Category Archives: STEM


STEM and the Summer Opportunity

Written by :

Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) & Jennifer Peck, Executive Director, Partnership for Children and Youth

This week, when the California School Boards Association convenes for its annual education conference, school board members and superintendents will meet to discuss innovations and best practices to advance student achievement.

Some of these innovations come from a successful pilot program demonstrating the effectiveness of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning during the summer months, and how out-of-school time programs are well-suited for engaging students in STEM curriculum.

This summer, the Partnership for Children and Youth (PCY) and Techbridge, in collaboration with the Oakland Unified and Mt. Diablo Unified School Districts, piloted a new curriculum with 623 youth at 10 elementary schools in the Oakland and Mount Diablo districts.

Using hands-on activities around the theme of energy conservation, the pilot engaged students in introductory lessons on electrical energy and the environmental impact of energy consumption, as well as hands-on activities like conducting an energy audit to assess their own classroom’s energy efficiency and developing suggestions for making it more energy efficient, creating a public service announcement about energy conservation and a science fair for students’ families.

The program tested the hypothesis that engaging, activity-based curriculum delivered in a summer learning setting would be effective in educating students and catalyzing student interest in science.

The result?

Almost all students reported increased interest and engagement with science, reporting that the program taught them new things (94%), made science more  interesting (93%) and more fun (92%), and made them more excited to do science activities (86%), and want to learn more about science (85%).  A solid majority even reported that the program made them more interested in a pursuing a career in science.

These results make evident that integrating STEM curriculum into after school and summer learning programs is a vital way to bolster STEM education year-round. The nature of STEM learning is experiential and requires a dynamic and interactive learning environment that out-of-school-time programs are particularly well-positioned to provide.

With growing investment in STEM education in classrooms across California and the country, it’s important to support STEM in after school and summertime learning programs as well. These programs offer flexibility and learning spaces that contribute to STEM learning by complementing the school-day and providing hands-on context to make STEM relevant to young people’s lives. This powerful approach promises to set our children up for academic and professional success in STEM fields.

With Proposition 30’s recent passage, California voters clearly stated their commitment to boosting our children’s access to quality education. Now is the time to make sure that we are investing wisely in education programs that deliver results year-round.

Teacher Pathways and Developing STEM Expertise

As a University faculty member for more than 25 years, one of my greatest pleasures was teaching future teachers. They are among the most rewarding individuals one could ever teach because they are passionate about learning – especially about learning how to become world-class educators.

When I taught future teachers, I shared my own sense of the extraordinary excitement of STEM, giving them practicum experiences in after-school programs where they could work with children in authentic, hands-on science and in its real world applications.

For many, this early opportunity to work with children and turn them on to STEM had the effect of turning THEM, as teachers, onto science and STEM.

That’s one of the reasons that, today, STEM Teacher Pathways are such important programs.

STEM Teacher Pathways are vital because they are the route of entree for new math and science teachers from diverse backgrounds to enter the teaching profession, and California needs at least 33,000 new science and math teachers in the coming decade.

Multi-year Teacher Pathways provide the opportunity for future teachers to experience the sense of wonder children have when engaged directly in STEM. These new teachers learn from their students in early Pathway experiences what it is to be a great teacher of STEM disciplines – one who is an excited explorer and discoverer along with their students.

In too many classrooms across California, students learn science, technology, engineering and mathematics from teachers who have little or no specific STEM preparation.

But with the growing demand for STEM expertise in California’s workforce, it is more important than ever that the our state’s Teacher Preparation and Credentialing process include specific attention to the STEM disciplines for all teachers.

STEM Teacher Pathways projects are located on several California State University (CSU) campuses. They are focused on creating a STEM teacher track for elementary teachers through the CSU system and providing a paid apprenticeship program that offers these future teachers STEM expertise through the clinical practice of working every day with students from high need communities in after school programs.

Over the course of a four-year degree program and by the time they receive their teaching credential, they accumulate up to 3,000 hours in after-school and classroom settings, many spent in STEM activities.

Another highly significant Pathways program – the Alternative Induction Pathway (AIP) – responds to the needs of teachers who have been affected by lay-offs, typically beginning teachers, and enables them to develop STEM expertise.

Until the AIP was approved this past year by the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, being regularly employed as a classroom teacher was a requirement to participate in California’s required induction program.

