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Middle-School Curriculum Forum

author: LSC projects
submitter: LSC-Net - Local Systemic Change Network
description: This collaborative document (16 different LSCs participated) summarizes the contributions to the recent electronic forum on middle school science instructional materials. The summary includes participants' reviews of existing curricula, suggestions for elements that should be included in any new science curricula to be developed, suggestions for instructional materials' subject, format, and design perspective, and perspectives on barriers to implementing high-quality curricula. Many thanks to all the LSC staff members who contributed to the forum for their insightful comments and for their help in shaping this collaborative summary.
published: 10/08/1999
posted to site: 10/08/1999
Forum on Middle School, Science, Instructional Materials


Tom Archer Mack McCary
Ron DeFronzo Gail Paulin
Richard Dinko Sona Polakowski
Peter Dow Gary Reece
Barbara Fitzsimmons Roger Spratt
Vicki Graber Barbara Sullivan-Watts
Linda Gregg Mary Kay Swanson
Scott Hays Jerry Valadez
Russ Janigian Rick Vanosdall
Mary Long Janie West
Bruce Marganoff  
Edited by Joni Falk

This forum took place in August of 1999 on LSC-Net an electronic community for leaders in the field of systemic reform. The entire forum can be read on-line.

LSC-Net is funded by the National Science Foundation. Ideas and opinions represented in this forum represent those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent those of their entire project, nor those of the NSF.

During August 1999 twenty-one leaders in the field of middle school science participated in an electronic forum that addressed key issues regarding science curricula for middle school. Participants were senior staff of Local Systemic Change Projects (LSCs), funded by the National Science Foundation; participants posting came from 16 different Local Systemic Change Initiatives.

Participants addressed their remarks to the following four questions:

  1. Reviews of Science Curricula being used: What instructional materials have you used for middle- school science? What is your take on their strengths and weaknesses?

  2. Identifying needs: In considering a new initiative for curriculum development, what do you think teachers and administrators want/need in instructional materials to provide high-quality science education to their students?

  3. Suggestions for subject, format and design perspective:

    • Should new curriculum materials for middle school be in earth, life, and physical science, or multidisciplinary, or interdisciplinary?
    • Should they be all modular or year-long?
    • Should they be integrated across subject domains?
    • Should they have texts that go along with the activities, as the high school programs have?
    • Would you recommend a social/societal context, a historical context, or a traditional one?

  4. Addressing barriers: What are the primary barriers to implementing such a curriculum (teacher certification/training, facilities, materials)?

In answering these questions, the discussants mentioned many of the criteria that they use in choosing materials and also discussed some of their experience in actually implementing the curricula as part of a systemic reform of science education in their area.

Many projects are in a continuous process of evaluation and testing of new materials, as described in their messages. The needs and criteria that are important in deciding what materials to use are quite complex, and this probably accounts for the complex tapestry of curricula represented in this forum. No one curriculum series will meet all needs, even within one district, and the consideration of middle-school materials is affected also by changes in the elementary and high-school curricula, with which the middle schools must articulate. Evidently as frameworks or state assessments change, the demands on the middle-school curriculum shift also. Although there is definitely a sense that good new materials are needed, there should not be a search for a panacea.

In what follows, we summarize the contributions and include quotations from the messages posted, but we encourage you to read the messages in full archived on the LSC-Net site.

1. Review of Science Curricula currently being used by the participants

Participants mentioned 23 curricula or kit series; the full list of titles mentioned is given at the end of this section. Below are summary comments and representative excerpts from participants on each of the following curricula:

  • Science Plus
  • CHEM
  • Prentice Hall Science Explorer series
  • Event Based Science
  • GEMS
  • Glencoe
  • STC
  • FAST
  • FOSS
  • Teacher- or district-designed kits

Science Plus
Respondents reported that the benefits of Science Plus were that it "addresses the inquiry standard adequately" and "it was less a text, more a guide and therefore would encourage more student investigation than reading about science." It worked well with 6th grade teachers, "provided their school has maintained adequate materials to support it." Some of the concerns addressed the "lack of print material" and the need for districts to provide supplemental resource library material. In addition, one participant reported that it ended up "on the shelf" in many classrooms where the teachers lacked science background or were teaching in classrooms without sinks or lab tables.

One respondent wrote, "The program was designed to articulate from grades 7-9, and Book 1 is being used in the middle school." Another discussant reported that this "has worked very well between middle schools and their high schools that have embraced the idea."

One participant wrote that CHEM was introduced to the district by the IEOSL project at Lawrence Hall. It was well liked by participants and was added to the supplemental list. "The emphasis on real life problems appropriate for this age student is appealing."

