Brown saves ed bills for last

Kathryn Baron contributed to this article. See additional coverage today in TOPed.

Signatures and vetoes went flying out of the State Capitol over the weekend as Gov. Brown raced to meet the October 9 deadline to take action on all the bills passed by the Legislature. He signed three bills that will lead to significant changes in what students are taught in the classroom. Two will advance the process of adopting the Common Core standards in math and reading; the third will start the process of updating the state’s science curriculum. And he okayed bills making it easier for foster youth to enroll in college, allowing trained school staff to administer a life-saving drug for epileptic seizures, and giving the public more say in what school districts do to programs once protected by categorical funding that’s now available for general school use.

AB 250 (Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica): The State Board of Education adopted Common Core in August 2010. This bill sets out the timetable for creating curriculum frameworks, which will put muscle and flesh on the skeleton of the basic standards to better guide teachers on what students are expected to know. The math frameworks will be completed by May 30, 2013 and English language arts a year later. That in turn will lead to the process for textbook adoption. The bill also extends the contract for the current California Standards Tests through 2014, at which point, if all is on schedule, the new Common Core assessments being developed by a consortium of states will replace them.

SB 140 (Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach): The state is scheduled to start using the new Common Core assessments in 2014, one year before the State Board of Education is to formally adopt new textbooks aligned with Common Core standards. That’s clearly backwards, so SB 140 instructs the State Department of Education and the Board to compile a list of supplemental instructional materials for math and English language arts in elementary and middle school to use in the interim. Districts will have more flexibility than in the past in choosing materials; they’ll have a lot to choose from, since other states will be sharing what they’ve developed.

SB 300 (Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley): Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson will appoint a committee including elementary and secondary science teachers, school administrators, and university professors to revise science standards for the first time since they were created 13 years ago. Their product will go to the State Board no later than March 2013 for its approval by July 30, 2013. The new standards will be based on the Next Generation Science Standards and 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.

SB 161 (Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar): Until a few years ago, school nurses or trained teachers and staff administered a potentially life-saving emergency drug treatment to children suffering severe epileptic seizures. Nowadays, not only are school nurses a dying breed, but those remaining are no longer allowed to train anyone else to administer the drug, known as Diastat.

State law already allows teachers and staff to administer other emergency medications, but Diastat is different because it’s given rectally. SB 161 allows school staff to voluntarily take a course to learn how to administer Diastat with parents’ written consent.

AB 189 (Mike Eng, D-Monterey Park): Ever since the Legislature approved categorical flex starting in 2008, school districts have been able to take money that had been targeted for specific programs, like adult education, and put it into their general funds. Until now, the state hasn’t been able to track where the money is going and the public has had little say in what happens to categorical programs. AB 189 requires districts to hold public hearings when they propose eliminating categorical programs and creates a new resource code for reporting the expenditures to the state. The law also helps preserve some adult education programs by allowing districts to charge fees for classes in English as a second language and citizenship. AB 189 sunsets on July 1, 2015.

AB 194 (Jim Beall, D-San Jose): Foster youth have a dismal record of attending and completing college. About 20 percent of foster youth enroll in college, and barely 3 percent graduate. AB 194 requires the 112 community college campuses and California State University campuses to grant priority enrollment to current and former foster youth up through age 24, and urges the University of California to do the same. Supporters hope the new law will help keep foster youth in college by making it easier for them to get the classes they need to graduate, especially as budget cuts have forced public colleges to reduce the number of course sections they offer. The bill would sunset July 1, 2017.

Career tech, arts supporters at odds

In the zero-sum game that is California school funding, advocates for career technical education and  those favoring broadening college prep curriculum are battling over a bill that would modify graduation requirements. CTE’s  gain would be foreign language and arts instruction’s loss; at least that’s how AB 1330 is being framed.

The bill, by Assembly member Warren Furutani, D-Long Beach, would allow high school students to substitute a year-long CTE course for the high school graduation requirement of one year of either a foreign language or visual or performing arts.

The Legislature passed a similar bill last year, only for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, citing cost concerns, to veto it. With unanimous passage by the Assembly and approval expected this week in the Senate, Gov. Jerry Brown will have the final say. He has given no indication one way or the other.

The bill’s supporters call AB 1330 a modest bill that gives students, particularly those struggling with double math and English classes, a different option among the 13 courses that the state requires for a diploma. With more than 20 percent of students dropping out, starting in middle school, career tech and more traditional vocational courses resonate with some students who might otherwise quit school, said Fred Jones of Get REAL California, a coalition of employers, labor groups, and others concerned about CTE. Because CTE courses cannot be counted toward a degree, the number of offerings have continued to decline.

Backers actually would prefer requiring all students to take a year or two of CTE, but such a mandate would costs hundreds of millions of dollars. The Assembly Appropriations Committee estimated the cost of AB 1330 at about $2 million, mainly because districts would feel pressure to add CTE classes, though not mandated to under the bill.

But advocates of foreign languages and the arts worry that AB 1330 will pit CTE against them at a time when districts already have cut back on languages and arts offerings – substantially in some districts. They’ve done so in the past three years under rules that give districts spending flexibility. The Legislature should be encouraging creativity and multilingualism – skills prized in the new workplace – instead of shrinking offerings, they argue.

AB 1330 wouldn’t directly affect A-G, the 15 courses required for admission to the University of California and California State University campuses. UC and CSU would continue to require two years of foreign language and a year of arts classes.

