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5 things to know about California’s new science standards

High school science teacher Natalie Wright (left) explains science research she carried out at the California Teachers' Summit at CSU Fullerton.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
High school science teacher Natalie Wright (left) explains science research she carried out at the California Teachers' Summit at CSU Fullerton.

California public schools are in the middle of a four year roll-out of the Next Generation Science Standards. As teachers, administrators, students, parents and the general public struggle to understand the big changes, here are some of the most important things to know:

  • The new standards aim to empower students with science knowledge to help them become better citizens and consumers
  • The standards teach scientific concepts across disciplines
  • The standards focus on teaching students how scientists solve problems
  • The focus is on thinking, not memorization
  • And in 2019, California's tests will begin to measure how well students are mastering the new learning standards

California chose a roll-outof the new standards between 2014 and 2018 to give school districts enough time to come up with new curriculum and train teachers on the new methods.

“In the old way, a teacher might say, ‘here’s your textbook, here’s the chapter on ecosystems, let’s read it, let’s answer the questions,'” said El Toro High School science teacher Janet English. “The test might be a multiple-choice test. Answer the questions at the end of the chapter. Here’s a video and here’s a lab that everybody does the same way and comes up with the same answers.”

The new way of teaching might instead ask the student to think of an ecosystem in the region, work in student teams to come up with ways to find out what’s affecting the ecosystem, and collaborate on a presentation. The teacher is the guide through the problem solving and critical thinking.

Teachers say that new approach is forcing teachers to up their game.

Eleventh-grade environmental science teacher Lesly Anderson, for example, spent her summer working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While at JPL, she studied sea ice thickness in the Arctic and when she took it back to the classroom, she connected the science with students’ everyday lives.

“I talked to my students about the habitat loss of the polar bear up in the Arctic," she said. "What does that mean for them? And how can they as students have an impact on that by unplugging lights?” 

Anderson is one of 13,000 teachers who took part in last week’s California Teachers’ Summit, an event that highlighted how teachers are working through the changes in approach to learning.

“Teachers want to come together and hear from peers who have been implementing this, who have been trying out these new standards and share ideas,” said Cal State Fullerton education researcher Mark Ellis, one of the organizers of the conference.

Many teacher credential programs are already preparing teachers for the new science standards. One of the biggest challenges is shifting teaching methods for teachers who’ve been in the profession a decade or longer.

“This transition is a struggle, and the struggle is an intellectual struggle for not only the students but the teachers as well," said El Toro High School's English. "And that’s a good thing because keeping teachers dynamic, and thinking, and processing makes better teachers." 

Teachers don’t have all the time in the world to make the transition. The shift in standards counts to testing to hold teachers accountable for making the changes and to measure how well students are mastering the new science learning. California is set to administer those science tests for the first time in 2019.