Lawmakers advance standards

(Kathy and John combined efforts on this post.)

Heading into the final week of the session, the Legislature has sent bills to Gov. Brown that would revise state science standards and build a bridge to the approaching Common Core with instructional materials, curricula and professional development.

California will revise K-12 science standards for the first time since they were adopted 13 years ago, a light year in a fast-changing world.

The Assembly passed yesterday and forwarded to Gov. Brown SB 300, which will authorize Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to appoint a committee of experts, including elementary and secondary science teachers, school administrators, and university professors. Under a tight timeline, they will present the revised standards to the State Board of Education by March 2013, in order for for the Board to modify and adopt them by July 30, 2013, four months later. There will be at least two public meetings before then at which the public can comment on the standards.

SB 300, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Loni Hancock of Berkeley, was written by the California Science Teachers Association, which has been calling for standards revisions for years – and not only because they were outdated, without mention of stem cells and biotech. Many teachers have argued there are too many science standards, leading to too little opportunity for in-depth science exploration and little understanding of scientific concepts.

The division of opinion dates back to 1998 and a bitter split between scientists who favored an inquiry-based or hands-on approach to science education and those focused on a content-based curriculum. The latter, led by then 86-year old Nobel Prize winning physicist Glenn Seaborg, won out, and California’s science standards reflect that philosophy.

The pendulum is already swinging. SB 300 directs the new standards to be based on the Next Generation Science Standards, which will be the science version of the Common Core standards, a multistate effort, led by Achieve Inc. The standards will be an elaboration of the Framework for K-12 Education, written by the Board of Science Education of the National Research Council. In an interview in TOPed last month, the chairwoman of the board, Stanford physicist Helen Quinn, said that the new standards will provide a “coherence” and integration of core scientific ideas over multiple years that have been missing in the current state standards. The standards, she said, will focus on “crosscutting concepts” that stress similarities in the scientific method and approaches – analyzing data, developing models, defining problems, carrying out investigations – common to physical science, biology, and engineering.

California is competing to be named among a handful of states that will work with Achieve to create the standards. The winners were to be announced in August.

Among the critics of the new Frameworks is Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer from Palo Alto and former adviser to the U.S. Department of Education who helped write the state’s math curriculum frameworks. Wurman fears that the new standards will be light on actual science and heavy on science appreciation. The frameworks did not call for the application of mathematical equations and techniques; the lack of integrating algebra and trigonometry would appear to be a fundamental flaw that will produce “good consumers of science and technology,” rather than prepare them for training in actual science, Wurman wrote in a blog entry.

A head start on SMARTER Balanced

Lawmakers also sent Gov. Brown the first of three bills aimed at keeping the state one step ahead of planning for the coming of Common Core.

SB 140 by State Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) requires the State Department of Education and State Board of Education to compile a list of supplemental instructional materials for math and English language arts in elementary and middle school.

It’s a stop-gap measure to make sure students are prepared for the new tests, which will cover Common Core standards. Those exams could start in 2014, but the state isn’t scheduled to take up a full-blown textbook adoption until sometime after 2015.

An early iteration of the bill nearly died in a disagreement over eighth grade math. The State Board of Education last year approved two sets of math standards for grade eight: Common Core and Algebra I. SB 140 tried to include materials for both, but ran into several roadblocks. Critics said the dual standards could lead to tracking and revert to a time when schools had two sets of expectations, often based on race, ethnicity, or income.

The dispute was settled by removing eighth grade math from the bill. The final version covers English language arts for kindergarten through eighth grade and math for kindergarten through seventh grade.  State education officials want the State Board of Education to take a redo and adopt a single eighth grade math standard.

The California Department of Education has already started soliciting materials from publishers. Once that’s finished, the final list will go to the State Board for approval. But because these are supplemental materials, local districts aren’t restricted to the State Board’s list the way they are with textbook adoptions. Districts can choose their own materials as long as they cover the standards, or they can choose to do nothing.

Companion bills moving along

Two sister bills still in the legislative process would round out early preparation for the Common Core standards.

AB 250, by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), adds professional development and requires the State Board to adopt new curriculum frameworks and evaluation criteria that are aligned to the Common Core academic content standards. It also keeps the state’s STAR testing system in place for an extra year, when it will be replaced by the new assessments developed for Common Core.

Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) has the third leg of the stool. His bill, AB 124 , requires the state to convene a group of experts in English language instruction to ensure that the curriculum, materials, and assessments for English learners are aligned with the Common Core standards.

The two bills won’t come up for a floor vote until Monday at the earliest.

This entry was posted in Common Core standards, Standardized tests, State Board of Education, Tests and tagged , on by .

About John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

7 thoughts on “Lawmakers advance standards

  1. Mike McMahon

    While it is nice to see the Legislature following up on getting ready for Common Core, I am confused as to where the monies will come from to pay for the changes. California standards were the rated very well before adopting Common Core so besides helping the CA in its failed attempt for Race to  the Top funds, adoption of Common Core could become another unfunded mandate.  Well at least it does help with California’s request for a waiver from No Child Left Behind sanctions.

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  2. Doug Lasken

    Heaven forbid we should have science standards that were influenced by an 86 year old!  Not to mention that extremist faction who believe in conveying previously accumulated human knowledge (aka direct instruction).  And how about those right wing loonies who don’t like wasting money?  The next thing you know, we’ll succumb to fringe group ideas like amending the current science standards to include biotechnology and stem cell research, instead of replacing them entirely at tremendous cost.   Thank goodness Sacramento is on the ball to save our schools!

