My SMUHSD Board Report on NGSS – A Lot of People of Good Will Trying to Deal with a Tough Problem

Current problems may eventually be ironed out of the NGSS curriculum. There was a nice display of positive progress at the 3/7/19 Board meeting, but there is still a significant way to go. There will be problems during the transition. Parents unfortunately appear unaware of / unconcerned by this issue.

This is a long article, but I won’t apologize for that.  Parents, you need to take the time to understand these issues as they will impact your child’s science education now and in the future.

I have tried to be fair to all sides because it is obvious to me that there are a lot of good people with good intentions at work here.  Nonetheless, I still stand by most of the reservations that I expressed earlier as you will read below.  In our discussions after both the District reps and I spoke, Board members were excited by the progress but said that they also had many of my reservations previously.


On the evening of 3/7/2019 I was finally able to address the San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) Board of Trustees regarding the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

NGSS is a major nationwide effort to overhaul the non-AP science curriculum, just as, earlier, Common Core was a national effort to establish uniform language arts and math standards.  The first attempt at NGSS classes in SMUHSD began in the 2017-2018 school year, and my attention was drawn to this topic in the fall of 2017 when my students started showing me physics worksheets which were clearly works-in-progress compared to the well-refined problem sets that had been used earlier in Aragon’s regular physics program.  After first talking to people at Aragon, I went to the District office and in late January 2018 wrote my first article on this topic: Attention SMUHSD Parents! State Mandated Testing Negatively Impacts Aragon’s Physics Program

After more meetings with the District I spoke to the Board on 3/8/18 and an agenda item for an NGSS update was requested.  Unfortunately it took almost a year to the day before the agenda item was enacted.

Last night (3/7/19) it was agenda item L.2.  An Adobe Acrobat PDF copy of the District’s slide show will download by clicking on this link.

After a brief introduction in the first five slides by Assistant Superintendent Kempkey and Director Simmons, an enthusiastic physics teacher from Mills High School, Ms. Melonie Cotter, discussed the rest of the slides beginning with the one entitled “NGSS PD Timeline (All district teachers).”  This described the 60 hours of professional development time allotted to the teachers since 2014 for NGSS work as well as upcoming events.

She next described how the teachers were collaborating to develop Common Learning Experiences (CLE) which are shared lessons and how big an improvement this was over the past when teachers would develop lesson plans in isolation. She gave examples of six CLE’s that she and her fellow teachers were very proud of.  Her next slide mentioned that currently only 60% of all students “complete the three course model.”  (I was not entirely sure if this means that 60% of all SMUHSD students take at least the three UC recommended science courses, e.g., physics, chemistry and biology possibly including AP course, or if this means that, out of students who are in the regular non-AP science stream, 60% of them take three science classes.  Unfortunately I did not have an opportunity to ask that question).

Note that the NGSS classes will form a three course, three-year sequence where physics, chemistry, biology, earth and space science are all integrated.  Topics from each of these five “traditional” areas can be spread over more than one NGSS course.  This means that one can no longer point to a single course as strictly, e.g., physics.  In fact she mentioned during questioning afterwards by the Board that the ostensibly regular physics class typically completed the physics material in the first semester and moved on to “new” material afterwards.

This explained to me why my regular physics students last year were using a final exam review sheet which had a significant (a bit under half) of its questions focusing on half-life calculations and radioactive dating of sediment layers and related half life applications.  The level of difficulty of those questions was a step down compared to what had often been done in the old regular physics class.  Also part of the old regular physics material (heat and thermodynamics) had been transferred to the ostensibly “chemistry” class.

This redesign is not in itself a bad idea, but AP science classes follow the traditional discrete subject breakdown, and, because they are managed by the “non-profit” College Board, they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  This means that a student, who starts an AP Physics class and decides that they are in over their head, no longer has a class dedicated entirely to the same subject at a lower level of complexity as a fall back.

