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Discussion: Science Instructional Materials for Middle School: Informing Future Initiatives

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posted by: Scott Hays on August 13, 1999 at 8:32PM
subject: Gail Paulin's Comments
Hello . . . . I have been selected from amongst the LASERS Staff Developers
to monitor this forum (and participate in it, if the opportunity arises) in
order to help prepare our efforts to upscale LASERS from a K-6 program to a
6-8 program. In that context, I am afraid to say that I have very little
to add to this forum in terms of formalized experience with Middle School
Curriculum. I have taught middle school students, however (in a unitque
4-8 environment), and have worked closely with middle school teachers in
SPAN for several years (and please, don't ask me what the acronym means . .
... . I know many "spanners" who couldn't tell you what it means, either).
Personal experience, then, might be the vehicle enabling me to contribute.

But before I comment on some of Gail Paulin's observations, let me post a
broad question which reflects not only the dilemma facing our specific
project, but also facing any middle school program in California (and, lest
you all just think we are nuts out here, perhaps -- unfortunately -- in the
rest of the nation before too long, as well; especially in light of the
well-publicized insanity present in Kansas); namely: How can we define
curriculum and pedagogical goals to match the restrictive California
Science Content Standards with the National Science Education Standards and
a desire to make middle school science more inquiry-based? Put another
way, our fear is that when new instructional materials are adopted by the
state (perhaps as soon as this fall) that are in line with the Earth(6),
Physical(7) and Life(8) content defined by the Standards, most MS teachers
will opt to purchase those materials and teach directly from them. Most MS
teachers, we fear, will not want to find a way to make them more
inquiry-based (especially if they do not emphasize inquiry in the text),
will not see a reason to receive pd enabling them to do that, and will not
see a reason to "waste" their time to do something the Standards (already
overblown and overinflated) do not call for.

Whew! Sorry, but this is a reality out here in the golden state!

As to Gail's informative post, let me comment on or ask questions about
just a few of her observations (those with which I have some familiarity):

>1. YOUR REVIEWS: What instructional materials have you used for middle
>school science?
>We are currently using Science Plus in 6-8 green ,red and blue levels
>respectively , CHEM (in 6th grade) and selected GEMS 6-8.There are also
>many teacher developed units which vary in quality from excellent to
>While there is a district wide adoption, there is very little in place to
>enforce universal usage. In addition, most of our adopted materials we
>chosen in 1992, so there was very little on the market at that time which
>lives up to what standards based, inquiry science should be. We are in the
>process of adopting some new materials so this discussion is very timely.
>We hope to learn what success others have had with particular pieces.

How was the district-wide adoption conducted? Since we in LASERS work
across seven different districts, I am looking for ways to direct
(facilitate?) a similar adoption by all seven districts.
>>What is your take on their strengths and weaknesses?
>CHEM has been well supported by district pd (study groups and teacher
>mentors) and is implemented in most schools. The emphasis on real life
>problems appropriate for this age student is appealing Science Plus
>addresses the inquiry standard adequately, but content information is very
>weak. Teachers who use the journaling feature, like it. Many teachers do
>not feel SP is an adequate resource for the courses they teach. It was not
>intended to be such, but in absence of other adopted resources, they are
>unhappy that there is a lack of content resource. We did provide
>nonconsumable materials to support at the time of adoption, they have been
>refreshed several times since, but this system does not adequately support
>programs at sites where little site budget is allocated for science. At
>present, teachers are asked to select at least 4 of the 8 units each year in
>Green Red and Blue to present at their grade level.
>We now have a draft of a scope and sequence aligned with our state
>standards that uses SP, GEMS and CHEM. All MS teachers will be asked to
>review this draft and suggest
>modifications and identify gaps where new curriculum materials are needed.

I suspect that a single adoption -- whether one series adopted by all
districts or different series adopted by each district -- will not provide
the support for inquiry/investigation and it will need to be supplemented,
as seems to be the case here with CHEM and GEMS. Was there a process by
which teachers at each grade level were made aware of the possible
supplemental sources . . . . how to use them . . . . the advantages of
using them . . . . consensus on which parts should be used when and how
(etc) OR did each teacher or each school come to its own decisions? Who
asks the teachers to select 4 units from SP, and in what ways are teachers
held accountable for doing that? Even more important, since this is
probably the vehicle we will use to generate a need for inquiry and to try
to drive a single, cross-district adoption, what process(es) did you use to
develop the Scope and Sequence to which you refer. By the way . . . . this
seems like an excellent approach.

>>Should they be all modular or year long?
>RESPONSE: >Given the heterogeneity of our MS teachers and students, I
>question whether any year long program would be fully implemented. Modular
>materials will accommodate more MS settings. If these can be constructed to
>link in several ways to form a year long curriculum that would be ideal for

I agree with your observations. Has anyone ever been able to complete a
year-long course of study as presented in a textbook AND felt comfortable
that the majority of students got anything from it other than suffering and
confusion? Modular materials selected to match the district scope and
sequence/content matrix provide the greatest flexibility and hope for

>* Should they have texts that go along with the activities, as the high
>school programs have?
>RESPONSE: They may not need a text per say, but they do need print
>resources which are age appropriate. They need to learn how to use and
>interpret this type of information as part of an investigative process.

I think most MS teachers would agree with this statement. Again, depending
upon experience and background, most do not rely upon a single text for
their coursework (though in "unreformed" schools, not sure about the
quality of the stuff they DO use). Most do see and insist on the need for
print resources. However, listen to this . . . . Los Angeles Unified just
pulled an about face regarding textbooks that may not have come to the
attention of everyone on this list. Their math lsc does not use
"textbooks", and member schools were told that the new math adoption (in
line with the Math Standards of California) did not apply to them -- that
is, they did not HAVE to adopt a math textbook, since it would probably
reflect the traditionalist approach to computation/memorization and
contradict the goals they had set for themselves. The Mathematically
Correct folk jumped all over that, used their top-down influence and media
connections to get supt Zacharias to reverse the decision and REQUIRE the
lsc schools to adopt one of the newly adopted texts. This would suggest
that similar pressures to adopt a science "text" will be present over the
next couple of years. Questions about how to keep the spirit of
independent investigation alive (and how widely it will still be alive)
over the next five years in this context jump instantly to my mind.

>* Would you recommend a social/societal context, a historical context, or a
>traditional one?
>RESPONSE: >Making science meaningful to students of this age is critical.
>variety of contexts might work, but the materials must be engaging!

Absolutely!!!!! Note: another reason the new california adoption may
shoot itself in the foot is that traditional approaches to content at the
middle school level is pretty text-dependent and NOT engaging.

>4. BARRIERS: What are the primary barriers to implementing such a
>curriculum (teacher certification/training, facilities, materials)?
>RESPONSE: yes all of these are barriers. We have a high turnover rate for
>MS science teachers and their backgrounds vary greatly, so one size all PD
>does not work. OUR Sceince materials center does not currently support MS
>science with materials, since our MS all have labs which house year long
>classes 6,7,8.
>* We would like the school to house its own materials, but there have
>problems at sites where no one takes responsibility for organizing
>andordering replacements of these materials.

I would add another barrier . . . . language! Theoretically, all
non-English speaking students who have attended California schools for at
least one year will be proficient enough in the English language to be
taught in English-only science classrooms. I am not sure what magic wand
will be waved to make this a reality, but here they come (ready to take the
new high stakes tests in English, as well!). Middle schools will clearly
need tons of help and support in reaching these kids. Any ideas?

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite
you; that is the principal difference between a dog and a man.
Mark Twain

Scott Hays

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