But groups like Public Advocates and Education Trust-West, who call for more college opportunities for minority students, worry that students would have a harder time enrolling in required language and arts courses, particularly in low-income schools. They also are concerned that students would take CTE courses, not knowing that many do not fulfill an A-G requirement, and would find themselves a course or two shy come graduation.

“Research shows that the biggest barrier for students in meeting their A-G benchmarks in the 12th grade was often the completion of the visual or performing arts course requirement,” said an action alert by a coalition of AB 1330 opponents, citing survey results of Los Angeles students in 2007.

The bill would require a study of the impact on foreign languages and the arts by 2016.

Leveling up STEM’s playing field

Low-income, minority students with good grades and high, if vague, aspirations of a career in science, engineering, or technology, face a gauntlet of challenges between the first day of high school and the last day of college. No wonder so many fall by the wayside.

There’s the illusion of rigor from doing well in weak schools; there’s the scarcity of guidance counseling and ignorance of college entrance requirements; there’s peer influence, distractions, and financial pressure to work. Then, when they get to college, there’s loneliness, insecurity, and often the stark realization of holes in their academic preparation for majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

There’s all that, but then there’s SMASH Academy – an intensive three-year summer program for minority students run by the Level Playing Field Institute in San Francisco that does just what the nonprofit’s name implies: The program is proving to be a great equalizer and confidence builder for students whose talents need to be nurtured and reinforced.

Last month, SMASH completed its eighth year at UC Berkeley and its first year at Stanford. For five weeks at each campus, 80 high school students heading into their sophomore, junior, and senior years took five hours of classes daily – high school math and science prep courses in the morning, and integrated math-science classes and hands-on learning in the afternoon. In the evenings and on weekends, they were mentored in the dorms by graduate students who had been in their shoes and could share their experiences and successes in college.

David Sanchez, left, and Ruben Tapia, first-year SMASH scholars at Stanford (Fensterwald photo).
David Sanchez, left, and Ruben Tapia, first-year SMASH scholars at Stanford (Fensterwald photo).

It’s a competitive program, with three applicants for every spot, and results have been encouraging. Ninety-four percent of students have completed the three-year program over the past six years; 90 percent have gone on to college. The Level Playing Field Institute says that between 55 and 60 percent major in a STEM field; 70 percent are the first from their families to go to college; 70 percent are low-income.

Out of the 23 who graduated high school this year, all will go to college, with some headed to Stanford, Cal, UCLA, MIT, UC Davis, Middlebury College, Drexel, and George Washington University.

Some might have ended up there anyway, with the encouragement of a special teacher and the prodding of persistent parents. These are bright kids.

But most would not have without the SMASH experience, says Robert Schwartz, the program’s executive director. “These are high-potential students in low-performing schools; most would go to a lesser-quality four-year school. They’re getting 3.8 grade point averages but would have gotten 2.8 at Palo Alto High. They’ve never been challenged as they need to be challenged,” he says.

Schwartz recruits students through math and science teachers at low-income high schools and by word of mouth. Students must have a B average in math and science; most have taken geometry in ninth grade.

But grades can be deceiving. Schwartz says that only 45-50 percent of the students arrive proficient in geometry. SMASH identifies gaps that must be filled for students to complete high school ready for a STEM major. And it asks the bigger question, What do students need to be successful in college that they’re not getting in their high schools?

A full immersion in college

They take public speaking and classes in analytical writing; they form study groups and figure out how to navigate a big university campus and use its resources. They learn how to use the software Prezi to make class presentations. And in classes that combine math and science, they put STEM to work solving problems.

The first year students use math to model the transmission of HIV infections. To do that, they first analyze a famous research paper by Dr. Reuben Granich showing how HIV testing and antiviral therapy can thwart the spread of AIDS. For rising sophomores, it’s a mind stretch.

Students at Cal met with professors who talked about their work and careers. At Stanford, students shadowed grad students doing research.

But much of the learning takes place at the dorm, where their Residential Advisors tell what it’s like majoring in science and where they confront their doubts.

“I thought of Stanford as just for white people with money,” said David Santos, whom I met at the end of the program celebration outside the Mudd Chemistry Building at Stanford. “I saw  graduate students of color doing research and making presentations.”

David, who is entering his sophomore year at KIPP King Collegiate Academy in San Lorenzo, wants to study neurology “and how the brain works,” an interest since a sixth grade trip to a museum. As with most of the scholars, David had not been to a summer camp. SMASH was his first lengthy time away from home. By the time he goes to college, he will have lived 15 weeks – nearly a semester – on a campus already.

And he will have spent that time – and monthly meetings during the year – forming friendships with students with ambitions of college. For Ruben Tapia, an aspiring engineer from San Jose, that’s a contrast from Mount Pleasant High, where “there are always two or three in a class who try to bring you down, tell you not to do the work because it doesn’t matter.”

“It’s easier to work with kids here. They are also motivated,” he said.

Silicon Valley tech pioneer Mitch Kapor and his wife, Freada, created SMASH Academy based on a summer program for minority students at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, and they have been its primary financial backers. The cost of the summer program at each campus is between $500,000 and $700,000, with an additional $2 million to run Level Playing Field Institute.

There are plans to expand to Los Angeles, at UCLA and USC, next year and to Yale, if alumni donors can be found. Beyond that, SMASH may go nationwide in five years.