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  3. Ariel Paisley

    For the record, a light-year is not a measure of time, it is a measure of distance.
    However, this is an excellent example of why we need to revise our k-12 science curricula and standards.  Most Americans make far worse misinterpretations of scientific concepts.  Without a serious upgrade of science education, we will see a further bifurcation of our society into the scientifically literate and those who are not.
    Adults who are scientifically illiterate tend to be unable to even understand the evidence regarding issues like climate change or evolution.  These are not controversial issues within the scientific community, but they are quite contentious topics in the greater society where scientific illiteracy is widespread.  Hence, such folks can argue strongly for points of view which are inconsistent with widely accepted scientific theories without the slightest idea of how wrong their unscientific views are.  Climate change denial is only one example of how destructive scientific illiteracy can be.

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  4. Sue Moore

    Why doesn’t the committee include the scientific chiefs of California’s science and technology companies? 
    There is far too much looking to career academics, when they are not at the competitive front line of industry. There is already a woefully inadequate integration of mathematics and science in schools, and I honestly don’t understand the aversion in California to trigonometry. Sorry, math and science, and the application of science in technology are inseparable. I can think of several outstanding science chiefs (not necessarily the operating CEOs) who would be invaluable on such a committee. They HIRE the workers, and are already in the forefront of DARPA applications, etc. Why not ask successful students who have graduated from CA public schools what they think? Wander over to Stanford, Berkeley, CalTech, etc., and ask them. Not great distances from Sacramento!  The new committee sounds like another effort to weaken content knowledge and keep math out – heaven forbid that California should actually reflect on its weak math curriculum, and heavily recruit math and science graduates into the profession (and yes, pay them more if they do a needed job well). And … shake up middle schools and junior high schools so that math and science teachers (I think all of the teachers, but that would be asking too much) are single subject specialists with the requisite pedagogical training and in-house experience. BTW – does it really matter if students “know” about stem cells in detail – isn’t that something for university study once they have a grasp of the fundamental concepts and experimental method of science? I’d be happy to provide the names of some wonderful public high school science graduates who would be more than happy to add their two – cents. I think some members of the legislature would be stunned by their knowledge and maturity … 

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  5. Ze'ev Wurman

    Sue Moore beautifully captured the deficiencies of the bill. One thing neither she, nor John, touched on is the foolishness (one of the milder adjectives that come to mind) of California rushing to adopt those “Next Generation Science Standards” that have not been even written yet. Something about a pig in a poke comes to mind.
    But I had to smile when I read Ariel Paisley’s “[a]dults who are scientifically illiterate tend to be unable to even understand the evidence regarding issues like climate change or evolution.  These are not controversial issues within the scientific community,” she writes (emphasis added). Scientific literacy may be necessary but is insufficient, as serious discussions about climate change, and even about some elements of evolution, rage among highly respected scientists. Consider Berkeley’s Richard Muller, or UCSB  Harold Lewis, or the British Royal Society. A recent study summarized it thusly: On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. Sancta simplicitas.

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  6. Rick Pomeroy

    The time is now to begin the long road to reforming science education in California. In the next few days, Governor Jerry Brown will have the opportunity to sign SB 300 (Hancock), which will provide for the revision of the K-12 academic science content standards. The current standards, adopted in 1998, are out of date and do not include many of the advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology, gene research, environmental issues, or even the reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet. Without SB 300, there is nothing in law that requires the standards ever to be reviewed and revised, leaving students and teachers with a set of standards that are inadequate to address and promote the scientific literacy so necessary to return California’s economy to the economic viability of years past.
    The California Science Teachers Association (CSTA) is encouraged that SB 300 calls for a panel of science experts to utilize the Next Generation Science Standards, being developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and National Research Council, as the basis for their recommendations. We believe that basing California’s new standards on the work conducted by these esteemed national organizations will not only elevate our own standards but will help contain the costs of revising our standards.
    For several years, CSTA has urged that a process for the review and revision of the content standards be enacted. The content standards frame every aspect of a student’s public education, defining the content of all instructional materials and assessments as well. When one considers that, the science standards now in effect and which formed the basis of the science instructional materials adopted in 2006, will continue to restrict the science that is taught through 2018, fully 20 years after the standards were adopted, it is clear that now is the time to act by encouraging the Governor to sign SB 300 (Hancock). We doubt that any Californian wants our students to be taught science content that is 20 years old, yet that is precisely the situation we are now confronting because we have not been successful in putting into place a process for the revision of the standards. Although our science standards may have been world class in 1998, they aren’t now, and they certainly won’t be by 2018.
    CSTA believes that the time for passage of a bill requiring the review and revision of the content standards is well overdue, and we encourage parents, educators and business leaders to contact the Governor today, encouraging him to sign SB 300 into law.
    Letters to the Governor should be addressed to
    The Honorable Jerry Brown, Governor
    State of California
    State Capitol Building
    Sacramento, CA 95814
    When you write, please cc a copy of the letter to Rebecca Baumann in Senator Hancock’s office, California State Capitol, Room 2082, Sacramento, CA 94248-0001.

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