Update on the NGSS impact on the Local Physics Curriculum

My discussion with SMUHSD regarding changes to the science curriculum continues…

In late September I wrote the article The Fine Art of Delay – An Open Letter to the SMUHSD Board.  It expressed my frustration that over six months had elapsed and the SMUHSD had not acted on the Board of Trustees meeting agenda item request (made in last March; see My Speech to the SMUHSD Board on NGSS) to discuss the impact of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) implementation on the science curriculum.

I first expressed concerns about the serious negative impact on the regular physics class at Aragon HS in my January 2018 article Attention SMUHSD Parents! State Mandated Testing Negatively Impacts Aragon’s Physics Program.

Superintendent Skelly responded, and he requested that I meet to discuss the issue with the new Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Julia Kempkey (see her bio here; Dr. Kempkey is clearly an accomplished person, holding a “Doctorate of Education degree from UC Berkeley with a focus on technology-infused instruction.”).  A meeting was scheduled for October 10th at 9:00 AM.

Prior to the meeting I sent the following email to Dr. Kempkey, the Superintendent, the Board, and the Aragon administration to summarize my concerns. (NOTE – These concerns were laid out previously in more detail in the article links above; those articles were also sent earlier to the people copied on the following email.  If you as a reader of this article missed those earlier articles, I suggest reading them first before proceeding):


I tried calling Dr. Kempkey this AM, got her voicemail, and left a message.  I am happy to talk to her, but as I said in my email reply yesterday, this should not be yet another reason to delay addressing this issue at a Board meeting.

Dr. Kempkey was not here during the NGSS decision process, so I would be surprised if she can address what happened in detail.  I already received varying reasons for the decision from Director Simmons and Superintendant Skelly, and consequently still don’t fully understand the logic behind the choice.
My goal is not to assign individual blame but simply understand the reasoning that went in to this decision which, on the face of it, looks very flawed.  The following background should bring Dr. Kempkey (and the Board) quickly up-to-speed on the issues.
The District proceeded with a major curriculum change without a standards-aligned textbook and, consequently, required full-time working teachers to develop the curriculum on the fly.  This first came to my attention when students began showing me worksheets which were clearly works in progress and which were poorly written (I had to read some a few times before I could understand what was intended).  In addition, the error rate in some of these worksheets was unacceptably high.
To make matters worse, at Aragon the new course replaced an excellent one which had been developed over many years by a master teacher AND watered down the physics content significantly by diluting it with earth science questions.  This dual subject integration was NOT required by NGSS, but was an option that the District chose for reasons that I do not know.  I have written about yet other negative consequences on students in the articles referenced in yesterday’s email.
If there was a dire legal state mandate hanging over the District’s head, then this decision might be understandable, but, from the answers I received, this did not appear to be the case.  That leads me to conclude that the decision was made mainly to comply with a significant, but non-critical, upcoming state mandate and the impact on the students was a secondary consideration.
If true, it is this compliant attitude towards the state that needs to change. If the state makes a ridiculous requirement, the proper course is to appeal it, not simply submit.  The case should have been made to our state representatives that this could have significant negative impacts and a delay should have been requested until textbooks were available.
In my opinion it is the responsibility of the Board to hold a public discussion to determine the answers to the questions above so that the next time something like this comes barreling down the tracks, the brakes are promptly applied to it.  The above needs to go into the public record so that the lessons do not have to be relearned yet again in the future.
I have been trying to get to the bottom of this starting first with the lead Aragon physics teacher, then with the Aragon administration, then with a call to Dr. Skelly.  This resulted in my talking first to Dir. Simmons, and then, after not being satisfied with the answers received, talking directly with Dr. Skelly.  As I said above, these discussions did not paint a consistent story, so I finally addressed the Board at the initial public comment session on March 8th.  I then waited through the entire ~3 hour meeting, and at the very end when I was one of the few people remaining in the room, the item was placed in the agenda queue.  It has subsequently sat there for over 6 months while other items in that queue have come and gone.  Now after more public appeals, I am being handed off to a person who, although being very accomplished as I can see from the SMUHSD profile, was not “present at the creation.”  While I am happy to talk with Dr. Kempkey, I do not want this to be another hand-off that simply delays bringing this matter to a conclusion at a Board meeting.
(… text on another topic omitted …)
As I requested in my March speech to the Board, there needs to be a clear mechanism of communicating upcoming curriculum changes to the interested public, e.g., a dedicated mailing list.  I for one would be happy to volunteer time in reviewing new material, and there may be other highly educated STEM people in our high tech community who might join me.
Sincerely,
Dr. David Kristofferson

On 10/10, I met for just under an hour with Dr. Kempkey.  Director of Curriculum and Assessment Brian Simmons was also present.
Because of her concerns about being misquoted on my blog, I invited Dr. Kempkey to put together a written response in her own words which I provide below.  Dr. Kempkey quoted my items from above in bold and her responses are in blue:

The District proceeded with a major curriculum change without a standards-aligned textbook and, consequently, required full-time working teachers to develop the curriculum on the fly.