Producing enough minority engineers, scientists, and technologists may depend on it.

Freshmen step up to science

Trustees of East Side Union High School District in San Jose voted earlier this year to make the 15 courses required for admission to a four-year state university the district’s standard curriculum.

That was the easy part.

Preparing and guiding the predominantly low-income students in the state’s second largest high school district to succeed with higher standards will take a long-term commitment, raised expectations, and more resources in an era of less public money for schools.

Over the summer, the 19,000 student district took an initial step: Stepping Up to Science, a four-week preview to Biology for up to 200 incoming ninth graders at four of the 11 high schools in the district. For many, it was the first exposure to hands-on science they had missed in middle school. For some, it was a clean break from the self-reinforced view of their own failure in middle school.

The curriculum was designed by science teachers in the district; the program, which will include three years of training that will reach all of East Side Union’s 120 science teachers, was co-funded by National Semiconductor and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. The Foundation, which had championed the adoption of A-G and promised trustees that it would help them make A-G work, administered the program.

It’s a smart idea. As my colleague at the Foundation, Vice President Manny Barbara, put it, by filling in gaps of knowledge that teachers know the students have, Stepping Up to Science “front-loads students instead of waiting for them to fail and then doing remediation.”

For East Side Union, the adoption of A-G will require a switch from Integrated Science to Biology as the standard course for ninth graders – “a huge increase in rigor,” said Paul Kilkenny, the district’s science subject area coordinator. For decades, the district limited access to biology and chemistry, resulting in a de facto tracking system of Latino and African American students. Integrated science, a non-lab survey course that’s heavy on earth science, has not engaged students or attracted the district’s best science teachers, Kilkenny said.

Standardized tests results verify that it’s a dead-end option. In 2011, 43 percent of East Side Union’s ninth graders took Integrated Science, with only 17 percent testing proficient or advanced; 31 percent took biology, with 60 percent proficient or advanced; one school offered physics in ninth grade; 14 percent took no science class at all.

David Porter, whom I can attest is a fine teacher, said he taught 10 sections of Integrated Science, with three-quarters of the students failing and 50 percent repeating the course in tenth grade.

“I tried to kill Integrated Science six years ago,” he said. Porter is the science department chairman at James Lick High School, which, under Principal Glenn Vander Zee, has pushed all students to take biology in ninth grade. It’s been a struggle; 70 percent took it in 2011, but only 22 percent were proficient or advanced on the California Standardized Test.

Kilkenny knows biology for all will be a stretch. Students coming from middle schools feeding into schools like James Lick that were designated Program Improvement under No Child Left Behind had double courses in math and English. Science was squeezed out, because it assigned less of a weight on a school’s API score. The incoming students had never used a microscope, made observations, and organized data. The vocabulary of science was a foreign language; science for them had been largely memorization.

A new start for low achievers

Each of the four high schools could choose eligibility criteria. James Lick chose students who had tested below basic and far below basic – the lowest performers in middle school, not the ones on the cusp of academic success.

These were kids “who needed a new start to school in a subject they had not had before,” Vander Zee said.

Or, as Porter put it, “These are students who already assumed they would be failures in high school – and were expecting to have that view of themselves  reinforced.”

James Lick science teacher David Porter explains how to measure output from photovoltaic cells. (Fensterwald photo)
James Lick science teacher David Porter explains how to measure output from photovoltaic cells. (Fensterwald photo)

Porter was a lead writer of the summer curriculum. The idea, he said, was to expose students in depth to a few concepts – DNA, cells, photosynthesis – to get them to make observations, draw conclusions, and write them up in coherent sentences. At the end of four weeks of five-hour days, lab work wouldn’t be new or confusing, and their newfound confidence would rub off on others in their class in the fall. At least that was the hope.

It wasn’t easy. Between no-shows, quitters, and behavior problems, one of the two classes at Lick was down from 25 to 13 students by the third week; attendance at Porter’s class was steadier.

And there were breakthroughs.

On the day that I visited, students were calculating the voltage of photovoltaic cells under a hot July sun. They had to read instructions to connect the voltage meter and attach extra photovoltaic cells in a series, experiment to get the optimum angle of exposure to the sun, then graph the results to see if there was enough electricity to light a light bulb and if the additional cells proved their hypothesis that they would generate more power.

In the classroom, Porter helped them make the connection between photovoltaic cells and the photosynthesis they’ll study in biology.

For Isael Navarrete, all of the hands-on work with the equipment “makes sense to me” – something that didn’t happen in middle school, where “you didn’t get to do the real stuff.” As an English learner, he has struggled with reading and writing. But he had no trouble following the instructions, which intuitively came to him.

“Isael has logical thinking,” Porter said. “Following procedures is simple for him. He can watch a lab once and get it.”

Isael’s aunt is a nurse and has interested him in becoming a doctor. He’ll enter James Lick believing – perhaps for the first time – that it’s possible.

Kilkenny acknowledged there was a high attrition rate, but no worse than the average for summer school. Most students continued to come to class for noncredit work; an informal assessment found that two-thirds of the students were kinesthetic learners, “yet we continue to lecture to them,” he said.

Harder data on the course will be available next month; the district plans to track the students’ progress in biology.

Porter is already confident enough to start planning  the next step: Stepping Up to Chemistry, with the goal of introducing it at James Lick next summer.