This reinforces the concern in the written presentation that I gave the Board (see SMUHSD 3-7-19 presentation – v2) that it is logically impossible to add an additional year of NGSS-recommended Earth and Space Science topics to the previous three years of regular physics, chemistry, and biology without sacrificing material from the curriculum.

In her “Instructional Materials” slide, Ms. Cotter noted that “The intention of the rollout of the NGSS standards was to ensure that teachers were grounded in the standards before new instructional materials were chosen.“.  This means that it was part of the plan to develop the curriculum without textbooks which is what astounded me last year. Trustee Hanley clarified, after my presentation was given, that this very surprising decision was made at the California State level and imposed on local districts.  In an earlier article, I quoted parts of an article from Education Week article which explained the rationale.  Personally, I still find this decision astounding as I will explain below.

Finally, in a slide entitled “What the new science classroom looks like…. ” Ms. Cotter attempted to show a video of students enthusiastically engaged in a new NGSS CLE (unfortunately a technical glitch prevented its display at the meeting, but the link to it is embedded in the picture on her slide.  Note – you may receive a warning question about trusting Google Docs if you click on it.)

Ms. Cotter is clearly a committed teacher, and the Board congratulated her on her work, with members making positive comments.  Trustee Dwyer was enthusiastic about the increase in teacher collaboration and the fact that the new lessons were much more hands-on and engaging for the students.  Several members noted that most people tend to quickly forget what they learned in science, and NGSS would improve retention.  Trustee Hanley asked how far along the teachers were in implementing NGSS, and Ms. Cotter replied that teachers felt they were finally over the “hill” that they had to climb.

Next it was my turn to speak after a wait for one year.

I had given the Board members and District reps a written copy of my concerns (SMUHSD 3-7-19 presentation – v2) much earlier at the start of the meeting because there was no way that I could cover all concerns in the allotted time.  I instead decided to speak extemporaneously.

I had to motivate them to take the time to read my material and take those concerns seriously.  What follows are the high points from my memory of what I said:

I began by joking that I was now the “old geezer put in a position to throw a wet blanket on the party.”  I turned to Ms. Cotter and told her how delighted I was with her work, and that I would always whole-heartedly encourage any teacher who was so dedicated.

I then related a short story about my first physics lesson when I was a new teacher.

I worked for three weeks during the summer to prepare my first day of school introduction to physics because I wanted my students to feel my excitement for the subject and understand why physics was such a great subject to study.

After the first day of school a student went home and said to his mother that he just had the most exciting science lesson in all of his four years of high school!  She sent me a congratulatory email and cc’ed the principal!!  (I much later heard from another mother after the entire year was over that her son decided to major in physics because of my course.  Sadly I also had many students in the class who only wanted a C so that they could continue to play football!!)

BUT, I noted, it took me three weeks to prepare that lecture!  I said that I had also personally developed lab lessons for my students and knew from first hand experience how difficult and time-consuming that was.  I noted that Ms. Cotter’s slide showed six lessons, and then I related the following information from the written document:

As an example of how hard this lesson planning task is, the Achieve organization that spearheaded the writing of the NGSS standards provided vetting tools for lesson compliance and began posting model lessons on their website according to the Education Week article that I sent to you.  As of last June when the article was written 100 lessons had been submitted and only 8 were selected and posted.  As of today three quarters of a year later, that number has risen to a whopping total of 14 for all of K-12!

I went on to strongly emphasize that I was not here to bash teachers but instead note that the teachers had been given an extremely difficult assignment akin to “rerouting a freeway while it was in use!”

I also mentioned that, looking around the room, there were only two people (one on the Board and one Assistant Superintendent) in the meeting who knew me from when I frequented the Board meeting years ago and served as the chairperson of the Measure C Citizens Oversight Committee.  I was concerned that many others present looked at me and only saw my graying hair and wrinkles.  It concerned me that this lack of knowledge (reinforced by the delay of this critical agenda item for an entire year!) meant that I was perceived as an old geezer who never wanted anything to change.  (Note that comments to this effect – not personal attacks – but mentions about “doing things just because that was the way that they were always done,” came up in more than one of my meetings with the District unfortunately).