Now, the AIP enables teachers who are unemployed due to lay-offs to complete the two-year induction program required by the state, and to attain their clear teaching credential. At the same time, they are able to participate in training programs to earn second credentials in the high-demand fields of science and math. New state legislation ensures that they can receive unemployment insurance benefits at the same time, thereby addressing their critical financial needs.

This program uniquely allows beginning teachers – those most often affected by lay-offs due to typical Last In/First Out (LIFO) practices in California and elsewhere – to enter a STEM teacher pathway as they continue in the teaching profession.

It’s a win-win – addressing the state’s need for teachers in STEM shortage fields and providing dignity and stature to outstanding new teachers affected by lay-offs because attaining credentials in STEM fields are recognized as being of singular importance.

There are already early indicators of success in the first programs, which were implemented in Long Beach in 2011-12. There, more than 50 laid-off beginning elementary teachers participated in Foundational Level General Science and Foundational Level Math Credential programs. Approximately 95% passed the California Subject Exam (CSET) tests required to earn these credentials, and the vast majority are now teaching full-time or for many hours a week as substitute teachers.

Early achievements like these point to exceptional new opportunities for our state’s teachers and students through support of Pathways to excellence in STEM teaching.

The Growth and Development of STEM Education Networks

Stephanie Couch, Director of the Gateways East Bay STEM Network and Director of CSU East Bay’s Institute for STEM Education
Amidst a steady stream of reports suggesting that young people are not acquiring the necessary knowledge, skills and capabilities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), STEM Education networks are emerging at the regional, statewide and national levels. These new organizations are working to align multiple types of stakeholders and resources in ways that produce a greater “collective impact”.

The rapidly developing networks are further evidence that education, business, government, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders agree that remedying the underlying factors contributing to the STEM challenge will require a robust cross-sector approach.
While forming a multi-stakeholder STEM network is necessary for success, merely forming a network is not sufficient for bringing about lasting change. Every region across California has experienced the rise and fall of community/school partnerships – some were successful for a period of time, and some not.

While I don’t claim to have “the answer” to building a network that will remain highly effective and capable of sustaining its work over the long run, I can share a few of the strategies that Cal State East Bay is employing as it supports the growth and development of the Gateways East Bay STEM Network:

1) Bringing the right people to the table (i.e. local leaders from the different types of entities that have important contributions to make to a comprehensive STEM solution).

2) Reviewing research and data to better inform understandings of the STEM challenges students face as they move from “cradle to career”, best practices for addressing those challenges, and strategies for engaging stakeholders in developing a local strategy to address the challenges and assess progress over time.

3) Ensuring that “solutions” are “scalable” across the many types of districts/schools in a region.

4) Securing resources (time, talent and money) to support the work.

5) Maintaining ongoing communications within and across the governance team and any working groups, and with community stakeholders at-large.

These strategies have supported our network’s initial growth and development, and may be useful to others just emerging.
For more information about the Gateways East Bay STEM Network, see our network’s 2012 Community Stakeholder Report at

Stephanie Couch is serving as both the Director of the Gateways East Bay STEM Network and the Director of CSU East Bay’s Institute for STEM Education. Dr. Couch’s focus on STEM grew out of work she was conducting with partners in the K12 and higher education communities associated with the use of emerging technology resources and tools in teaching/learning. As the Director of Statewide Initiatives for CENIC and the K20 California Educational Technology Collaborative (a joint effort of CENIC and the California Community Colleges), Dr. Couch facilitated the development of numerous partnerships that put technologies to use to support students and educators in new ways. Couch’s knowledge of the state policy making environment and school finance, stemming from her former work as an education advisor to two Speakers of the California State Assembly and as a consultant for the Senate Appropriations Committee, often affords opportunities for Couch to address educational technology policy matters.

Dr. Couch began her career as an education lobbyist for Murdoch, Mockler and Associates where she worked on state policy issues ranging from English language development and compensatory education to school finance and school facilities. She received her B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Davis, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Education from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Partnering to Power the Future of Californias STEM Education

At first glance, the California STEM Learning Network (CSLNet) and the California Afterschool Network may seem odd partners. One is an organization focused on boosting learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. The other, a statewide network building the quality and capacity of afterschool care across the state.  But together they share a great concern about the future of California’s students and their access to high quality STEM education.

