to compile a list of supplemental instructional materials for math and English language arts in elementary and middle school.

It’s a stop-gap measure to make sure students are prepared for the new tests, which will cover Common Core standards. Those exams could start in 2014, but the state isn’t scheduled to take up a full-blown textbook adoption until sometime after 2015.

An early iteration of the bill nearly died in a disagreement over eighth grade math. The State Board of Education last year approved two sets of math standards for grade eight: Common Core and Algebra I. SB 140 tried to include materials for both, but ran into several roadblocks. Critics said the dual standards could lead to tracking and revert to a time when schools had two sets of expectations, often based on race, ethnicity, or income.

The dispute was settled by removing eighth grade math from the bill. The final version covers English language arts for kindergarten through eighth grade and math for kindergarten through seventh grade.  State education officials want the State Board of Education to take a redo and adopt a single eighth grade math standard.

The California Department of Education has already started soliciting materials from publishers. Once that’s finished, the final list will go to the State Board for approval. But because these are supplemental materials, local districts aren’t restricted to the State Board’s list the way they are with textbook adoptions. Districts can choose their own materials as long as they cover the standards, or they can choose to do nothing.

Companion bills moving along

Two sister bills still in the legislative process would round out early preparation for the Common Core standards.

AB 250, by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), adds professional development and requires the State Board to adopt new curriculum frameworks and evaluation criteria that are aligned to the Common Core academic content standards. It also keeps the state’s STAR testing system in place for an extra year, when it will be replaced by the new assessments developed for Common Core.

Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) has the third leg of the stool. His bill, AB 124 , requires the state to convene a group of experts in English language instruction to ensure that the curriculum, materials, and assessments for English learners are aligned with the Common Core standards.

The two bills won’t come up for a floor vote until Monday at the earliest.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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