In coming days: Most of the state’s 30 largest school districts cut back – while a few  expanded – summer school this year, according to  an EdSource survey. Also, a look at SMASH, an overnight summer program at Stanford and Cal for promising minority high school students.

A plan to reinvigorate science ed

A new report by the National Research Council offers an alternative approach than that which many states, including California, have taken toward science education. The Council, affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, released “A Framework for K-12 Science Education” earlier this month. Its broad goal, according to the report, is that by the end of 12th grade,all students, not just those pursuing careers in science and engineering, should have gained sufficient knowledge of the practices and core ideas of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on science-related issues, to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives, and to continue to learn about science throughout their lives.”

Helen Quinn (Dan Quinn photo)
Helen Quinn (photo by Dan Quinn)

I asked Helen Quinn, who chaired the Council’s Board on Science Education, to explain the report and its significance. Quinn is a physics professor emeritus at Stanford University.

What is the framework and why is a new one needed?

The framework is a guiding document on what every student needs to learn about science. It will inform the development of the “Next Generation Science Standards” by a multistate partnership led by Achieve Inc. It is hoped that these standards will play a similar role for science education to that the Common Core standards are playing for mathematics and language arts, with many states choosing to adopt them. California is one of about 20 states that have applied to be partners in this development process.

What distinguishes this from previous frameworks and the guidance it gives to standards? How might science be taught differently in California based on the new framework, assuming the state participates in adopting eventual standards and assessments?

In the 15 years or so since the first round of science standards were developed, much has been learned. Science has advanced, the world has changed, we understand better what makes for effective science learning, and we understand better how standards affect instruction, so it is time to reexamine and update previous documents at the national level.

For California in particular, the difference lies in stressing the coherent development of understanding of a limited number of core disciplinary ideas over multiple years, and the integration of learning and using science practices and crosscutting concepts with the learning of those ideas. Current California standards lack this coherence and integration.

The report mentions that educators have new insights into how students learn science. Can you cite an example?

The research on learning progressions, summarized in the NRC report “Taking Science to School” and its companion volume for teachers “Ready Set Science,” shows that children learn best when their prior conceptions or level of understanding is taken into account and they experience a set of learning opportunities designed to help them change those understandings over time toward a more scientific perspective. Both of these reports can now be downloaded free of charge from the National Academies.

The report talks a lot about the need for coherence in learning. Please explain.

Coherence means designing student experiences both within a single subject area or course and across courses (horizontally at any given time, and vertically, i.e., from year to year) to work together to help students make sense of the new knowledge and build it into their mental model of the world, rather than seeing each lesson as a separate bit of information to be remembered.

The report refers to three dimensions:

  • Crosscutting concepts that unify the study of science and engineering through their common application across fields;
  • Scientific and engineering practices; and
  • Core ideas in four disciplinary areas: physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering/technology.

Let’s talk about each. What are crosscutting concepts and why are they important? Let’s pick one – patterns or cause and effect – and illustrate how it might apply across all disciplines?

These concepts are a core part of the way scientists look at the world, and they apply in all of science. They look at patterns in events or objects because they recognize that the patterns of similarity and difference, of repetition or variation, are often things that raise questions that can help us learn something new. This is true across disciplines, in life sciences (for example in categorizing plants into families based on patterns in their appearance, or in their genes); in earth sciences (for example patterns of folding and faulting in rock formations can help uncover the geological history of a region); in physical science (patterns of similarity in chemical behavior led to the development of the periodic table, which led to the discovery of further elements that complete the pattern), and even in engineering, where patterns of failure help identify weaknesses of a design.

Likewise in every area of science scientists look for explanations of the mechanisms that underlie cause-and-effect relationships between events. For students, stress on these commonalities can help them recognize the unity of science, which otherwise seems to be a set of disconnected topics.

Scientific and engineering practices are critical to understanding science yet are often lost, particularly in early grades, in a fact-based curriculum. What are they and how might they be integrated into the classroom?

We define a set of eight practices (see below) that scientists and engineers use iteratively and recursively as they work to understand a particular system or develop a particular design. Interestingly, six of the eight are common to science and engineering. Only for two did we need to differentiate what scientists and engineers do. Research shows that students need to engage in these practices as they seek to understand science concepts and also to understand the nature of science itself.

Let’s take one of the eight practices. Please illustrate how it might be integrated at various grades in a particular discipline or across a discipline.

Let us consider the practice of developing explanations, together with that of argument from evidence. If a student is asked to give her own explanation of a phenomenon, and to argue how the evidence supports her explanation, then three things happen. First, the student begins to recognize for herself where the explanation and the evidence are not consistent, and thus sees the need for a change in her ideas about what is going on. Second, other students learn and modify their own perceptions of the situation as they too engage in argumentation to support or critique the proffered explanation. Third, the teacher gets rich information about what the students have and have not yet understood about the topic.

This can occur in a first grade classroom or in a 10th grade one. Of course the level of explanation and of argumentation about it, as well as the aspects of the topic being discussed, will be different. Just as students progressively develop understanding of core ideas, so they progressively develop understanding of how to formulate and present their ideas, and how to engage in a process of argument from evidence that has its own norms of behavior.

What are the four core disciplines, and why was engineering and technology included among them? Please explain some core ideas in one of the disciplines.