Currently, California’s students face a vexing challenge: they have too few opportunities – during the traditional school day and during out-of-school time – to participate in the hands-on exploration of science and other STEM subjects that are vital to their futures. That’s why CSLNet and the California Afterschool Network have joined together in common purpose to expand access to high quality STEM learning opportunities.

To that end, we’ve teamed up to launch The Power of Discovery: STEM2, a new initiative to greatly expand STEM Learning Opportunities for young people in out-of-school time settings. The Power of Discovery: STEM2 will build and support partnerships between schools, after school organizations, and community partners such as museums and zoos, to strengthen their capacity to provide high quality STEM Learning opportunities.  Mobilizing a broad coalition of partners, including higher education, business and industry and others with the STEM expertise and resources, this initiative will engage students in the hands-on exploration and practice of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

As a first step, with funding and support from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Noyce Foundation and the Samueli Foundation, The Power of Discovery: STEM2 initiative has funded three regional partnerships to serve as Regional Innovation Providers, offering critical support for STEM learning in selected regions across California. These regional partnerships will work to foster leadership and build effective partnerships between after school providers, schools and community organizations. Regional Innovation Providers will also support efforts to build the capacity of out-of-school time programs to expand quality STEM learning opportunities that generate interest in learning and further student understanding of the concepts of the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards.

The Power of Discovery: STEM2 will initially leverage more than 4,500 statewide after school programs to engage students in high quality STEM learning opportunities.  That’s a promising start, but we’re just beginning. With new partners, innovation providers and public-private-philanthropic sector collaborations, we look forward to expanding STEM in out-of-school time learning opportunities for greater and greater numbers of students, opening new doors of opportunity during and far beyond their academic careers.

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The Power of Discovery: STEM2 Regional Innovation Providers

Six talented organizations have been selected to collaborate in three regional partnerships that will serve as Regional Innovation Support Providers to expand STEM learning in California. Each organization received a grant award of $70,000 and will work collaboratively to foster leadership, build partnerships and provide capacity-building to support high quality STEM in out-of-school time programs.

Greater Bay Area

The Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE), the Gateways East Bay STEM Network and the Tech Museum of Innovation in the Silicon Valley were selected to jointly facilitate cross-sector partnerships, and provide tools, resources, and support to increase high quality STEM learning Opportunities in at least 250 after school program sites across eleven Bay Area counties including Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Solano, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz.

Sacramento/Northern California

The Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) will work with partners such as UC Davis, the Powerhouse Science Center, SCOE’s After School Office and Science and Math Curriculum Departments to create and offer STEM training, program planning and implementation support to administrators and staff to at least 125 afterschool program sites across ten regional counties including Alpine, Colusa, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba.

Orange County/San Diego

In Southern California, the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) and Orange County STEM Initiative (OC STEM) will partner to increase high quality STEM learning opportunities in at least 250 after school program sites across Imperial, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego Counties. SDCOE and OC STEM will facilitate cross-sector partnerships, inclusive of institutions of higher education, industry, and community based organizations to accelerate student learning and build the capacity of out-of-school time programs to offer meaningful STEM learning opportunities.

Vital Signs Highlights CAs STEM Education Challenges & Opportunities

Those of us working in STEM-related fields, no matter what our area of expertise, are concerned about California’s ability to meet the growing demand for STEM jobs and its future implications for our state’s economy.

We’re concerned about our state’s current state of STEM education and the critical need for swift and dramatic improvements.

We’re concerned about catalyzing the resources and public will needed to meet our STEM challenges.
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As STEM education advocates, we know the importance of data and analysis in convincing and mobilizing others to join our efforts.

We now have vital new data with the recent release of Vital Signs, an in-depth state-by-state analysis of STEM education published by Change the Equation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, CEO-led initiative that is mobilizing the business community support for STEM learning.

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, the Vital Signs for California offers mixed news. While our state’s 8th Grade Math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam improved six points from 267 in 2003 to 273 in 2011, our students are still 26 points below the NAEP’s cut off for “proficient” of 299.

In Science, California students came short of the “Basic” level determined by the NAEP.

These sub-par scores aren’t surprising, given that the number of hours dedicated to Science learning in California elementary schools has actually fallen from a nation-leading three hours a week in 1994, to a below-average 1.8 hours per week in 2008.

Fortunately, Vital Signs does not just offer more gloom and doom.

