Science in OUSD: No longer optional

Angie Cedillo looks at a yellow swallowtail butterfly. By D. Ross Cameron/Oakland TribuneFinally, something the school district administration and teachers union can agree on!

Last week, the Oakland school board unanimously approved a proposal to require 60 minutes of science instruction each week in kindergarten through third grade, and 90 minutes in fourth and fifth grade, beginning in the fall of 2011. (If you follow me on Twitter, you might already know this. If you don’t, you should! Just go here to find my profile.)

I wrote a story about this development. It will be in tomorrow’s paper, but it’s up online, here.

Here are some pictures of fourth- and fifth-grade OUSD students who had a chance to interact with scientists and learn about their careers on Wednesday night at the Oakland Zoo. About 25 scientists came to the event, organized by Caleb Cheung, the district’s science manager.

University of California graduate student Darko Cortoras, center, shows off his collection of local insects. Photo by D. Ross Cameron

Students observe a yellow-naped Amazon parrot

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Debora

    This is great, great news. My daughter was one of her school science fair finalists. In her fourth grade classroom they average about 1.5 hours a month of science. In the three areas required for the fourth grade curriculum: Electricity and Magnetism, Energy and Matter in the Food Chain and the Rock Cycle, my daughters class has learned about 1/4 of the standards in Electricity and Magnetism, has not even touched on Energy and Matter in the Food Chain and about 3/4 of the Rock Cycle.

    This is in a classroom with new science books, FOSS hands on kits, two to three parent volunteers for every classroom science activity and PTA support for any field trips for science that are needed. However, none of the five field trips this year, not one had anything remotely related to science.

    This is a welcome change – OUSD has been paying for the FOSS science curriculum and kits for years.

  • Jim Mordecai

    The idea that the increased science minutes will happen because the School Board said it will happen is problematic.

    I believe Science is only tested by the state in 5th grade. For many schools if it isn’t on the test there is no time for it.

    In addition, the FOSS program employs hands on kits that take time. Much more can be covered that will be tested by keeping the FOSS kits on the shelf and using the science textbook for 5th grade. Many teachers will not want to use the FOSS kits because even though they may not be 5th grade teachers, they may feel the pressure to utilize the time for science to meet the demands of preparing their students to score high on the tests in language arts and mathematics for their grade.

    In this age of standardized test scores being the measure of a district’s success, test prep will usually prevail over learning a subject in depth. Although both the union and the board are united in the belief that students should have a balanced curriculum that includes science, most schools will, I believe, not pay attention to either.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Debora


    The science material is comprehensively tested in 5th and 8th grades. Then individually tested (biology, for example) in high school. 60% of the 5th grade science test is on the material that should have been taught in 4th grade. This is a fact the fourth grade teacher did not know either.

    While the FOSS kits are labor intensive, we have three parent volunteers for EVERY session involving kits. Our PTA also funds aides for the classroom that can be used for FOSS kit facilitation – my daughter’s teacher has made a different choice. She uses the text book and/or FOSS kits 1.5 hours per month total – with all of the support provided.

  • Jim Mordecai


    I looked through the Ed Code and didn’t find any minimum time requirement for any elementary curriculum subject other than physical education. But, there is a section of the Education Code that you might find interesting:

    51210.3. (a) The governing board of a school district may designate a credentialed teacher at each elementary school as a science coach, or provide staff development to teachers, in order to accomplish the
    objectives described in subdivision (b), as determined by the governing board.
    (b) The designated teacher shall do all of the following:
    (1) Develop, coordinate, and provide instruction in a science curriculum that incorporates experimentation. The curriculum shall be aligned to the California standards for investigation and experimentation, and be designed to develop all of the following:
    (A) Understanding of basic scientific facts and principles.
    (B) Mathematics skills.
    (C) Reading comprehension.
    (D) Analytical and intellectual skills required to pose and answer
    (2) Act as a coach for other teachers at the school in the provision of a science curriculum based on experimentation.
    (c) This section does not preclude the assignment of duties to a science coach that are not listed in subdivision (b) and relate to developing, coordinating, and providing instruction in a science curriculum that incorporates experimentation.

    Some schools use their prep teacher to teach science. One of the challenges is that prep periods are 50 minutes and not the Board’s newly mandated 60 minutes. To increase the minutes would cost the district extra funding and is not likely to happen.

    Another challenge is that to teach a subject area gets into the area of state credentialing and there are not enough single subject credentialed science teachers in the ranks of elementary prep teachers most of whom do not hold single subject area credential.

    My guess is that your daughter’s teacher limits the use of FOSS program materials because of the pressure to make students state test ready. Another reason that many teachers are not engaged with science is that they lack experience and success in science. Finally, lots of adult helpers in a classroom can be uncomfortable to many teachers that are again dealing with a subject they may feel they have not mastered and is not their strength.

    Understanding these possible factors means that more than a School Board resolution will be needed to bring adequate science instruction to Oakland’s classrooms.

    I share your value that your daughter should be provided the full FOSS science program as part of her school experience. Perhaps you will be able to work with other teachers and parents from your school to make full implementation of the FOSS science program a reality and not taking a back seat to test prep.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Jim Mordecai


    Ed Code requires various subjects be taught including science but only requires minimum of instructional minutes in physical education.

    Here is the Ed Code:

    51210. The adopted course of study for grades 1 to 6, inclusive, shall include instruction, beginning in grade 1 and continuing through grade 6, in the following areas of study:

    (d) Science, including the biological and physical aspects, with emphasis on the processes of experimental inquiry and on the place of humans in ecological systems.

    The DOE webpage lists the recommendation of Academy of Sciences National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment of one (1) hour instruction per day, standard D, chapter 3, 1996.

    School Board requirement of one (1) hour per week falls 80% short of the Academy of Sciences recommendation. But, the Board’s requirement is 100% ahead of the state’s education code that requires science instruction but does not require minimum number of science instructional minutes.

    Jim Mordecai