First,  NGSS and the framework regarding the three course model (LINK here) has provided specific guidance on how to integrate the Earth and Space Science Standards into the curriculum. Our teachers have created courses based on the state framework as well as common learning experiences for students across the district. I would suggest in addition to reviewing those standards that you review the framework that I linked above as it will provide more in-depth descriptions of the how, what and why of the integration of Earth Science. Our teachers have spent countless hours with the framework and standards to thoughtfully plan and design this transition. As such, the process that SMUHSD used to transition to the new standards was not done in a haphazard manner. The science teachers in collaboration have been working on the transition and implementation of the new standards for the last five years. As a result, the curriculum is aligned with the new standards and will be fluid based on the needs of the students and teachers’ revision. Once the state has finished the review of instructional materials in the near future, the science teachers will begin to review what resources match their revised curriculum.

 

To make matters worse, at Aragon the new course replaced an excellent one which had been developed over many years by a master teacher AND watered down the physics content significantly by diluting it with earth science questions.

Again, I will refer you to the framework and standards for background on the course. Teachers (who did major in Physics) created this class and would argue that it is not watered down by any means, rather it incorporates effective instructional and curricular changes to meet the needs of students.

That leads me to conclude that the decision was made mainly to comply with a significant, but non-critical, upcoming state mandate and the impact on the students was a secondary consideration.

This conclusion is not based on all of the information and for our teachers, who worked tirelessly to create effective, rigorous and engaging curriculum for their students, this is an offensive statement.

If true, it is this compliant attitude towards the state that needs to change. If the state makes a ridiculous requirement, the proper course is to appeal it, not simply submit.  The case should have been made to our state representatives that this could have significant negative impacts and a delay should have been requested until textbooks were available.

I addressed these assertions above.

In my opinion it is the responsibility of the Board to hold a public discussion to determine the answers to the questions above so that the next time something like this comes barreling down the tracks, the brakes are promptly applied to it.  The above needs to go into the public record so that the lessons do not have to be relearned yet again in the future

 

As soon as the board update by our science coordinator is scheduled, we will let you know.


 

I received final edits to the response above from Dr. Kempkey on 10/19, and, regarding the date for the Board meeting agenda item was told “Most likely, this will occur either later this semester or early in next semester.”

Dr. Kempkey’s comments about the “integration of Earth Science” in her first paragraph above were in response to my remarks during our meeting in which I said that the new physics curriculum was watered down, not because of the NGSS standards per se, but because the District, like many in California, chose to follow an NGSS option of maintaining three core science classes (which follows UC standards) instead of requiring four classes, the fourth being a new NGSS Earth and Space Science class.

I argued, obviously unsuccessfully, that inserting Earth and Space Science into the other three classes (physics, chemistry, and biology), logically means that some material previously taught would have to be discarded.  If the full NGSS standards are implemented in four classes, it makes no sense to me that an equivalent curriculum can be fit into three.  This is the basis for my statement that the new physics curriculum has been “watered down.”

I also remain the only person in any of the meetings with District staff about this topic who has actually worked through the worksheets distributed last year at Aragon.  This year I have only AP Physics students, so I do not know if the worksheets have been improved since the previous year.  For the sake of regular physics students, I sure hope that they have.

I stand by my claim based on my background as a Ph.D.-level scientist that the problem sets I saw last year represented a step down in challenge/difficulty from the previously excellent regular physics class at Aragon.

It seems pretty clear that the District is not going to alter course.  If Dr. Kempkey or any other administrators at the District wish to elaborate on their positions, my invitation to submit an article to this blog site or comment directly on this article remains open.

Note added on 12/1/2018:  Please scroll down to read a comment that I posted this morning on Nextdoor.

 

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired scientist, teacher, bioinformatician, IT director, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist (7690 miles and 724,300 feet of climbing in 2015), backpacker, you name it! Current avocation is tutoring high school students near San Mateo, CA in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Please see the Bio link in the right sidebar for my detailed background information.

One thought on “Update on the NGSS impact on the Local Physics Curriculum”

  1. I posted the following comment on Nextdoor this morning (12/1/18):

    “This update describes my struggles trying to get the SMUHSD Board to address an important science curriculum problem and includes a response to my concerns from the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction.

    Far too often California makes radical changes in the K-12 curriculum that can hurt the kids going through the transition period.

    Currently SMUHSD is rewriting the regular (not the AP) science curriculum to comply with another state/national mandate, the Next Generation Science Standards or NGSS (the AP curriculum is controlled by the College Board). As usual in a change of this magnitude, problems develop, especially when the changes are instituted before textbooks aligned with the new standards are available.

    School Boards are elected to represent the interests of the community. Unfortunately, Board members do not typically communicate directly with their constituents. In both the SMUHSD and the SMFCSD, Board members tend to funnel communications through the Superintendent (out of fears of lawsuits?? I’m not sure.). The Superintendent in turn reports back to the Board. This can unfortunately lead to communication problems.

    It also leads to the appearance that elected officials are being managed by the very organizations that we the people elect them to govern!

    In turn, supposedly because of the Brown Act regulating public meetings, the system allows citizens a limited time to state their cases at a Board meeting (3 minutes) while the Board members typically listen without responding.

    This effectively prohibits any kind of exchange of opinions in front of the Board, and there is clearly a difference of opinion between SMUHSD administration and myself on this curriculum issue.

    I can understand the desire not to consume valuable Board time by rants from uninformed people.

    Unfortunately this also blocks informed people from presenting alternate views on important topics in detail and hearing the opinions of the Board members directly.

    While I send my articles directly to Board members, I receive only occasional short responses and get almost no information on the Board’s thought process.

    This seems to run counter to the goals of a democratic system.”

    Like

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