We chose to organize core disciplinary ideas by broad disciplinary areas rather than by separating disciplines (e.g., physics and chemistry as physical sciences, biology and ecology as life sciences), because we think it reflects a more modern view of the interrelationships of the disciplines and provides for a more coherent description of what every student should learn. We added “engineering, technology, and the applications of science” because we recognized that a focus on the core ideas of the disciplines leaves out the important role that science plays in our world through its applications, via engineering, to development of new technologies, and the role that technology plays in science through the tools it gives us.

We felt that the understanding of the role of science in the human-designed world is as important for students to understand as its role in the study of the natural world. Actually this linkage existed in prior documents at the national level as well, but has not been fully realized in the way these documents have been implemented in the classroom in most states. Some states, for example Massachusetts, already include engineering in their science standards.

How open was the process in determining the frameworks and what are the next steps?

While National Research Council committees work in a closed fashion, we made every effort to get external input to our work, both via presentations made to the committee in open sessions, and via the unusual step (for NRC studies) of presenting a preliminary draft of the central content of the framework for public comment a year ago. We not only had an open web-based response alternative, but also organized multiple focus groups and asked many experts to give us detailed written input. This step was very useful, and there are many things that changed between the preliminary draft and the final report because of the thoughtful responses that we received.

What are the advantages of having many states adopt the frameworks and common standards? Why should California be interested in them?

There are advantages for states working together in that there are many elements of the system, such as assessments, where there can be economies of scale by using a common set, rather than each state developing its own. Also, given the mobility of the U.S. population, there are advantages as many students move between states; a common set of expectations across states makes it easier for schools to absorb and serve these students, and obviously is better for the students themselves.

* The eight practices are 1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering); 2. Developing and using models; 3. Planning and carrying out investigations; 4. Analyzing and interpreting data; 5. Using mathematics and computational thinking; 6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering); 7. Engaging in argument from evidence; 8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

Math gap starts early, persists

The disparities in math achievement among California students in seventh grade were evident five years earlier, when they were in second grade. An obvious – and not surprising – implication, according to EdSource, which examined the data: To prepare students for algebra in eighth grade and a college degree in the sciences and engineering, focus on preschool and interventions in early grades.

In “California’s Math Pipeline: Success Begins Early,” EdSource found that 53 percent of seventh graders in 2010 were either proficient in the seventh grade Californian Standards Tests or were enrolled in Algebra I – evidence of advanced math skills. This was about the same as the 56 percent math proficiency they demonstrated as second graders in 2005.

With a few notable exceptions, the disparities in scores among ethnic and racial groups that first appeared in second grade persisted in seventh (see graph).

Comparison of math proficiency in seventh grade and as second graders five years earlier. Click to enlarge. (EdSource)
Comparison of math proficiency in seventh grade and as second graders five years earlier. Click to enlarge. (EdSource)

As second graders, the proficiency gap between Asian and Latino students was 34 percentage points. Five years later, it was 39 percent. And it was worse with African American students, whose proficiency rate fell significantly from second to seventh grade. Nearly a quarter of Asian students took Algebra I in seventh grade – an impressive number – 2 ½ times the percentage of whites and seven times the rate of Latinos. (A previous EdSource study found inconsistencies among and within districts in deciding which students would take algebra in eighth grade.)

Stubborn achievement gap notwithstanding, the 5-page EdSource brief had good news, too. Between 2003 and 2010, the rate of  all students testing proficient or advanced for each of the four primary ethnic and racial groups had increased significantly. The overall rate was 9 percentage points higher (62 versus 53 percent).  The proficiency rate jumped 10 percentage points in seven years for Asian and African American students, 7 percentage points for Latinos, but only 5 percentage points (from 71 to 76 percent) for white second graders.

The sobering news is that Latinos and African Americans were more still likely to score below or far below basic in 2010 than Asians or whites were in 2003. The gap persists.

There are limitations in making CST comparisons across grades in California, as the brief points out. Because the state’s student longitudinal data system – CALPADS – isn’t fully functional yet, one can’t follow individual students statewide, although districts have the ability to follow their own students. And the tests themselves don’t lend themselves to fine-tuned comparisons over time. Nonetheless, the EdSource data do provide useful “snapshots.”

EdSource, the Mountain View-based nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization, notes that California lacks a common measure and statewide data on kindergarten readiness (one justification for seeking  early education Race to the Top money). But studies of individual counties and school districts suggest that “the achievement gaps that exist between student groups in 2nd grade are foreshadowed at kindergarten entry.”

With nearly 40 percent of second graders in 2010 English learners (mainly Spanish speakers), interventions in early years should focus on the literacy challenges for English learners of understanding math concepts and vocabulary, the brief notes.

EdSource researchers also held out the hope that the newly adopted Common Core standards, with emphasis on developing “not only skill in carrying out mathematical procedures, but also strong understanding of math concepts and how they relate to one another,” could improve math achievement. And the brief pointed to another potentially useful development: two new math specialization certifications being developed for elementary teachers holding their multi-subject credentials.

Computer programming should qualify as foreign language for UC

In 2002, ten African American and 39 Latino students enrolled and declared a Computer or Information Sciences major at all of the University of California schools. Six years later, eight African American and 25 Latino students graduated with that degree, according to UC’s office of the President. There is clearly an opportunity gap for students of color in computer science.

In Silicon Valley, across California, and around the nation, there is a vast shortage of computer programmers in the tech industry. Tech companies have had to rely on outsourcing their programming needs. Meanwhile, high schools in California and across the country are being chastised for not preparing students, particularly students of color, to be able to major in STEM fields in college – what the need for outsourcing is blamed on. What if a simple change by the UC system could help bridge this gap?

