Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief “very confident” that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pour over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Just prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

the return

An innovative elementary school — a product of Denver education reform — tries to get back to normal post-strike

PHOTO: Centennial Elementary
Teachers last year at Centennial Elementary, which reinvented itself as an expeditionary learning school.

Nic Savinar tried to maintain a measure of normalcy for three days in her fifth grade classroom at Centennial Elementary School in northwest Denver, even as her students asked awkward questions about why she was still there when most teachers were out.

Walking in the door, she had a fleeting thought that someone from outside the school community might join the picket line and lash out at her. Her fellow teachers marching in the cold lent nothing but support, sending her texts throughout the day checking in.

Then not long after 6 a.m. Thursday, word started getting around that the Denver teacher strike was over. Principal Laura Munro’s phone blew up after her morning Crossfit workout. Munro ended up getting to school late because excited teachers kept texting her.

With the three-day strike about teacher pay ending with a tentative deal that gave both sides reason to feel good, Denver schools spent Thursday in a strange in-between place as substitutes and central office staff fill-ins reported for duty and striking teachers returned.

The labor action and its sudden conclusion posed a test for the 147 district-run schools affected by the strike and the 71,000 students in grades K-12 who attend them. Centennial just a few years ago was at risk of closure due to persistently poor academic performance. The school started to turn around after it reinvented itself in 2013 as an expeditionary school, where teachers in each grade weave a year-long “expedition” theme into their everyday lessons.

The school, in a gentrified neighborhood in a city that has become less affordable for families and teachers alike, would not exist in its current form without the kind of education reform that has gained Denver both a national reputation and opposition from the union and its allies.

“We have worked really hard to build a positive and trusting culture,” said Munro, who has been principal for eight years. “Even that being said, trying times can make any situation difficult.”

Of the 32 teachers, nurses, counselors, and other educators at Centennial covered by the teachers contract, all but six took part in the strike on Monday, Munro said. One teacher returned to the classroom Tuesday, and a nurse came back Wednesday, she said.

Those are higher strike participation figures than in the district as a whole. Between 56 and 58 percent of teachers were out each day, Denver Public Schools has said.

Savinar was among those Centennial teachers who remained in the classroom. But it wasn’t because she disagreed with the union’s opposition to many aspects of ProComp, the once-promising pay-for-performance system that was the subject of negotiations.

Savinar recently took maternity leave, much of it unpaid. She and her husband crunched the numbers —  taking into account that teachers strikes typically last a week — and concluded that foregoing a paycheck, as striking teachers must do, was not something they could afford.

The irony is not lost on Savinar: She couldn’t afford to strike to improve her salary prospects.

“There was a lot of thought behind it, and it was definitely a financial decision,” she said, pointing out that her Centennial colleagues who remained in classrooms all have children 1 or younger. “It was a very challenging decision for every single person, I’m sure.”

A ninth-year teacher, Savinar left a job in neighboring Jeffco Public Schools to join Centennial four years ago. She said she was won over by the people and by expeditionary learning.

The school has a vegetable garden, an outdoor classroom with log benches, and a devoted corps of parent volunteers. For a recent lesson on biodiversity, Savinar took her students to Denver Botanic Gardens to visit a rainforest exhibit. They learned about different habitats and species of plants. Students who are now working on writing first-person narratives written from an animal’s perspective, like a jaguar or an exotic bird that makes its home in the lush canopy.

That a district-run public school would offer a model like expeditionary learning is unusual, and it’s part of Denver Public Schools’ philosophy of offering families a variety of school choices.

Centennial is also an innovation school, which means it doesn’t need to follow all aspects of state law or the teachers union contract. That allows for a much longer school day, for one. The opening bell rings at 8 a.m. and dismissal is at 3:45 p.m., with an 80-minute enrichment period.

Savinar is a “teacher-leader,” spending part of her time teaching and part of it coaching other teachers — another initiative that other U.S. school districts look to Denver to emulate.

Savinar said her support for the union stance during ProComp bargaining was rooted mostly in supporting an increase in all teachers’ base pay and in cost-of-living increases. She said she loves the flexibility that innovation status affords teachers and students both.

“It’s all relative, I guess,” she said. “Completely depends on what teachers are wanting in their school community.”

During the strike, Munro kept a detailed spreadsheet of classroom assignments, using a combination of regular teachers, substitutes, central office staff temporarily reassigned to schools, and her own preschool teachers who were available because DPS shut its preschools.

All but two classrooms were covered by certified teaching staff during the strike, she said.

Because of the timing of the tentative agreement, Thursday was more chaotic than when teachers were on strike, she said. Although all the striking teachers returned, the school retained a few substitutes to honor their commitments. Central office staff helped cover classrooms until late-arriving teachers got to work, then went back to their regular jobs.

“People had been gone three days and were just trying to put the puzzle pieces back together,” Savinar said. “People were scrambling a little bit because teachers are always prepared for their students, and they were feeling unprepared, coming into I am not sure what.”

Centennial will move on from the disruption of the strike at a time it faces its owns challenges. What was once a predominantly Latino student population has grown whiter and wealthier, driven by neighborhood changes and the appeal of expeditionary learning.

Having fewer students whose families live in poverty cost Centennial its Title I status, and the extra funding that goes with it. Munro said school officials knew it was coming and planned accordingly, accounting for the lost revenue over a two-year period and lessening the blow.

The older grades at Centennial are more diverse than kindergarten and the earlier grades, so as a fifth-grade teacher Savinar has a more diverse class than most.  

Next up, her students will begin a module on inequality. She and a returning colleague struck upon an idea Thursday: including a discussion about the issues underlying the strike. It’s in keeping with expeditionary learning’s aspiration to connect learning to real-world events.

So in the near future, Nic Savinar’s fifth-grade students at Centennial Elementary could talk about the issues that kept their teacher in school while her colleagues picketed outside.