Prentice-Hall Science Explorer Series
"At grades 7 and 8 we've just selected the Prentice-Hall Science Explorer series, modular texts which allow us to address fewer topics in greater depth. These texts are intended to support the curriculum which is intended to be significantly hands-on. This was a compromise with the teachers who wanted a text based curriculum. It's difficult to determine strengths and weaknesses at this early date."

Event Based Science
One discussant wrote of the introduction of Event Based Science -- Hurricane, Tornado and Earthquakes into seventh grade. He found that "teachers were not ready for such a dramatic change in their style of teaching" and would need "more experience in a more inquiry oriented approach to teaching science. They have a great potential for filling in gaps in the curriculum, but our teachers rely more on very traditional ways of teaching (i.e. textbooks)."

GEMS 6-8
One discussant wrote of GEMS: "they are not centrally supported by materials, guides are provided at each school." Another discussant wrote that they are used "to some extent to fill the gaps in meeting our standards."

The reported strength of Glencoe was "that it is interdisciplinary and has hands on activities for students." The weakness reported was that "teachers express concerns related to the depth of content covered."

Two projects reported using STC materials. In one LSC it is being used in the sixth grade. Another LSC reported that three teachers participated in field testing of STC/MS Catastrophic Events. This discussant commented that "this unit and accompanying ones from STC/MC have a significant potential for use in our middle schools." He raised the question of how much training regular classroom teachers would need to make use of the material.

One participant wrote that some teachers are using use FAST (Foundational Approaches in Science Teaching) developed by the Curriculum Research & Development Group of the University of Hawaii. "They use the 'Local Environment' materials and love it. Our problem is the local application portion requires great teacher effort. They have to be willing to investigate their area- it is not in the book!"

Several LSCs reported that they were introducing FOSS MS modules. One contributor wrote, "We have seen field-test versions of this program and anticipate it will be one of the best available for middle school. Development priorities have delayed its availability and it will not be on this years adoption list unfortunately." Another participant wrote: "We have been piloting FOSS MS modules the past two years, they were well received, but it remains unclear at this time if a kit based program will be the answer for middle school. COSTS will be a factor if modules are housed at every school and at this time, there are insufficient kits available to make a year long program at any grade level."

Another LSC reported on the introduction of two FOSS middle school units, Electronics and Earth History. This discussant related that "teachers are very apprehensive about using these materials since they will have no textbooks to fall back on." He added a caution about the need for training and support of these units. Another participant added that they too have introduced FOSS but "that teachers still want more emphasis on their local area."

Two discussants wrote fairly extensively about their positive experiences with the Globe project and how they successfully implemented the program within their district. Their posts follow:

Several years ago, we became involved with the GLOBE project as part of a Goals 2000 regional collaboration. We found GLOBE after looking for materials which would give students the opportunity of applying math and science skills & concepts in a real world setting. GLOBE trains teachers in scientific protocols for collecting environmental data, which students then post to the Internet. We have used it from elementary through high school. At middle school students are involved in monitoring weather and water quality. It has been enthusiastically received by many of our middle school science teachers, and seems to have really helped students learn to apply data analysis and statistics to scientific data. It has also helped develop a very strong & committed cadre of teacher leaders, who also provide district leadership in science through the science council.

We also use the GLOBE program ( It has been very valuable to us as a tool to supplement any curriculum by introducing local environmental monitoring/understanding and facilitating the reporting of data really used by scientists. It is flexible to be used K-12. This isn't just canned labs where the actual numerical data is rather useless in the end- the kids are studying their local environment by following protocols developed by scientists and reporting their data for those scientists to use. The students can call up data from other sites (there are over 7000 GLOBE schools in 70 countries) and look at trends in data based on location or time. Students all of a sudden take things more seriously knowing this data will be used for real. It also has a neat remote sensing piece where students conduct ground cover verification of the actual satellite image for their area. We are pretty new in this, but looking forward to the implications.

We also compact local dollars (district Eisenhower, local foundation grants, other grants, etc) for equipment purchase which can be borrowed by teachers. It is kind of like the kit concept of a regional distribution center, but we are doing it with scientific equipment. We provide complete class sets of equipment to carry out all the GLOBE protocols (water testing, soil testing, GPS units, laptops, digital cameras, etc), as well as provide other equipment (really high quality balances, microscopes, calculators).

Teacher or district-developed kits
Several districts reported using a combination of kits that are a mix of materials available on the market and teacher-developed units. It was felt that the kit approach oftentimes is not supported by interesting and engaging text resources. Teacher-developed materials "range in quality from excellent to questionable."

