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Teachers are getting revved up about science!

By Theresa Harrington
Saturday, June 29th, 2013 at 12:44 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

A new emphasis on science is coming to California schools.

For years, No Child Left Behind has prompted some teachers to drop science instruction in favor of math and English, in the hopes of bringing up standardized test scores to avoid sanctions.

But the state is now poised to adopt new Next Generation Science Standards, which are expected to boost instruction at every grade level and help make students more competitive with those around the world.

“Science instruction is crucial to California’s future, and these new standards will bring the science being taught in our classrooms up to date,” wrote Tom Torlakson, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, in a Friday news release. “These standards eliminate arbitrary limits on hands-on experimentation and replace long lists of facts to memorize with a deeper focus on understanding the crosscutting concepts within and across scientific disciplines.”

Torlakson is recommending that the state Board of Education adopt the standards, which come on the heels of recently adopted Common Core Curriculum Standards that are also expected to improve students’ understanding of subjects taught. It has been 15 years since the state adopted its current science standards, which are considered outdated because new advances in science and technology have occurred since then.

The new standards integrate engineering and science to help students better understand the world, providing a foundation of knowledge that builds from kindergarten through 12th grade, along with skills for college and careers.

“The new science standards will help students make connections with other parts of the curriculum, and like our new Common Core State Standards, will provide a chance for all students — no matter where they live or where they happen to go to school — get the world-class science instruction they deserve,” Torlakson wrote.

Experts believe the growth of jobs involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics will continue for the next decade. In the recent past, these jobs have grown three times as fast as those in other fields.

Torlakson, who taught science in the Mount Diablo school district, worked with other teachers, scientists, college professors, education experts and business and industry leaders to develop and review the standards. The state Board of Education expects to begin discussing the standards July 10-11.

The standards are available at

At the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute in San Francisco, educators are excited about helping to train their colleagues in hands-on science instruction. Ariel Owen, who teaches sixth and seventh-grade science at Foothill Middle School in Walnut Creek, said teachers are learning how to bring the kids “underneath the learning process” to dig deep and explore, make changes, write about what they find, talk to each other in small groups, then write more.

“That’s when learning happens — when kids are fully engaged in the process,” she said. “It’s really important that kids be physically and mentally into it.”

Owen, who is a lead teacher at her school and in the Mt. Diablo district, said there has not been a strong focus on science since standardized testing has become so important. In some schools with low test scores, teachers have skipped science instruction entirely to focus on math, she said.

“At least in Mount Diablo, science has been sort of like the evil stepchild because it has been all about: ‘How did we do in math and English language arts?’” she said. “As we move back, I want to do it differently. The district is very receptive to this change.”

Do you think science is as important as math and English language arts?

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28 Responses to “Teachers are getting revved up about science!”

  1. Michael Langley Says:

    The question “Do you think science is as important as math and English language arts?” is symptomatic of the malady that has infected education under the guise of reform. Educators who are well rounded never have to ask that question, since they incorporate multi-curricular strands in their instruction. It is the very thought that certain subjects are paramount that ignores the needs of our students and their capacity to learn.

    A person once suggested to me that teachers should be paid on a three tier scale according to the “importance” of the subject they taught. She decided that the top tier should be math and science teachers, with social studies and language arts teachers in a second tier. The lowest paid teachers would be the arts, music, physical education, foreign language and industrial arts, as they were basically fillers in high school. This, I believe, reflects the thought that a technocratic society needs no context of history, communication or culture. She saw nothing amiss concerning a society impoverished by devaluing that which binds it together.

    Before the Bank of America was swallowed by Nations Bank, the B of A President said he would rather have liberal arts graduates as employees and teach them business than have business graduates and try to teach them to communicate effectively.

    True reform is not manufacturing student units. True reform develops talented, well rounded teachers and administrators and then lets them do their best in educating students. True reform is not pushing a particular system that benefits the consultants, the program creators and stockholders in corporations that churn out tests and test preparation materials. True reform puts skilled educators at the forefront of changes required. True reform does not happen in two or three years by erecting a façade that hides the underlying impediments to learning. True reform demands better teachers, better administrators, better parents, and politicians who can admit that they are not experts in everything. More than anything, true reform takes the time and the patience to Re-Form, Re Shape, Re-invent the model we need to best serve our youngsters, our future.

  2. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Mike, Stay tuned for a story coming this week on an overhaul of the GED test. I’ll be interested to hear your reactions to that!