Recently, I took the introductory Rails for Zombies course for Ruby on Rails. Ruby, as it is known, is one of the newest and fastest growing programming languages on the web. I was a double major in college – biology and classical languages – and have always loved learning new languages. That’s all Ruby on Rails is, after all. There is unique vocabulary, confusing punctuation, and alien grammar. Ruby is replete with idioms, synonyms, and shortcuts that only those entrenched in the language understand. It is very much a foreign language.

The UC system should be innovative and grant high school students credit for learning a computer language as their “E” requirement of 2 years of a “Language Other Than English.” All California high school students, in order to be “UC eligible” (a standard supported by most educators in California), must complete a series of courses at their high school deemed the “A-G” requirements.

  • A = 2 years of History/Social Science
  • B = 4 years of English
  • C = 3 years of college prep math (4 recommended)
  • D = 2 years of lab science (3 recommended)
  • E  = 2 years of language other than English (3 recommended)
  • F = 1 year of visual and performing arts
  • G = 1 year of a college prep elective (computer science currently fits in here)

The UC approves high school courses to fit in each of the categories for individual high schools through a process that involves the submission of a detailed course syllabus by each school for each course. Statewide, only 35 percent of students complete a-g requirements upon graduation (by subgroup: Whites: 41 percent, Asians: 59 percent, Latinos: 26 percent, African Americans: 27 percent).

I see the potential of affluent districts rushing to implement a policy such as this while lower-income districts struggle to find the resources (human and technological). In order to ensure that this is fairly and equitably implemented and to monitor its impact, begin it as a pilot program in high schools with the lowest percentages of A-G eligibility. In this way it can tackle three issues together: (1) opportunity and achievement gap; (2) increasing need for computer programmers; (3) the lack of diversity in the tech industry.

Tech companies should then adopt districts and provide them with their slightly used computers expressly for the purpose of teaching computer science. They should also think about dedicating an employee to oversee the program and teach the courses. One teacher/tech employee can reach almost 200 students a year. If that’s not building a diverse pipeline in tech, I don’t know what is. Companies would probably need to release that employee only once or twice a week as online programming courses continue to pop up and the programmer could pop in to provide targeted guidance for the school and students and answer questions remotely. If I’m pushing 40 and can learn Ruby using an online course, I’m sure any 15-year-old can.

Computer Science provides students with marketable skills other languages do not while still providing the same cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language. Empowered with computer science skills, students will see a path forward in college and career in one of the highest paying and fasting growing job sectors.

Robert Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Level Playing Field Institute, a San Francisco-based non-profit that promotes innovative approaches to education and the workplace by removing barriers to full participation  by underrepresented groups. He spent the three years before that as Chief Academic Officer for ICEF Public Schools in South Los Angeles. Prior to that, Robert taught middle school science in East and South Los Angeles. He earned his EdD in Urban Educational Leadership from USC.

FORUM: testing science

Should science be tested as frequently on statewide standardized tests as English language arts and math?

That’s one of a package of recommendations in “Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” a report issued last month by the National Research Council. Annual testing is a controversial issue, so I turned to four authorities in education for their opinions: Christopher Roe, CEO of the California STEM Learning Network; James Lanich, director of education policy and research at California Business for Education Excellence; Elizabeth Stage, the director of Lawrence Hall of Science, the public science center at University of California Berkeley; and Jessica Sawko, executive director of the California Science Teachers Association.

Science currently is tested in fifth, eighth, and tenth grades, and there are end-of-course exams in Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Physics, and Integrated Science.

The report offers five proposals for schools and districts to improve K-12 education:

  • Consider all three models of STEM-focused schools described in the report to meet the various goals for STEM education.
  • Devote adequate instructional time and resources to science in grades K–5.
  • Ensure that STEM curricula are focused on the most important topics in each discipline and are rigorous.
  • Enhance the capacity of K–12 teachers.
  • Provide instructional leaders with professional development that helps them to create the school conditions that appear to support student achievement.

As for annual testing …

Jessica Sawko: Measure practice, not recall

In “Successful K-12 STEM Education,” the National Research Council (NRC) suggests that “policy makers at national, state, and local levels should elevate science to the same level of importance as reading and mathematics.” The report goes on to suggest that “science should be assessed with the same frequency as mathematics and literacy, using a system of assessment that supports learning and understanding. Such a system is not currently available. Therefore, states and national organizations should develop effective systems of assessment … that emphasize science practices rather than mere factual recall.” (emphasis added)

Additionally, the report recommends to districts that they “should devote adequate instructional time and resources to science in grades K-5.” The California Science Teachers Association has long advocated for performance-based assessments and that the science framework must include required instructional minutes for science in grades K-6. See our Recommendations for Science Education.

However, using assessments to drive instruction, as suggested in the report, is not a good  pedagogical approach to use for teaching children. High-stakes assessments have not had a positive effect on student learning, as demonstrated by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results cited in the report stating that “roughly 75 percent of U.S. 8th graders are not proficient in mathematics when they complete 8th grade” – this despite years of rigorous testing. The California Science Teachers Association appreciates the NRC’s recommendation that the currently available assessment formats are not conducive to teaching and learning; applauds the report’s recommendation that the standards should “emphasize science practices rather than mere factual recall”; and supports the recommendation that teachers be supported with professional development and training.

