Next Generation

Colorado students would have to do science to learn it under new standards

PHOTO: Joe Amon, The Denver Post
Justine May watches Prairie Middle School classmate Nate Stevens remove oil from the top of a water sample as his science class works on solving the problem of getting sludge out of their water samples. (Photo by Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

The old way of teaching science would have had Denver science teacher Melissa Campanella giving a lecture on particle collisions, then handing her students a lab that felt a bit like following a recipe from a cookbook.

Now she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Her students at Noel Community Arts School make observations, brainstorm what might cause the differences they detect, come up with models and visual diagrams that map those ideas, share those models with each other, revise, read about the collision model of reactions, and revise again.

“Before, they would maybe know basic ideas from memorization, and maybe they would retain this information long enough for me to give a quiz on it,” Campanella said. “Now they have a better understanding of why those fundamental rules exist, and because they drew those conclusions themselves, they remember it better.”

This is the future of science education as envisioned by the scientists and educators who developed the Next Generation Science Standards. A committee working to revise Colorado’s science standards has recommended we adopt a modified version of them. Because Colorado has local control, individual school districts will still be responsible for their own curriculum, but the standards will lay out what students are expected to know at each grade level.

These science standards are part of the same sweeping philosophical shift in how we teach that brought us the Common Core math and reading standards, and provoke some of the same tension about what’s more important: knowing a thing or knowing how we know it? At the same time, the website promoting the Next Generation standards takes great care to say these are not part of the Common Core standards, which have become heavily politicized and are often seen as an example of federal overreach.

Colorado’s State Board of Education, the science standards review committee, and the state’s science teachers will have to navigate this terrain between now and this summer, when the new standards need to be finalized — and then for years to come as they’re implemented in Colorado classrooms.

Changing how kids learn, and perhaps what they learn

Next Generation standards, or ones closely modeled on them, have been adopted in 38 states, many of whom were also involved in developing this new approach. These standards and lessons based on them are already being used in some classrooms in at least 12 Colorado school districts, including Adams 12, Denver Public Schools, and Boulder Valley School District.

The standards are based on the 2011 Framework for K-12 Science Education published by the National Research Council, a document that is itself based on some two decades of research on how children learn science.

Supporters of Next Generation standards believe that the ability to use scientific methods of inquiry is more important than memorizing facts and leads to a much deeper understanding of the material. Opponents include cultural and religious conservatives who object to references to evolution, climate change, and the age of the earth, as well as people who fear children won’t learn basic knowledge about science – the steps of photosynthesis, Newton’s Laws of Motion, the parts of a plant or of the human body.

“In the end, they just didn’t come out with the right balance,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank. “They emphasized practice in a way that ends up crowding out the content knowledge.”

The Fordham Institute’s reviewers gave the Next Generation Science Standards a C. For some perspective, they gave the existing science standards of 26 states, including Colorado, a D or lower. However, they think there are much better examples out there, including the previous standards of states like Massachusetts that have since adopted Next Generation-based standards.

What about the “aha” moments that teachers like Campanella report from the classroom when they use these new methods?

“It’s not surprising that fantastic teachers can take these standards and do that,” Petrilli said. “The question is: In classrooms around the country, can teachers take these standards and get the appropriate nudge to teach the content?”

Defenders of the new standards are blunt: In a world where we can look up the entire accumulated knowledge of the human race on our phones, no, it isn’t actually that important to memorize a lot of facts. But that isn’t the same as not knowing scientific content.

David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, which was heavily involved in developing the standards, said that representatives of every speciality thought not enough of their content was included – and they were right, he added. The creators of the standards wanted students who would be prepared to understand the world, even if specific ideas change over time as scientific understanding progresses.

Evans lists off the things that were considered “science” when he went to school: the parts of the plant, the elements and their position on the periodic table, balancing equations in chemistry. Many of these things remain true. But as any adult who’s had to get up to speed on all the newly discovered dinosaurs knows, the content of science changes — and about a lot more than just the apatosaurus.

“When I went to school, I learned that all life on Earth derives from the energy of the sun. Photosynthesis, everything comes from there,” Evans said. “That turns out not to be true. We have life on Earth driven by chemistry discovered in volcanic vents in the depths of the ocean. So it turns out that not all life derives from the energy of the sun, and it might – might – turn out to be the case that there is more chemosynthetic life on earth than life that derives from the energy of the sun.”