  3. Giorgio C. Says:

    What is the class-size threshold for science teachers to actually teach lab exercises? I did labs with as many as 38 students, but there was some risk. It was best when I had an assistant. If I had any RSP students in my class, then I was able to use the assistance of Special Ed staff for the lab exercises. The California Science teaching “recommendations” was to conduct labs 20% of the time. It was not uncommon for new science teachers to refrain from lab exercises altogether, that this was something they needed to work up to as they mastered classroom management skills. By the time they reached this level of mastery, some of them quit teaching. Setting up and taking down a lab operation, especially when teaching in multiple rooms, will burn out a new teacher pronto.

  4. Theresa Harrington Says:

    On another topic, the Contra Costa County library system is seeking public input for a new strategic plan through an online survey and community meetings:

  5. Theresa Harrington Says:

    The CA State Board of Ed will discuss the new science standards, as well as Common Core implementation, on Tuesday:

  6. Doctor J Says:

    [NOTE: This comment has been edited to delete a reference to a specific employee]

    … may have kept secret anything they learned on their $20,000 Whittier trip, tomorrow morning July 10, Agenda Item 1, will be a presentation by Whittier that is free. Here is the addition to the agenda with the link to the powerpoint. Well worth viewing — MDUSD remains way behind the curve on “achieving and maintaining excellence”. A quote from CDE: “A PowerPoint presentation from Whittier Union High School District: To Achieve and Maintain Excellence (July 8, 2013), which may be viewed at this link:
    ENJOY !!!

  7. Doctor J Says:

    Try this link:

  8. Jim Says:

    @7 DrJ — I liked the part on Slide #12 about “supporting a culture of inquiry” and “safe discussion of transparent data and needs”. There has been too little of that in MDUSD. Negative news from below seems to lead to punishment. Bad news at upper levels — well, we’re just supposed to get used to that.

  9. Doctor J Says:

    The live Broadcast is getting ready to happen by Whitter right now.

  10. Doctor J Says:

    WOW!!! What an eye opener ! I lost count of the number of times I heard “collaborative”. One of the best lines by Supt. Sandy Thorstenson was when she said other districts ask her: “How did you ever get your Teacher unions to agree to that ?” Her reply: they didn’t agree — we came up with the idea together. Collaboration. She gave the SBE copies of their handbook on how they do everything : A to Z. I wonder if Morones got a copy of that ? No wonder we haven’t heard from him about the $20,000 Whittier trip. Would take getting all the high schools and middle schools to be on the same page. But look at the steady success over a 12 year period despite increasing poverty throughout that time. What a powerful presentation ! I hope the State Board breaks this one out and makes it available for viewing on the website ! Its very clear that Supt. Sandy Thorstenson has built a team approach — not a bunch of individuals going off on their own tangents.

  11. Theresa Harrington Says:

    This reminds me of the comments Dr. Bernard told me he was going to make during his superintendent’s report to the board about his observations that the district’s various departments are not working well together. Perhaps he will work to bring about a new era of collaboration across the district’s departments and sites.

  12. Doctor J Says:

    State Board of Education indicates support for new science curriculum known as Next Generation Science Standards but postpones further discussion until either Sept or Nov meeting to allow administrators to weigh in on implementation. Even Chevron sent a representative to support the new standards.

  13. Doctor J Says:

    Sorry forgot the link,0,7203303.story?track=rss

  14. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here’s a new blog post about Pleasant Hill teens who are planning a “World Party – a Multiethnic Extravaganza” from 2-4 p.m. Saturday, July 20:

  15. Doctor J Says:

    The video of the State Board Meeting has been posted. The fantastic presentation by the Whittier High School District starts at about 59 minutes into the video. You can use your cursor to advance to that point. Here is the link.

  16. Doctor J Says:

    I double dare Dr. Bernard and/or Board President Cheryl Hansen to give a “Report to the Community” for MDUSD using the last 10 years of statistics just like Whittier HSD does. Its time the TRUTH be told and administrators be evaluated by the progress or lack thereof. Afterall, we spent as taxpayers $20,000 to send Bill Morones and entourage down to Whittier and no public report on how that will help MDUSD.

  17. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Former Superintendent Gary McHenry and Interim Superintendent Dick Nicoll prepared annual reports, which were presented at the district’s summer leadership conference and to the Concord Chamber of Commerce:

    If former Superintendent Steven Lawrence had continued this practice, it would be easy to compare one year to the next. But, since the last annual report was prepared for 2008-09, it would likely fall to SASS to gather the more recent data and report on it.

  18. Doctor J Says:

    Thanks TH#17. Right now there are only 3 years of stats to add to the charts, and the 12-13 year API scores will be in early Sept. Looks like Joe did most of the data gathering. Its always valuable to know where you are at in the process.