Jessica Sawko is executive director of the California Science Teachers Association.

James Lanich: Tests are a good return on investment

The California Business for Education Excellence Board is in complete support of the recommendations of the National Research Council to test science learning as frequently as math and reading.

California’s business community is committed to closing the achievement gap as both a civil rights issue and an economic productivity imperative for the state. Without the information learned from comprehensive standardized tests (at a minimum) there is no logical way to forge any policy recommendations based upon what kids know and are able to do and what they don’t know. We simply need much more math, much more reading, and much more science taught in our schools in order to stay internationally competitive as a workforce. Understanding what is and is not working through a comprehensive testing system which includes science is a necessary component to diagnose weaknesses and strengths of our educational enterprise. With a very small percentage of instructional hours spent on standardized testing (only a few percent annually) the return on investment for those hours spent is enormous.

The persistence of educational achievement gaps in reading, math, and science “imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession costing the economy trillions of dollars in lost GDP,” according to a recent McKinsey & Company study. The Public Policy Institute of California in a recent study estimated that by the year 2025, our state will be one million baccalaureate degrees short of the demands of the economy. Meanwhile, college remediation for underprepared high school graduates costs the state higher education system and its students $274 million annually. Given this economic scenario, adding science to our testing agenda should be a no brainer.

Of course, testing without accountability does very little to drive the necessary changes in teacher practice in the classroom.  In California, we have been testing science in grades 5, 8, and 10. However, with the minuscule weighting factors associated with science performance results on the state’s Academic Performance Index (API), there is little to no incentive for schools to improve science instruction. California’s accountability system should reflect science as important.

The California business community supports a collective urgency and unified voice to seek policies and solutions such as the National Research Council recommendations to fix this problem.

James Lanich is director of education policy and research for California Business for Education Excellence.

Elizabeth Stage: Next generation of standards coming

The NRC Report recommends changes in the frequency and qualities of science assessment. It is interesting to speculate on the impact of more frequent science testing; I hope that it leads to more science instruction; that would be a good thing. It is even more promising to consider the alignment of science testing with the “next generation science standards.” Specifically, the NRC recommends that science assessment should emphasize science practices rather than mere factual recall.

What are “science practices”? Some are familiar, such as asking questions, devising testable hypotheses, and interpreting evidence. The wonderful addition to this list is “Constructing and Critiquing Arguments,” virtually absent from California’s current standards, assessments, and classroom instruction.

My favorite element in this category is “Constructs arguments which are supported by empirical rather than personal data and warrants, and defends arguments with reasoning when questioned.” The intent here is a much more powerful idea than our current science standards that ask students to “Differentiate evidence from opinion and know that scientists do not rely on claims or conclusions unless they are backed by observations that can be confirmed.” Nowhere are students asked to construct arguments or identify flaws in their own arguments or the arguments of others; that is certainly a life skill worth learning by the end of high school.

Once the “next generation science standards” are finalized sometime in 2012, if the State Board of Education adopts them and we teach students this important practice, we’re on the way to improving public discourse. If we can show teachers, parents, and students that we value this goal by testing it, that would be outstanding!

Elizabeth Stage is the director of Lawrence Hall of Science, the public science center at University of California Berkeley.

Christopher Roe: End second-class treatment

I am pleased to see the esteemed National Academies’ much needed report on effective approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Among its key findings and bold recommendations, the report highlights the fact that science has received short shrift under No Child Left Behind, and points to shocking findings here in Northern California about the paucity of time spent teaching science in our elementary schools.

It’s hard to imagine how our students will develop the critical understanding of and interest in science given its second-class treatment in classrooms. The report further recommends that policymakers elevate science to the same level of importance as math and reading. We have a historic opportunity to make that happen through the long-stalled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the imminent release of new science standards.

One important step would be for Californians to demand that new assessments for science be developed in unison with the planned Common Core assessments for math and reading. These tests should not merely test students’ ability to recall important facts, but should measure their ability to understand and apply key scientific concepts. Every student in California deserves to have a high-quality education that includes science.

But we also know that is not sufficient. As the report rightly points out, “effective STEM education should actively engage students in science, mathematics and engineering practices throughout their schooling” in order to build on students’ inherent interests. I would include technology in that mix as well. However, none of this will be possible if teachers don’t get the adequate training and resources to make learning applied and real. California, with former science teacher Tom Torlakson as our new state Superintendent, and as a new governing member of the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, has a golden opportunity to make this a reality.

Christopher Roe is CEO of the California STEM Learning Network.

Money for green-tech academies

Gov. Jerry Brown this week signed legislation that at least will protect high school green-tech career academies from a state budget implosion and will even expand the number over the next few years. Doing so took some creative thinking from the bill’s sponsor, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

SBX 1-1 will direct $40 million over five years from a fund for conservation and alternative energy uses financed by a tiny surcharge ($.0003 per kilowatt-hour) on utility bills. The money will sustain 45 partnership academies that are teaching job skills, hands-on learning, and academics in areas that many are betting will drive California’s economy in coming decades: solar and alternative energy, energy conservation, and clean technologies. There will also be enough to start 42 new academies – three-year small schools, generally serving between 200 and 250 students, within comprehensive academies. In total, up to 28,000 students, many of them at risk of dropping out, are projected to go through the programs.