It also shines the light on the assets that California can leverage to address the STEM education challenge, including a relatively well-educated STEM teaching force, a steadily growing and recession-proof demand for STEM workers, and a growing shift in policy to prioritize STEM education, as evidenced by the state’s adoption of Common Core Standards for Mathematics and its leadership in the development of Next Generation Science Standards. Taken together, these new standards provide the framework to drive high quality STEM teaching and learning for all students in California.

In addition to laying out the challenges and opportunities for California STEM education, Vital Signs for California also provides concrete recommendations about what our state needs to do to improve STEM education.

Being clear about our challenges, understanding our strengths, and celebrating our successes are key to improving STEM education.

And at CSLNet’s upcoming California STEM Summit – Oct 15 and 16 in San Diego – that’s exactly what we’ll be doing: bringing together business leaders, educators, policymakers, and students to advance STEM learning across California.

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Eliminating second-year science mandate is fast fix with long-term damage

Governor Brown, what are you thinking? Your proposal, to end the mandate that requires a second year of science for high school graduation, as a way to fix a dysfunctional budget process, makes absolutely no sense.

Since 1986 every student who graduated from high school in California has been required to take and pass one year of life science and one year of physical science. The second year of science requirement was added when it became obvious that a literate citizenry needed to know more about the science and technology that drives their everyday world than a one-year general science class could provide.

What has changed? Is it less important now, in 2012, for citizens of California to have the minimum amount of science necessary for access to careers or colleges after high school? The economy of California is heavily dependent on the technology that results from the work of scientists and researchers, and California citizens, the consumers of that technology, must have a solid understanding of its origins, is applications, and its limitations to make sound decisions for the future. Decreasing the number of years of science required in high school for graduation is a step in the wrong direction.

Throughout all of the rhetoric surrounding this proposal, your office and the Department of Finance have argued that removal of the mandate will not affect the quality of education our students receive. They argue that the California State University and the University of California will still require two years of lab science as a minimum requirement for admission. This is likely true, but this fact does not address the large number of students who don’t see four-year colleges in their future plans. For those students, a reduction in the number of years of required science could mean a workforce that is even less prepared than they are now. Removal of the mandate could easily result in an underprepared workforce for California. In a time when employers argue that it is difficult to find qualified workers, anything that reduces worker preparation should be avoided.

Don’t trust the predictions

Supporters of your proposal argue that graduation requirements are still the responsibility of the local school districts and that districts would never reduce graduation requirements. I would caution that as schools face declining budgets and continued pressure to perform on standardized tests, districts may find themselves forced to make decisions that seem unconscionable today.

Teaching science is not cheap. The Department of Finance estimates that the cost of the second year of science requirement is $250 million per year. If we accept this amount, it should not be a stretch to see that a district that has to cut millions of dollars from its annual budget will see elimination of a non-mandated cost as an easy way to maintain solvency. This possibility is further compounded by the realization that school districts have not been reimbursed at this level for years. Essentially, they are fulfilling this mandate from their general funding, since no additional support has been provided by the state.

Furthermore, districts that are struggling to meet their measures of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), as called for in the No Child Left Behind law, will see this as an opportunity to place more emphasis on the subject areas that contribute the most to scores – mathematics and language arts – and eliminate a year of science. Evidence of schools’ willingness to do this can be seen every day in elementary schools throughout California. If a subject is not tested, it is often not taught.

The  proposed elimination of the second year of science as a graduation requirement is a quick answer to a much bigger problem. Schools have, in good faith, met this two-year mandate for 26 years with little or no compensation from the state. Schools are owed almost $2.5 billion for doing a job that is required of them that has not been supported.

Yes, eliminating the mandate will stop the continued accumulation of the debt owed to the schools, but it will not fix the dysfunctional budgeting process. It will result in a further eroding of the quality of the workforce that is so critical to the financial recovery of California. It sends the message that science, as a core curriculum area, is not valued. It is the first step down a slippery slope that will result in fewer students entering college with aspirations in the fields of science and technology, and in an underprepared workforce. It will lead to a wider gap of college admission rates between students who traditionally attend a four-year college and students in underserved populations.

Governor Brown, I ask that you drop this proposal and  find other ways to fix the budget problem. This problem was not created by the students or the schools in California, and you should not place the burden of fixing it on them.