I therefore regretted that I felt compelled to mention my personal background. (Readers, please note that I don’t usually even call myself “Dr. Kristofferson” but have my students refer to me instead simply as “Mr. K”).

As I can not remember the exact words that I spoke, this is the section from my written remarks.  This section is longer than what I actually said at the meeting due to time limitations.  Please feel free to skim or even skip the following block quote unless you need further convincing of my background and seriousness:

I have a B.A. in Chemical Physics from UCSD, a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from UCSB, and did postdoctoral research at UCSF.  I have an MBA from UC Berkeley and a UNIX technical certification from UCSC.  While still in graduate school, I published 9 research papers in prestigious journals such as the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

I was offered postdoctoral research positions by a Nobel Laureate at MIT and a future Nobel Laureate at Yale, but decided to work at UCSF for a professor of biophysics who was also president of the American Biophysical Society.  I later had a second research position with the president of the American Society of Cell Biology who is now at Harvard.

I declined a professorship of my own and joined a molecular biology software startup in Silicon Valley where I became the manager of an NIH-funded DNA and protein sequence computing center called BIONET.  I later managed the GenBank national nucleic acid sequence database.  I was in on the beginnings of the Human Genome project and was an early advocate of the use of the Internet for genomic research.  This work led to my being selected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

I hesitate to bring the above up because it tends to provoke the reaction from teachers that I am all theoretical but have no classroom smarts.  I have taught both high school and college physics, college chemistry, environmental science, and math up through and including calculus in both California high schools and colleges and in the Peace Corps.  I have taught under some arduous conditions with inner city kids, some of whom were on parole.  I have also substitute taught in every high school in SMUHSD including the continuation school.  I also served as the first chairperson of the Measure C Citizens Oversight Committee and played an important role in the rebuilding of San Mateo High School.  Both of my daughters went to Aragon and my younger daughter Amy was a valedictorian there.  I know the District well.

I am now retired, and have tried hard to pass my knowledge on to the youth in our community through my tutoring work during the past seven years.  My goal is to impart the excitement I felt about science when I was a student to today’s young people, far too many of whom appear to prefer nontechnical fields.

After doing this primarily with Aragon students for my first four years, I kept running into the same recurring problems and decided that I needed to address them through my blog at (which has had over 13,000 visitors since it began in October 2016) and via lobbying efforts instead of only putting band-aids on my individual students.  I have pursued these efforts for the past three years and have achieved some successes as noted in my blog articles.

I concluded by saying that I was therefore disappointed when I tried on multiple occasions to tell the District that there were problems with the new physics curriculum and was told repeatedly that things were fine or that my students were “not representative” because they were already seeking additional help.

I said that I had worked all of the physics problem sets for the last six years and had the background to tell that the new sets were at a lower level!! (the news this evening from Ms. Cotter’s presentation, though, indicated that this was due in part to the three course option rearrangement of the subjects).

The SMUHSD District, as did many other districts in California (please read my in my written comments submitted to the Board) chose an abbreviated three course option to implement NGSS.  The authors of the NGSS standards designed them to be covered in four one-year classes.  It was logically impossible to put four years of topics into three years of classes without omitting material, but the standards authors tried to provide such an option in Appendix K of the standards document.

I said that, using terms from the software industry, the NGSS standards document was a “massive requirements specification,” and asking working teachers to implement it, particularly without a textbook as support, was like asking them to reroute a freeway while it was in use!

I am not going to repeat the rest of the points in my written comments here, but strongly encourage the reader to look at SMUHSD 3-7-19 presentation – v2.

In conclusion, I said that I did not have any reasonable expectation of changing or reversing course on the NGSS implementation, but simply asked again, as I did the year before, that the District be required by the Board to implement an email notification list, not only for parents but for concerned citizens like myself, to give advanced warning of future curriculum changes and textbook adoptions (see my written comments for answers to possible objections against doing this).