The way the Next Generation Science Standards are organized has also sparked some concerns. The ideas are grouped in a three-dimensional way, with science practices and skills, core ideas, and cross-cutting concepts for every expectation. An example at the middle school level is that students should be able to “develop a model that predicts and describes changes in particle motion, temperature, and state of a pure substance when thermal energy is added or removed.” The science practice is developing a model to explain phenomena, the core idea is that gases and liquids are made of molecules or inert atoms that are moving about relative to each other, and the cross-cutting concept is that cause and effect can be used to make predictions.

Critics say this is confusing, and supporters admit it takes some practice to learn how to read them. They also require teachers to change how they do their job, which requires training and support.

“If someone were to just look at the standards statement, they would have to pause and think, what does this really mean I would be teaching and want my students to learn?” said Kris Kilibarda, state program consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. “But I would argue we want that.”

Some states that have adopted Next Generation-based standards have had major campaigns to train teachers, while others have far fewer resources. Teachers are going online to share the lessons they’ve developed with each other, and in state after state, officials said the wealth of resources being developed and shared, often for free or little cost, in the wake of Next Generation adoption, has been a huge help. California also released some 1,000 pages of implementation documents that other states can use.

Nationwide, most of the controversy around Next Generation standards hasn’t been about the finer points of pedagogy but about the chronically divisive issues of climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth. In Kansas, Citizens for Objective Public Education sued the state unsuccessfully on the claim that the standards’ “non-theistic worldview” amounted to an establishment of religion. In New Mexico, state education officials restored references to global warming and evolution after there was a backlash to the backlash.

Idaho, meanwhile, is in the final stage of approval – for the third time. The standards committee has taken new public testimony and adopted new language around each of the touchy topics. Scott Cook, director of academics for the Idaho State Department of Education, said the standards’ focus on scientific method and inquiry give educators a way to maintain scientific rigor, even as references to climate change and the age of the earth are stripped out.

Students can still learn how to construct a timetable for the age of the earth using rock strata, even if the standard doesn’t include “4.6 billion years,” he said.

“If they’re analyzing that data accurately, whatever number they come up with is going to be a pretty darn big one,” Cook said. “This idea of inquiry is a good one for having people not feel like it’s indoctrination.”

A big change for Colorado

Colorado is in the middle of a six-year review of its academic standards, and the proposed changes in science are more substantial than those in most other subject areas.

“The biggest thing that parents and teachers will notice is that it really asks students to do more with science, to engage and understand the concepts at a deeper level,” said Joanna Bruno, science content specialist with the Colorado Department of Education. “Science is moving away from being a noun, something you learn, to being a verb. Science is not static, and in the past, that’s how it’s been taught.”

Some topics also will move to different grade levels, but Colorado students will still need to know the same material to graduate as they do now.

The committee working on Colorado’s standards made a number of revisions to the Next Generation standards: editing for clarity, distinguishing more between grade levels, reorganizing how the standards are presented, and putting expectations in the form of a question. For example: “How do the properties and movements of water shape Earth’s surface and affect its systems?”

Colorado’s biggest deviation from the Next Generation standards won’t be a change at all here: There won’t be engineering standards. Many rural schools simply wouldn’t have the capacity to add it, Bruno said.

When a draft version of the standards was presented to the State Board of Education earlier this month, many of the questions revolved around implementation, especially in rural school districts. Democratic members of the board, who represent a majority, said they like the direction that science standards are moving.

But Steve Durham, one of the most conservative members of the board, defended the value of rote memorization, objected to the inclusion of climate change, and questioned whether an education based on Next Generation standards will prepare graduates to pursue careers in science and technology, which he sees as the purpose of science education “for legislators and for taxpayers.”

Charlie Warren, a teacher licensure officer at the University of Northern Colorado and a member of the standards review committee, responded that that was just one purpose. The broader goal is to educate scientifically literate and engaged citizens, he said.

Hinting at the fight to come, Durham countered: “You want a scientifically literate citizen that accepts without question your little statement on page 121 here about climate change.”

Durham thinks students won’t understand basic science principles if they don’t have to memorize them, but Campanella, the high school teacher, said her experience is that students understand these principles at a much deeper level when she teaches following the guidance of Next Generation standards – and they make science accessible for students who might have thought these subjects weren’t for them.

“Our kids deserve to be held to really high expectations, and these standards make sure that happens,” she said. “I expect you to be able to do some science and not just regurgitate someone else’s science.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”