One discussant reflected on the benefits and challenges of using a combination of district-developed as well as other kits. He wrote that this approach provides classroom teachers "with the opportunity to customize the district wide curriculum to fit the needs of their specific student population within parameters. This results in improved teacher interest because they have control over purchasing equipment and materials to best meet their local needs. The teacher can purchase the things of science rather than the books of science, and students can learn how to do science rather than only learn about science." The downside of this approach is that "there is no 'real' way to check to verify that the curriculum is delivered."

Other materials mentioned:

  • SALI
  • Insights
  • Science Interactions
  • PASCO kits
  • EarthComm (field-test, from American Geological Inst.)
  • PRIME Science
  • New Directions Teaching Units
  • Macmillan/McGraw-Hill

When reviewing instructional materials, the depth and breadth of content was a repeated concern. While there was a call for good print materials to provide content, there was also a concern to address scientific thinking. When reflecting on this one participant wrote: "We still have many cries for more content in these new materials. Sometimes the cry for the content is really a cry to have the explanation/answer easily in front of students to answer their questions." Clearly the use and evaluation of instructional materials is closely linked to teacher preparedness and professional development efforts.

2. Identifying needs: In considering a new initiative for curriculum development, what do you think teachers and administrators want/need in instructional materials to provide high-quality science education to their students?

There were many thoughtful responses about what teachers and administrators want in instructional materials. It was clear that no one curriculum would answer all needs, for all settings. However, the following ideas were repeatedly expressed by participants:

Materials should:

  1. Be aligned with big ideas and with standards
  2. Be modular, conceptually organized units
  3. Contain or support inquiry-based investigations
  4. Be relevant to the everyday lives of students
  5. Be integrated across disciplines
  6. Include hands-on activities with accompanying engaging texts to provide further in-depth information
  7. Provide access to extensions through CDs, on-line resources, and supplemental readings
  8. Use relatively inexpensive materials and use common material creatively
  9. Include embedded alternative assessments of student learning
  10. Contain a companion guide with well-defined, specific activities for volunteer scientists
  11. Be adaptable for a variety of lab settings, promoting inquiry rather than traditional labs
  12. Include links to technology (including computers and science instrumentation)
  13. Include standards and assessments coordinated with Earth, Life, Physical and Scientific Thinking
  14. Facilitate connections from year to year and articulate with both elementary and high school
3. Suggestions for subject, format and design perspective:

  • Should new curriculum materials for middle school be in earth, life, and physical science, or multidisciplinary, or interdisciplinary?
  • Should they be all modular or year-long?
  • Should they be integrated across subject domains?
  • Should they have texts that go along with the activities, as the high school programs have?
  • Would you recommend a social/societal context, a historical context, or a traditional one?

While various opinions were expressed there was far more consensus than disagreement among forum participants.

There was a strong vote for modular units. Some participants suggested that modular units that support flexible sequences and could be linked to form a year-long curriculum would be best. One participant added, "The modular materials which provide access to extensions and/or desired (deeper) content when needed (through CD's, on-line web pages/links, and supplemental readers) will be more marketable to the middle school audience and provide the safety net some teachers desire."

Most participants favored integrated, interdisciplinary units tied to big ideas and concepts. More participants favored a social/societal context as opposed to a historical context, but some wrote that they incorporate both. Others wrote that it was hard to judge between these two contexts in the abstract. A minority voice advocated for "pure science."

There were many strong opinions expressed about the need for text material to accompany student activities. Everyone agreed that there was a great need for high-quality print material for students. Participants felt that print material was a necessary component of good science learning, and that in addition stakeholders and parents wanted to see this as part of the package. Yet, these print materials were not a call to return to the standard text. While some favored an accompanying text, others sought concise narrative readings that were aligned to the content. One participant suggested reading material that included notebooks/journals by real scientists and papers that other students published that put forth their ideas. Another participant observed that the "text is essential but the shift is that the text supplements the curriculum rather than being the curriculum."

4. Addressing barriers: What are the primary barriers to implementing such a curriculum (teacher certification/training, facilities, materials)?

The primary barriers that were addressed fell into four main categories:

  • Lack of adequate teacher professional development
  • High stakes assessment and parental support
  • Structural conflicts within many school systems
  • Lack of materials and resources

Professional Development
The most common barrier mentioned was teacher preparation, and the contributions suggest that teacher preparation needed for middle-school science teachers is complex and multifaceted. Many discussants said that teachers need adequate professional development in content, pedagogy, classroom management, and management of materials.