Rick Pomeroy is science education lecturer/supervisor in the School of Education, University of California, Davis and is president of the California Science Teachers Association.

More dismal science test results

Once again, California students have done stunningly worse than their eighth grade peers in other states on Science 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a biennial test of knowledge in science.

The results were announced earlier this month on the same day as the release of the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, which the National Research Council and states have been developing. Many California science educators are counting on the new standards, which focus on an in-depth understanding of science concepts, to jump-start improvement in science in California. Count Elizabeth Stage, the director of the Lawrence Hall of Science, the public science center at UC Berkeley, among the optimists, but only, she adds, if the state makes science a priority, with more time spent on  it and training for teachers in how it should be taught.

Partial state by state results, including California, with percentages of students who tested basic, proficient and advanced. Source: NAEP (click to enlarge).

Partial state-by-state results, including California, with percentages of students who tested basic, proficient, and advanced. Source: NAEP. (Click twice to enlarge)

There’s a lot of room for improvement. Nationwide, 32 percent of students tested proficient or above on the NAEP science test of physical, life, and Earth and space sciences. In California, 21 percent tested proficient, including one percent advanced, and 47 percent were far below basic. California’s average score of 140 on a scale of 300 – on the upper end of the below-basic band – put it on par with Arizona and perennially poor performers from the Deep South – Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana – at the bottom. Only Washington, D.C., which took the test for the first time this year, did a lot worse.

The national average was 152, two points higher than in 2009. Massachusetts, often compared with California for its rigorous standards in general, had a score of 160 ­ – the upper end of the basic band, with 40 percent of its students proficient and 4 percent advanced.

Science scores made a slight improvement in California in two years but continued to lag behind the nation. Source: NAEP (Click to enlarge)

Science scores made a slight improvement in California in two years but continued to lag behind the nation. Source: NAEP. (Click to enlarge)

White students in California scored 159, compared with 163 nationwide, and Asians averaged 158, one point below the national average. But Hispanics in California scored only 128, compared with 137 nationwide, with only 11 percent proficient or advanced. For African Americans, the scores were 124 in California (8 percent proficient) and 129 nationwide.

Dave Gordon, superintendent of Sacramento County and a former member of the NAEP board of governors, called California’s distance behind the rest of the nation “shocking.” He said the low score reflects that science is not being taught enough in elementary grades, where disproportionate time is spent on math and English language arts, which are tested annually (science is tested only in fifth and eighth grades in California). And science isn’t being taught engagingly, with hands-on lessons, Gordon said.

There appears to be a connection. Students of teachers who reported they did hands-on projects nearly every day scored significantly higher (156 points) than those who reported they did it only once or twice a month (149). A survey of California teachers and principals last year by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd confirms Gordon’s impressions; 85 percent of elementary teachers said they had no training in science in the past three years, and 40 percent said they taught it less than an hour each week.

Sixteen of 47 states that took NAEP in 2011 made what NAEP termed significant increases – anywhere from two- to six-point gains on the 300-point scale. Although California’s score also increased three points, from 137 in 2009, NAEP didn’t consider this significantly higher because of the number of test takers relative to the size of the state.

There was some good news nationwide and in California, in narrowing the achievement gap. Hispanic students’ scores rose five points nationwide and four points in California, reducing the big disparities between them and white students from 30 points two years ago to 26 points in 2011 nationwide and 31 points in California. The 36-point gap between African American and white students in California and 35-point gap nationwide failed to narrow.

More than multiple choice

NAEP Science was given to 122,000 eighth graders in 7, 292 schools in 47 states. It used a matrix sampling method, with each student answering only sections of the test. It tested students in physical science and life science (30 percent each), with 40 percent Earth and space sciences. The NAEP test isn’t aligned with California standards or those of any state. It measures the knowledge that a group of scientists and educators agree that all students in eighth grade should know. While California’s science test is all multiple choice, NAEP includes some short-answer questions that require students to analyze a problem or set of data and explain the reasoning behind an answer.

72 percent of eighth graders who took NAEP Science answered this question correctly (click to enlarge)

72 percent of eighth graders who took NAEP Science answered this question correctly. (Click to enlarge)

NAEP science results shouldn’t be compared with California’s content standards tests, in part because the NAEP board sets a higher expectation for reaching proficiency. NAEP defines “basic” as partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade, while “proficient” represents “solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challeng­ing subject matter.”