Former Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year, claiming the use of ratepayer money for a K-12 program set a “dangerous precedent.” But labor and education groups, along with PG&E, backed it, citing the nexus between the conservation fund and critical workforce preparation. Few Republicans supported the bill, which required only a majority vote.

If only saving other K-12 programs were so easy.

I, II punch of algebra proficiency

If only Aristotle were around to argue the case for Early Algebra I, the debate might not be so….litigious. Here’s the gist of a quasi-syllogism based on results of the 2009 NAEP High School Transcript Study by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics: High school graduates who took a rigorous curriculum earned the highest scores on the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP); nearly two-thirds of students who completed a rigorous curriculum in high school took Algebra I in 8th grade; therefore, students who take Algebra I in 8th grade are more likely to earn the highest scores on NAEP.

Hey, I said quasi. It’s not that simple, and it’s not universal. Not all students do well, or even pass, Algebra I in 8th grade. And some who do squeak by so narrowly that they opt out of geometry and Algebra II, two of the a-g courses required for admission to the University of California or California State University. And many aren’t even given the chance to take it in middle school. “A student should be prepared by 8th grade to master algebra standards; unfortunately not all students have access to algebra,” said Linda Murray, a superintendent in residence at The Education Trust-West, where she’s working with districts to identify where students are “hitting the wall” in Algebra I and to develop interventions to keep them from spiraling down.

NCES findings

Increases in numbers of students taking rigorous STEM courses.  Chart from the NCES 2009 NAEP high school transcript study
Increases in numbers of students taking rigorous STEM courses. Chart from the NCES 2009 NAEP high school transcript study. (Click to enlarge)

First, a little more about the NCES study. Researchers examined a nationally representative sample of the 2009 transcripts of 37,700 high school graduates. They compared them to 1990 transcript studies for number of courses, rigor of those courses, and differences in race, ethnicity, gender, and parents’ level of education. NCES defines “rigorous” for math as Algebra I and II, geometry, and pre-calculus or higher.

Since 1990, more graduates from every subgroup have taken this level of courses. Six percent of African American students completed the most rigorous classes in 2009, compared to 2% in 1990; percentages of Hispanic students jumped from 2% to 8%; and grew from 13% to 29% for Asians and Pacific Islanders.

The NCES study doesn’t just look at high school math, it covers all core academic subjects, and the findings are similar to those for math. Average NAEP mathematics scores closely correlated with the level of math courses taken in high school. Students enrolled in classes below Algebra I scored below basic; those in Algebra I reached basic on the test; add geometry and Algebra II and the students move into the proficient range.

NAEP is such an “unwavering standard on which to measure the progress of American students,” said Neal Finkelstein, a senior scientist at WestEd, the nonprofit regional education lab, that “when we all see patterns that are interesting in NAEP, those are notable.”  The patterns show a “dilemma” as much as they show progress, said Finkelstein. What to do about the huge numbers of kids who don’t do well in math?

Unintended consequences

The push to get more 8th grade students into algebra is clearly working. Their numbers jumped from 32% in 2003 to 57% in 2010, according EdSource. During that same time span, the percentage of 8th graders who scored proficient or better on the California Standards Test (CST) rose from 39% to 46%. Even students in so-called “at-risk” groups improved. Here’s what the EdSource report had to say:

Nearly four-and-a-half times as many economically disadvantaged 8th graders scored proficient or higher on the test in 2010 as in 2003. In addition, three times as many African American 8th graders and more than four-and-a-half times as many Hispanic/Latino 8th graders scored proficient or higher on the Algebra I CST in 2010 as in 2003.”

But there’s a flip side. As more students take algebra I in middle school, cracks in the support system are beginning to widen.  Of the 80,000 8th graders who took the Algebra I California Standards Test in 2010, 29% scored below basic or far below basic and, of these, nearly 51,000 were Hispanic and 8,000 African American. Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, says there are gaps based on income and on race.  “One of the sources is clearly opportunity; they don’t get the support,” said Ramanathan.

Many of these students wind up taking it again, and not just those who do poorly. Forty-five percent of 8th grade algebra students who met or exceeded standards on the state’s Mathematics Assessment Resource Services (MARS) were placed back in Algebra I in 9th grade, according to a 2010 study commissioned by the Noyce Foundation. More than half the 10th and 11th graders were also repeat performers.

A blueprint for improvement

Sending students back to the same class they failed isn’t the best way to help them, says Murray. “The student fails the course, there’s nothing in place to catch them along the way, so when they fail they’re re-enrolled in the same course with no changes in the teaching method, sometimes with the same teacher, and these student fail again.” Murray is working with nine school districts to develop what she calls “Just in Time” interventions. They may include having an intervention class built into the student’s schedule so “the very day he or she is struggling with a concept, they have a class that day to help them get back on track.”

Teachers and counselors are in need of more targeted professional development. If they have low expectations, they’ll pass those on to the students who may then see themselves as incapable of doing math. Chris Roe, the CEO of the California STEM Learning Network, says if these studies have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t wait until a student has failed to start providing help. “The system needs to be flexible enough and innovative enough that we can identify where those students are, and catch them early enough to provide them with additional resources,” said Roe, “So it’s not all of a sudden, ‘Oh my God, we need to make up three years of basic math skills over the next few months.'”

Roe and the others are hopeful that California’s participation in the Common Core standards will force the state to be more proactive. “The Common Core has made it pretty clear what those standards are, what students should be able to know and do,” said Roe. “It’s the first time we’ve had national agreement on that.”