One discussant writes, "The crying needs of our teachers seems to be a tremendous amount of support in a few areas. They are being asked to use materials that in some ways are totally new to them with a minimum of training. Although they know more science than an average elementary teacher, they still need a significant amount of training in the specific content and classroom management." Several participants expressed that many teachers are either not prepared for, or have not bought in to, teaching inquiry-based science. "The greatest barrier, in my opinion, is teachers who are comfortable with a traditional, more lecture oriented approach to teaching. They consider themselves subject matter experts and responsible for 'teaching the students what they need to know' rather than helping them to uncover through experimentation."

Other discussants wrote of the high turnover rate for middle-school science teachers and the fact that science background varies greatly so "one size fits all" professional development does not work. Still others wrote of the lack of time for in-service training and the lack of articulation with teacher preparation programs.

Several contributors shared strategies for improving professional development. Two discussants spoke of the need to involve teachers in "high quality inquiry activities." One discussant writes, "Middle school teachers are subject area specialists who may have a difficult time letting go of their traditional ways. Many are well committed to hands-on science, but have not made a transfer to true inquiry. This needs to be modeled." Discussants suggested that science learning experience for middle-school teachers should include experience with the actual practice of science through research investigations and collaboration with professional scientists. "I am convinced middle school teachers must have more experiences with real scientific inquiry... ('Real' meaning genuine, ongoing research projects by local scientists). In designing my own courses it is no easy task to teach using inquiry without digging very deep indeed into my own research experiences and adapting them to the classroom."

Another discussant addressed the obstacle of teacher buy-in. He wrote: "Teachers need to have some input into the selection of the materials. It's so important that they feel ownership for the selections. They need a training program structured to meet their needs, which are considerably different from what our elementary teachers need. They should have some control over their own scheduling of classes and time built in for clean up and set up. And they need to have a system to replenish the materials much as the elementary programs are using."

Two discussants addressed themselves eloquently to the need to develop a culture of collaboration and reflection. One discussant suggested using the Web to create a community of learners where teachers share "ideas, lesson plans, modifications to lesson plans..." He suggested that such a site should include "direct training... easy access to tech support and a network of users who can help one another." Another discussant recommended creating a culture of reflection within a school. Drawing on his experience implementing math reform he wrote, "the major lesson we that it isn't the materials, but the culture of teacher reflection on inquiry which makes all the difference in the world. We found that teachers honestly thought they were implementing the curriculum when they used the materials, even though observation confirmed that most of them accidentally turned high lever challenges into traditional teacher-directed instruction. We used a consultant to model how to reflect on lessons using inquiry as a framework. This gradually led to regular weekly meetings among the middle school math department which focused on using teacher journals, videotaped lessons and collaborative reflections. We have had tremendous results..."

High stakes assessment and parental support
A second barrier was that the reform toward inquiry could be hampered by a "current political frame that wants quick results in raising norm referenced tests." The pressure that these external assessments exert on teachers may add to teachers' sense that they lack "time to do inquiry" as they are pressed for coverage. In addition, one participant mentioned the need to get parents to accept "the idea that being able to quote facts is not necessarily the best indicator that learning has occurred."

Structural conflicts within many school systems
A third barrier is the structure of the day within many middle schools. "The nature of middle school scheduling seems to be a major obstacle to change. Forty five minute time-blocks do not lend themselves to deep inquiry; there is not enough time to set-up for revolving classrooms." Participants also wrote of the need for teachers to have more flexibility in scheduling. In addition, one discussant recommended considering the difficulty implementing quality programs in large public schools and suggested that we need to consider the issue of district size.

An additional barrier that was mentioned by one participant was that of 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."

Lack of materials and resources
Last, but certainly not least, is the issue of space, resources, and materials. Several participants spoke of the "lack of adequate fiscal resources at the central and site levels," and the need for "adequate facilities and space to accommodate hands-on, minds-on, science instruction." Some discussants wrote that even when districts have materials they are often not easily accessible. "Teachers need quality materials and adequate supplies to deliver the quality instruction. They only have so many hours in a day, and if they are spending time on a daily basis, begging or borrowing materials, that takes away time from their instructional planning time."


About this Forum:

This electronic forum and resulting collaborative paper is the result of the active participation of twenty-one participants on LSC-Net. LSC-Net is an electronic community dedicated to facilitating reflection, sharing, and collaboration among the 72 currently funded Local Systemic Change Projects. For more information, please visit The work of LSC-Net is supported by the National Science Foundation (ESI 98-12831).