I also said that, due to the fact that the District is always worrying about student mental health, and, I believe, a large contributor to this problem is the AP course work overload, we need to think seriously about organizing a community “education summit” where issues like AP classes and NGSS could be discussed at greater length.  The Board agenda is overwhelmed with important administrative issues required to keep the District running, and the time limitations and lengthy time required to get topics on the agenda make it a difficult forum for these kinds of critical curriculum discussions.

I thanked the Board members for their service to the community. I greatly appreciated their dedication to the community and knew from my service on the Measure C COC how time-consuming and demanding their work was.  I noted though that, because they do not have dedicated support staff to answer constituent mail like other elected officials do, communications can be very difficult.  The Superintendent, who is also a very busy person, serves as their spokesperson.

[ I did not say the following paragraph at the meeting, but readers should note that this is an issue not only with SMUHSD, but also with our local K-8 SMFCSD.  Superintendents Skelly from SMUHSD and Rosas from SMFCSD are both extremely nice, hardworking people with whom I have met on numerous occasions and will continue to do so in the future, but I feel compelled to note that this kind of communication channel creates an obvious conflict of interest.  The Board is mandated to oversee the District, but the District has significant control over the channel of communications and the setting of the Board meeting agenda.  Unless Board members were granted completely independent support staff (read “$$$$”), there is no solution to this problem.  The system works as long as we have people of good intent in office which, very fortunately, we do in our local districts. ]

The Board listened intently to me the entire time that I spoke, and, afterwards, several of the members sincerely thanked me for the work that I was doing with local students.  Trustee Hanley spoke first and noted, as I detailed above, that NGSS was a state mandate and that the decision to proceed without textbooks also came from above.  He and other Board members had similar reservations to mine when the whole topic was first raised several years ago.

Please let me emphasize again, as I already noted above before I detailed my speech, that Board members strongly supported the teachers efforts in implementing NGSS, are enthusiastic about the new lessons, and are delighted with the dramatic increase in collaborative lesson planning that has resulted from the NGSS implementation.  Trustee Hanley, in particular, mentioned that they do not support the “dumbing-down” of classes and do not believe that this is happening.

This does not, however, invalidate my concerns about the new curriculum, nor did the Board attempt to do so.

NGSS represents a pronounced shift away from traditional lecture/homework classes towards hands-on learning and self-discovery.  This has both benefits and perils depending upon how it is finally implemented.

The debate between these two education philosophies, of course, will be a topic of a future article!

In the interim, I am extremely grateful that we finally all had a very useful opportunity to communicate face-to-face at this meeting, and there are hopeful signs that this communication, without similar major delays, will continue in the future.

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

One thought on “My SMUHSD Board Report on NGSS – A Lot of People of Good Will Trying to Deal with a Tough Problem”

  1. Unfortunately despite good intentions expressed at the Board meeting, my follow-up attempts all came to nothing.

    I was looking through the SMUHSD Board minutes today (6/1/2020) for other reasons and decided to look at what was written up in the minutes:

    “ L.2 . Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Update

    Assistant Superintendent Julia Kempkey and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Brian Simmons provided an update to the Board on the progress being made by students in Science course-taking and achievement as well as provide a status report regarding the ongoing implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) .

    David Kristofferson addressed the board on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) .”

    That’s it… Even though the Board president at the time, Linda Lee Dwyer, requested an agenda item on NGSS to investigate why the District proceeded with the implementation in the absence of NGSS-aligned textbooks a year earlier, the District delayed it until their regularly scheduled NGSS report during March 2019, an entire year later. In practice, the District did not want to devote any of their precious time to this topic until they absolutely had to… So much for listening to citizen feedback…

    The Board president clearly did not know the reason in 2018 for proceeding with NGSS without textbooks *or else she would not have requested the agenda item!* Yet another example of why people get discouraged when dealing with public bureaucracies…


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