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Education advocates urge swift state adoption of updated science standards

By From page A1 | July 09, 2013

Advocates of science education in the public schools gathered at UC Davis on Monday morning to urge approval of the new Next Generation Science Standards, which are on the Wednesday’s agenda for consideration when the State Board of Education meets in Sacramento.

The Next Generation Science Standards put a greater emphasis on hands-on student participation, said Phil Lafontaine, director of the California Department of Education’s Professional Learning Support Division.

“What we’ve learned in the last 20 years is that children learn science better when they do science,” Lafontaine said, adding that this will be the first time California has updated science standards for K-12 students in about 15 years.

So much has changed in the intervening time — the availability of the Internet, widespread access to cell phones, the emergence of biotechnology and basic changes in the way scientists view the solar system (Pluto is no longer regarded as a planet) have transformed access to information and produced new knowledge that were not reflected in the 15-year-old science standards.

“These new standards tell us about science today,” Lafontaine said. “We are hoping that (under the new standards) students will understand not only what we know today, but will develop skills and strategies to further discovery in the 21st century.”

The Next Generation Science Standards were developed by a broad-based team of educators, researchers (including two Nobel laureates) and writers drawn from 26 states, starting in 2011. Among the groups involved were the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The team that developed the new standards looked at how science is being taught in other countries, as well as in the United States. The new standards also are supported by a long list of companies — including Microsoft, Motorola and Merck, to pick three beginning with the letter M — as well as several large national nonprofit groups.

The chancellors of the various University of California campuses, including Chancellor Linda Katehi of UC Davis, have signed a letter supporting the Next Generation Science Standards.

The new standards shift the emphasis in terms of what students are expected to learn in several areas.

“Sadly, much of science instruction (under the old standards) today constitutes rote memorization and regurgitation” of facts and figures,” said education consultant Stephen Blake. “These new standards promote deeper conceptual understanding, and the ability to grasp and apply science, looking at cause and effect.”

Blake added that the Next Generation Science Standards are “integrated with the Common Core state standards in English and math,” which California and most other states are currently implementing.

Jessica Sawko, executive director of the California Science Teachers Association, agreed that “this is the perfect time for new science standards, as schools are starting to roll out Common Core implementation. It wouldn’t make sense to go with the old science standards when all the other subject areas are going forward.”

As an example, Blake said “in the seventh grade, a student might be learning about waves conceptually as a form of energy in physical sciences, while in earth sciences the student might be learning about earthquakes, and in life sciences learning about human impacts — that kind of integration.

“Science becomes much more understandable and relevant to students,” he continued. “And the research tells us that’s how kids learn more effectively. This is particularly critical for kids with the highest needs, students who are living in poverty, or are English learners.”

That point was reinforced by Arun Ramanathan, executive director of the Oakland-based Education Trust-West. “These new standards will be a huge leap forward,” he said. “Right now we see gaps (in science learning) for low-income students and students of color in California. Once low-income students get into high school, many of them are not succeeding in science.

“But what we see is also a reflection of the way science is taught in the elementary grades, with a focus on memorization, and a lack of science instruction preparation,” Ramanathan continued. “When you put these things together — the lack of instruction, the lack of well-trained science teachers and science standards that are dated — it is no wonder we don’t see higher outcomes.

“These new standards give us an opportunity to refocus on science, and to get the governor, the Legislature and the State Board of Education to say that science is important — and particularly important for our highest-needs kids.”

Ramanathan described the new standards as “pathways into courses that are necessary to change lifetime outcomes.”

Chris Roe, CEO of the California STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Learning Network, said, “These standards are really the first step; they are kind of a floor that new curriculum will be developed upon in the future.”

The State Board of Education, which meets every other month, has from now until November to make a decision regarding the Next Generation Science Standards.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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