4J Starts Process to Update Long Outdated Science Curriculum

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) may sound like a sci-fi TV show, but they’re actually the name of Oregon’s new science standards for public schools, passed earlier this year. Is Eugene School District 4J ready for them? Well, not yet. Not even close.

In fact, some schools still have 20-year-old science curriculum, like Kelly Middle School, where science teacher Dustin Dawson wrote his own curriculum to compensate for the district’s outmoded materials. The outd books were written before the first human genome was sequenced and before the Large Hadron Collider was built.

4J is in the middle of revamping its curriculum adoption process after the tumultuous “grassroots” introduction of College Preparatory Mathematics (CPM) curriculum that took place over the past few years, in which the district spent nearly $470,000 in bond and general funds without officially adopting the curriculum, despite criticism from parents and teachers.

Science is next on the list of new curriculum adoptions, which are supposed to occur every seven years, but as 4J reworks its process of adoption and the NGSS loom ahead, some teachers worry that time is running out.

“I thought we were much further ahead than we are,” says Dawson, who spoke at a Dec. 17 board meeting to express his concern about the outdated science curriculum, which might take years to replace after piloting with teachers and negotiating with publishers.

At the Dec. 17 board meeting, the 4J school board officially approved the process to move forward with the science curriculum adoption while continuing to restructure the overall curriculum adoption procedure in what 4J Superintendent Sheldon Berman calls a “parallel process.”

4J’s STEM education administrator Kim Finch said she plans to assemble a 35- to 40-person task force to help provide guidance in crafting a vision for 4J’s K-12 science curriculum. She added that it will take another year until elementary schools are ready to pilot.

Dawson says the district told him at the beginning of this school year that he would receive two pilot units to test in his classroom, but he only received his first unit a few weeks ago. “I thought I was middle of the pack, but at the meeting I realized they haven’t even lined up all the teachers who are going to pilot yet.”

Dawson tells EW that he’s excited about the new standards and thinks their process-driven approach is an improvement on simply memorizing facts — students are now encouraged to think analytically and solve problems, much like a real scientist would. He’s eager to start piloting science lessons, but he says he’s not sure the district can accomplish a full science curriculum adoption before students are tested on the new standards.

“If the new test comes in the next two to three years and we don’t have curriculum that is geared toward NGSS, that will hurt [students] because they won’t be familiar with any of that material. It’s just not to the same depth.”

Dawson says he’d like to see 4J using new curriculum by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, but he also thinks that assembling 35 to 40 people to develop a 4J science vision might slow things down if teachers have to wait for 4J to develop that vision before they can start piloting.

“It’s possible,” he says, “but it will take a lot of effort and energy.”