  19. Theresa Harrington Says:

    I hear this year’s API results will be released Aug. 15, so MDUSD could conceivably prepare a 10-year report before school starts. This could be valuable in helping the district prepare for its Local Control Accountability Plan, which it is required to complete by July 1, 2014.

  20. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Anyone who wants some old CA Dept. of Ed books can pick them up for free in two Sacramento locations from 8 am to noon tomorrow:

  21. Doctor J Says:

    The State Board of Education approved a SARC template which is vastly improved and more user friendly with three year data comparison. You can read about it and see a “word” version of what will be on line.
    Also, you can view over 10,000 SARC reports on the CDE website.

  22. Doctor J Says:

    @TH#19 Is Aug 15 a change from the previously announced Sept ? I couldn’t verify the Aug 15 date on the CDE website. If correct, that means the district will have the info about a week or so prior, just about the time they are interviewing the Supt candidates. I am still curious why the Board has not announced how many candidates applied. I hope that doesn’t mean it was a very low number.

  23. Theresa Harrington Says:

    We heard the date from a CDE press contact. I don’t know if it’s posted on the CDE website.
    To my knowledge, there has been no communication from the board to the community during the break.

    For anyone who is interested in finding out what’s going on in the district, I highly recommend signing up for the Pleasant Hill Education Commission’s E-Newsletter. Even those who don’t live in Pleasant Hill will find information of interest, including a districtwide college fair at YVHS from 6:30-8:30 pm. Oct., 30.
    The commission is also hosting an information night about navigating middle school on Oct. 9. Although this is targeted to Pleasant Hill parents, it sounds like much of the information shared could be useful to middle school parents throughout the district.
    It would be nice if the district would disseminate this type of information to all parents in the district.

  24. Giorgio C. Says:

    I am not holding my breath. Today, I have taken the first steps towards building a science lab in our garage for my daughter and our neighbor’s children. As a former WCCUSD science teacher, I can honestly say that Mr. Torlakson and those before him have completely failed in this critical area of education. The teaching of science has been analogous to “What’s behind Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3?” I just ran into a former MDUSD student who shared with me that she wished she had had the opportunities for experiencing lab exercises in her science class. And now our elected officials are increasing the number of h1b visas for STEM workers because our school system is unable to provide scientists to fill the jobs we do have.

  25. Giorgio C. Says:

    I have a suggestion for teaching science. Why not have one class required for all children in California called “Science Lab 101.” In this one lab class, all students will learn how to use a balance, a spectrophotometer, a micro centrifuge, a bunsen burner, micropipettes, incubators, water baths, thermocyclers, biuret titration, etc. They will also learn to maintain a laboratory notebook.

    For one year, they will be laboratorians. For safety reasons, this class will be no larger than 30 students. The advantage is that all equipment will be purchased cheaply for the entire state of California. To those science teachers who would protest this, I say to them the current system is totally unfair. Just because you might be offering the total lab experience for you kids, it doesn’t mean the science teacher in the classroom next to you is. This is a laboratory techniques course. In their biology and chemistry classes, they will apply these techniques in greater detail.

    All science teachers and parents should demand this. Let’s give all kids the real laboratory experience. Showing is better than telling. Doing it trumps all!

  26. Doctor J Says:

    @GC#25 Have you read the Next Generation Science Standards ?

  27. Giorgio C. Says:

    @Dr. J#26,
    Yes, I’m looking at the standards and still want to know how this will be different than the previous standards which “recommended” (not require) lab exercises 20% of the class time. How it will be possible for a Superintendent and-or principal to REQUIRE that each science teacher perform labs, not just the experienced or lead teacher. Or will they continue to make allowances for the inexperienced science teachers, exempting them from lab exercises as is often the case? In all fairness, having less experienced teachers perform lab exercises can in itself become a risky experiment, especially with larger classes.

  28. Giorgio C. Says:

    Does Superintendent Torlakson and the CDE have the courage to conduct an impartial analysis of the reported need (approved by congress) for increasing H1b visas for STEM jobs? When one reads the following, one has to wonder how many of our science grads are being denied opportunity for employment for the simple reason that the employers are seeking indentured servants who will work for less.

    We are receiving conflicting messages from our elected officials. Let’s invest in science education, but let’s help American companies hire from abroad. Have STEM jobs become the most recent classification of jobs that no Americans want do do, that the work conditions and compensation have deteriorated to that of picking lettuce?

    Our Education leaders need to make sure we have all of the most accurate information regarding this situation.

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