Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2005 Newsletter



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California Political Science Education

Lawrence Woolf, General Atomics

If you're a curriculum developer and want your grade K-8 science instructional materials to be adopted for use in California, you'd better not mention either the National Science Education Standards (NSES) or the AAAS Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Because if you do, your materials can't be adopted.

Welcome to the strange world of state science education policy. I've taken an active role in California science education policy for the past 7 years and in this article will share my story on how I got involved, what I've tried to do, what I've actually accomplished (in conjunction with the efforts of many others), and some lessons that are applicable to anyone interested in K-12 science education.

My involvement in science education began in 1992 when my company, General Atomics, started an education outreach program, in which scientists and teachers worked together to develop a number of educational modules. I helped develop and present a Materials Science module at a variety of science education conferences, and later developed additional modules and materials. To further my understanding of science education, I attended the 5-day 1997 Teacher Scientist Alliance program, headed by then APS education and outreach director Ramon Lopez, the current FEd chairperson.

In about 1997, California began developing state science education standards. The final draft version differed significantly from the NSES in both content and philosophy. As an example of the differences between the California Science Standards (CSS) and NSES: according to the CSS, students in grade 3 should know that “Science experiments show that there are more than 100 different types of atoms, which are presented on the periodic table of the elements.” In contrast, the NSES includes this topic in its grade 5-8 standards: “There are more than 100 known elements that combine in a multitude of ways to produce compounds, which account for the living and nonliving substances that we encounter.”

California is an adoption state (for grades K-8), one of 22. In adoption states, the state determines the instructional materials that school districts can purchase using state funds. In California, the state curriculum commission sets the criteria for determining how these materials are selected. Other committees then review and judge the science instructional materials that are submitted for adoption. In 1998, new criteria for adoption of K-8 science instructional materials stated that they must meet every single grade level standard at a particular grade to be considered for adoption - if an instructional material missed just one of the grade level standards, it couldn't be adopted for use in California.

Once developed, the final version of both the CSS and the criteria for adoption of K-8 science instructional materials had to be approved by the State Board of Education (SBE) to become state policy. In discussions with teachers and science education leaders from around the state, I knew that many disagreed with parts of both the CSS and the criteria for adoption. I therefore took the initiative and wrote a science education petition summarizing the major points of discontent, and distributed it via various email conduits. The result was a flood of responses from over 350 science educators and scientists from throughout the state who signed onto the petition via email, many adding their personal opinions. I manually collected these responses and organized them into a coherent document. I did this for two reasons: to document the disagreement for historical reasons and to use this as a mechanism to try to influence the SBE.

Next I traveled to Sacramento to present this petition to the SBE at their public hearing on both the CSS and the criteria. Individuals must call the SBE ahead of time and notify them of your intention to testify. You have 2 minutes to make your case to the board, which presents some problems. If you talk about the general issues, you don't have time to justify your concerns with concrete examples. On the other hand, if you mention specific examples, you don't have time to speak to the overriding concerns. I have found it useful to mention the main concern in one or two sentences followed by 3-4 one-line examples that provide rationale for the concern. In addition, you must carefully practice your talk because, like at an APS meeting, you will be cut off after your 2 minute allotment.

Despite my testimony and that of others, the CSS were approved. The criteria for adoption of K-8 science materials were also approved, which ultimately resulted in no inquiry-based or NSF-funded curricula being approved for adoption, in large part because they did not meet every CSS at a particular grade level.

During the discussion among SBE members following public testimony, I was quite surprised to find that some members viewed hands-on science education as unstructured and unscripted playing around with little or no rigorous learning occurring. From my perspective, it appeared that SBE members had never been exposed to high quality inquiry-based science education curricula, pedagogy, or research. This deficiency clearly needs to be addressed. So that policy makers at the state and district level can make informed decisions, the science education community needs to communicate the rationale and evidence for effective science education methodology to them. A recent article in the California School Boards Association magazine (Ref. 1) on science education may help in this regard.

The next major issue that arose a year or so later was the California Science Framework, a document that is meant to show how the CSS should be implemented in the classroom. I disagreed with many parts of the Framework, including:

  • “science must be taught ‘for the sake of science’” because it “disciplines the minds of students.”
  • Ohm's Law, one of the guiding principles of physics...
  • The life's work of many scientists is replicating other scientists' experiments in order to test their conclusion.

