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.”

PAYOUT

Douglas County district pays $1.3 million to settle landmark special education case

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The Douglas County School District has paid $1.32 million to settle a long-running special education case brought by a couple who sought reimbursement from the district for their son’s education at a private school for students with autism.

The payment, made to the law firm representing the couple in May, represents the last chapter in a landmark special education case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case lasted for seven years, leading to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision that raised the standard schools must meet in educating students with disabilities.

“The settlement really just eliminates any uncertainty there may have been about the importance of the Endrew F. decision,” said Meghan Whittaker, policy and advocacy manager for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

She expects the settlement to spur greater awareness about the higher standard and increased public investment in educating students with disabilities.

Jennifer and Joe, the parents of Endrew F., the student at the center of the case, declined to comment on the settlement when reached by email this week.

In February, they said their attorney had reached out to school district officials numerous times over the years with offers to talk and potentially settle the case out of court, but that the district rejected those overtures.

Chalkbeat requested the 2-page settlement agreement under the Colorado Open Records Act, but district officials declined to provide it, citing a confidentiality agreement between the two parties.

The seeds of the Endrew F. case were planted about a decade ago when Jennifer and Joe pulled Endrew, then a fourth-grader, out of his Douglas County elementary school after years of stalled educational progress. They placed him at a specialized school in Denver — Firefly Autism House — where they saw immediate improvements. Tuition at the school is more than $70,000 a year.

In 2011, Jennifer and Joe sued the school district for tuition reimbursement, arguing that Endrew had not received a fair and appropriate education in Douglas County schools as required by federal law. Three courts ruled against the family before the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Throughout the case, Jennifer and Joe asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy.

While the unanimous 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling was hailed as a momentous decision with enormous significance for millions of students with disabilities across the country, it kicked the question of whether the district should repay the family for years of private school back to the lower court.

In February, a federal judge ruled that the district owed the family for tuition and legal costs. According to district officials, the district reached an agreement for the $1.32 million payment on April 19 with the school board’s authority. The money came out of the district’s general fund.

In recent months, public and private groups have released new resources to help school district leaders and parents understand and act on the Endrew F. decision. In December, the U.S. Department of Education put out a nine-page Q&A on the topic.

In early 2018, the National Center for Learning Disabilities put out the Endrew F. Advocacy Toolkit for parents. The downloadable toolkit, which has been accessed 30,000 times so far, outlines the process for advocating for students with disabilities and improving their individualized learning plans.

Whittaker said the Endrew F. settlement signals to both parents and school officials the importance of working together to craft such plans.

“The focus here needs to not be on future cases and parents suing school districts but providing students with the services they need now,” she said.

Read more about Joe and Jennifer’s long journey to the Supreme Court here and their frustration at being portrayed as a school choice success story by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos here.

it's official

An integration plan is approved for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Middle schools in District 3, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Visual Arts, pictured above, will give struggling students priority in admission, the local Community Education Council announced.

The New York City education department on Wednesday approved a plan to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3, the culmination of years of advocacy amid vocal pushback against admissions changes aimed at creating more economically and academically diverse schools.

The plan marks the city’s first attempt under Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate middle schools across an entire district, an effort that garnered national attention after the schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, tweeted a blunt criticism of parents who protested the proposal.

Announcing approval of the plan, Carranza said in a statement that he hopes District 3 will serve as a model for other communities aiming for more diversity.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” he said.

The new admissions system builds on growing momentum to unravel deep segregation in the country’s largest school system. A few weeks ago, de Blasio announced a contentious plan to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools. And later on Wednesday,  a set of recommendations is expected to be unveiled for integrating middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Under the plan approved in District 3, students who are poor, struggle on state tests, and earn low report card grades will be given admissions priority for a quarter of seats at the district’s middle schools. Of those seats, 10 percent would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to the next-neediest group.

Education officials had considered weighing a number of different criteria to determine which students would get priority. They settled on a mix indicators including student poverty and academic achievement because it “identifies students most likely to suffer the consequences of long-term segregation in District 3,” according to a statement released by the Community Education Council, a group of parent volunteers who have supported the district’s integration efforts. 

Since academic performance is often linked to race and class, the new admissions system could integrate schools on a number of different measures. But in aiming for academic diversity explicitly, the district is pushing for a unique and controversial change. In District 3 and across New York City, high-performing students are often concentrated in a tiny subset of schools.

Parents who worried their children would be elbowed out of the most selective schools pushed hard against the plan, including a woman featured on a viral NY1 video saying that the proposal tells hard-working students “life sucks.”  

“I think it was definitely a much harder concept for parents to understand,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has helped lead the integration effort.  “We have a lot of talk about meritocracy… anything that challenges it, challenges a very basic concept parents have.”

With those concerns in mind, the district says it will boost training for school staff in strategies to help struggling students. The district will also provide anti-bias training for all middle school staff and teachers will also focus on culturally relevant education practices, which ensure that all students are reflected in what is taught in classrooms.

Despite the backlash, the proposal would actually have a modest impact on many district schools, according to city projections. Among the schools expected to change the most is the Computer School, which would see a 16-point increase in the number of needy students who are offered admission. Still, only 28 percent of students would be poor and have low test scores and report card grades.  

Schools that currently serve the greatest number of struggling students aren’t expected to change much, if at all, according to projections. Many of those schools are in Harlem, prompting education council members to push the department to do more for those schools.

The council pledged to take on the work itself. Parents want to weigh whether new school options are needed, and “address long-standing challenges such as disparities in resource allocation,” the council’s statement said.

“We need a Harlem vision. That’s really important and that’s key to the next steps,” Berger said.