Even the description of “basic” knowledge in the Earth and space sciences section sounds rigorous, however: Students “should be able to describe a Sun-centered model of the solar system that illustrates how gravity keeps the objects in regular motion; describe how fossils and rock formations can be used as evidence to infer events in Earth’s history; relate major geologic events, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain building to the movement of lithospheric plates; use weather data to identify major weather events; and describe the processes of the water cycle including changes in the physical state of water.”

By comparison, students who test proficient “should be able to explain how gravity accounts for the visible patterns of motion of the Earth, Sun, and Moon; explain how fossils and rock formations are used for relative dating; use models of Earth’s interior to explain lithospheric plate movement; explain the formation of Earth materials using the properties of rocks and soils; identify recurring patterns of weather phenomena; and predict surface and groundwater movement in different regions of the world.”

California eighth graders take and are tested in physical science. They’re supposed to learn Earth science in sixth grade and life science in seventh grade. So students are partly being tested in NAEP on two-year-old knowledge ­ – one reason cited for California’s poor performance. But both Gordon and Stage say that’s a minor factor.

Stage says that California science standards require an extensive knowledge of facts; with little time to teach science each week, that’s what teachers focus on and not a conceptual framework or scientific investigations and experimentation.

The Next Generation Science Standards teach science in a more integrated way, encouraging students to see common practices between life science and engineering and technology. It stresses what creators call “crosscutting concepts” – a way of linking different areas of science through similar lines of inquiry, such as cause and effect, patterns, and scale. These sound abstract, but the standards stress making them explicit.

Stage points to a distinction between second grade California and New Generation standards dealing with motion of objects. California requires that students know “the way to change how something is moving is by giving it a push or a pull.” The Next  Generation standards would expect students to “analyze data to determine the relationship between friction and the warming of objects” by rubbing two objects together or “develop and share a design solution to reduce friction between two objects,” perhaps by lubricating wheels on a skateboard – something kids can relate to.

The Next Generation standard is an /“accessible way to understand the relationship between energy and experience and it’s a really good example of an engineering practice,” Stage said.

California is expected to adopt the new standards sometime next year. It has no plans – or money, for now – to design a new set of science assessments, but Stage hopes that California will join other states in creating one.

No more dodging Algebra dilemma

For nearly two years, California’s unwieldy eighth grade math standards have lain untouched like an unexploded IED, a roadside bomb of the math wars. But with middle and high school math teachers clamoring for guidance and new assessments two-plus years away, the Legislature and State Board must soon answer the question, What about Algebra I in eighth grade?

Faced with political pressure from Gov. Schwarzenegger and bound by restrictions of the Legislature, the California State Academic Standards Commission and the State Board couldn’t resolve the issue in July and August 2010, when they adopted the Common Core standards in math and English language arts. A strong-willed minority of Schwarzenegger appointees to the Commission  who had a hand in designing the 1997 state math standards – Ze’ev Wurman, a Palo Alto engineer, and Hoover Institution scholar Bill Evers – wanted to make Algebra I the default curriculum in eighth grade. The majority supported Common Core’s eighth grade standards, which introduce elements of algebra and geometry with the goal of sending students to high school better prepared for Algebra I and higher math.

So the Commission, whose job it was to advise the State Board, adopted essentially two courses worth of standards, the 28 Common Core eighth grade math standards and an Algebra I course with an intimidating 72 standards – an amalgam of a few of the old California Algebra I standards and Common Core high school algebra standards on top of  Common Core eighth grade math. ***

The State Board, restricted by the Legislature to either adopt or reject – but not change – the package, adopted them intact on Aug. 1, 2010. That was the deadline for approval in order to get points for Race to the Top, which Schwarzenegger was pushing.

At that point, the Commission went out of business, leaving the State Board with no authority to modify the standards. Since then, eighth grade math has been a void. It’s not part of the Common Core interim materials adoption process, and there’s been confusion over how to create curriculum frameworks and teacher training for that grade.

A new Commission’s charge

Fast forward to this past Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee and the 7-2 passage of SB 1200, authored by Sen. Loni Hancock, an Oakland Democrat, on behalf of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. It would establish an 11-member standards review commission charged with making recommendations to the State Board for modifying eighth grade math standards by July 2013.