Well, once again, my testimony (and that of others) to the SBE to reject the Framework was ignored and the Framework was approved.

My most recent interaction with state science education policy concerned an issue that garnered national attention in 2004, including articles in the Washington Post and the San Jose Mercury News. Every seven years in California, the state adopts new science instructional materials for grades K-8, and sufficient time had passed since the last adoption that the state curriculum commission was tasked to develop new criteria for the adoption of K-8 science instructional materials. Among other things, these new criteria stated:

  • “The only standards that may be referenced are the California Science Standards. There should be no reference to national standards or benchmarks or to any standards other than the California Science Standards.”
  • Curricula must show “A table of evidence in the teacher edition, demonstrating that the California Science Standards can be comprehensively taught from the submitted materials with hands-on activities composing no more than 20 to 25 percent of science instructional time...”

Since research-based hands-on science instructional materials generally use more than 25% of time for hands-on activities, this ruled out their ever being approved for adoption. And just to confuse the issue further, the new criteria also encouraged “publishers to select research-based pedagogical approaches.”

Well, needless to say, this riled up more than a few folks in the science education community and spurred two major efforts. First, 3 different groups, consisting of science educators, university professors, and members of the business community, independently started emailing each other to try to formulate a strategy about how to deal with this issue. I brought these 3 groups together electronically so that we could present a united and cohesive front. Second, I worked closely with Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences, to develop a position paper on this issue that could be widely distributed; this culminated in a letter to the SBE opposing the new criteria that was signed by the chancellors of the University of California, Stanford, and the California Institute of Technology, and the CEOs of Intel, Bechtel, Adobe Systems, Genentech, and Pixar, and George Lucas. I had the privilege of reading this letter to the SBE at public testimony about this issue. The net result of these efforts and that of many others was that some of the most egregious issues in the criteria were modified. The most significant was that the revised criteria now read, in a major reversal of policy, that instructional materials must “include hands-on activities composing at least 20 to 25 percent of the science instructional program.” But you still can't mention any standards but the California standards.

How do these things happen? State committees and commissions are often greatly influenced by just a few people in positions of power or influence. In California, an influential member of various commissions has stated (Ref. 2): “What has been left unsaid is that real scientists don't actually spend very much of their day "observing" and "measuring." They read! Reading for understanding of content is the core process skill of science, and there is no substitute for practice at an early age.… Hands-on investigative activities ought to be sprinkled into a science program like a ‘spice’ they cannot substitute for a ‘main dish’. The best ‘hands-on’ program would be one in which students can get their “hands on” an informative textbook!”

So what enduring lessons can be gleaned from these experiences?

I have found that testifying at the meeting where the SBE must make their decision to approve or reject the policy issue in front of them to be only marginally effective. There are 2 reasons. First, most SBE members have thought about the issue, are at least somewhat aware of both sides of the issue, and generally seem to have their minds made up prior to the meeting. Therefore it is prudent to send comments to SBE members well in advance of their meeting to educate them on the upcoming topic. Second, the state has a strict timetable that the SBE is not inclined to disrupt. For example, the timetable for textbook adoptions requires approved adoption criteria by a certain date.

On the other hand, getting involved can make a major difference, as in the case noted above where the criteria were altered from “no more than” to “at least” 25% hands-on science. This change will presumably result in hands-on science programs being adopted for use in California in the near future, ending a 7-year drought.

I'd recommend that scientists interested in improving K-12 science education take a critical look at their state's standards, framework, criteria for adoption of instructional materials, and the materials actually adopted. These are real constraints that affect every classroom teacher and student. If you determine that changes are in order, find out when or if the state has scheduled a review or revision of the item and become involved in that process. It takes significant effort to navigate the complexity of state science education policy, but the payoff is certainly worthwhile.




For more information about the activities discussed in this article, go to: and click on “K-12 education.”

For additional information about California instructional materials adoptions, go to:

Lawrence Woolf is a research physicist and program manager at General Atomics. As part of his voluntary education efforts, he has written numerous education modules, developed a variety of education materials, performed curriculum reviews for NSF-funded middle and high school science programs, and participated in many NSF education review panels.



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