The Legislature and Torlakson will name seven of the 11 members, with Gov. Brown naming the other four. The Commission and ultimately the State Board must decide whether eighth grade Common Core or a new Algebra I will be the default course ­– and how California will assess any standards that are outside of the Common Core. But it’s clear, from the language of the bill, what the Legislature’s intent would be: Common Core, not Algebra I, in eighth grade for most students.

As the committee staff analysis of SB 1200 notes, the bill requires that the new commission’s recommendations and the State Board’s modifications ensure:

  • “The rigor of the state Common Core standards is maintained so that all high school graduates are prepared for college and careers, as specified in the Common Core standards.”
  • All of the Common Core standards are adopted.
  • Modifications total no more than 15 percent of the already adopted state Common Core standards. (That percentage was the same limit imposed to qualify for Race to the Top.)

Retreat from universal Algebra in eighth grade

Wurman said Thursday that passage of the bill would confirm what he had predicted after the adoption of Common Core standards: Within a few years, there will be a sharp decline in the number of students taking Algebra I in eighth grade, leading to fewer students taking Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Only students who are tutored or go to private schools that ignore Common Core will take Algebra in eighth grade, he said. “Private school kids will have calculus. Public school students will be less competitive for select private universities.”

California is one of the few states that adopted a policy of universal Algebra in eighth grade, and by some measures, it has been a marked success. Last year, two-thirds of eighth graders took either Algebra or Geometry – compared with only a third in 2003. Despite that doubling, the proportion of students who tested proficient rose from 39 percent in 2003 to 47 percent in 2011.

But consider the majority who aren’t proficient on the standardized test and even some who are, said Scott Farrand, a math professor at California State University, Sacramento, and leader of those on the Academic Standards Commission who favored Common Core math. “Tens of thousands of students now in Algebra I cannot add fractions,” he said. “The push for Algebra I is failing lots and lots of students.” Many of those forced to repeat Algebra I in ninth grade get frustrated and develop a dislike of math, he said. Common Core, with a more logical sequence and focus on understanding concepts starting in lower grades, will better prepare most students to succeed in  Algebra and beyond, he said. “We want to build a system that allows them to move forward.” That’s why he disputes Wurman’s contention that fewer students, including minority students, will pursue majors in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – in college.

Can it be fixed?

Wurman and Farrand agree that the 72-standard Algebra I course that the Academic Standards Commission created is unmanageable, but they disagree as to how it came to be that way and whether it’s fixable..

Wurman and Evers argued for pushing down a number of Common Core standards to lower grades, from eighth grade to seventh and seventh to sixth, in order to prepare students for Algebra. But, with a handful of exceptions, the Commission refused, because members said, they didn’t want to tamper with Common Core’s order and sequence. (What to do with these non-conforming, acceleration standards will be the job of a separate group reporting to the State Board, the Instructional Quality Commission. It will create detailed grade by grade curriculum frameworks.)

By creating no on-ramp to Algebra, Wurman said, “we ended up with a fake algebra option that is infeasible.” At this point, the intellectually honest thing for the State Board to say is, “Our expectations of 8th graders have dropped. We screwed up and do not offer Algebra as an option.” The Algebra I course that the Academic Standards Commission designed would be taught in ninth grade.

Farrand said that the Algebra I course was voluminous because the Commission believed it had the authority only to add to Common Core standards, not eliminate them. A manageable Algebra I course for eighth grade can be created, he said, by pulling out some less related and duplicative standards, including probability and statistics. There should be an option for those students in a position to accelerate, he said. How it might be assessed is another issue for the new commission. Under the No Child Left Behind law, the federal government insisted on one test administered to all eighth graders. But that policy could change, because it’s not in anyone’s interest to discourage students from taking Algebra early.

Farrand and Wurman agree that the next Commission won’t be as contentious as the last one. For starters, neither Wurman nor Evers will be appointed. “I’m hoping the Commission will do something other than put on armor and fight,” Farrand said.

“No serious changes will be made to the standards. There won’t be anyone willing to go to the barricades” to defend rigorous California standards, Wurman said.

*** Here are the Common Core Standards as adopted in California. Start on page 34 for eighth grade. For the new Algebra I course, see page 36.  Common Core high school standards are in yellow. Common Core eighth grade math standards are in green. California Algebra standards that have been included in the new Algebra I are in purple.