In California middle schools students currently learn “earth science” in 6th grade, “life science” in 7th grade, and “physical science” in 8th grade.
California’s proposed adoption plan for the Next Generation Science Standards rearranges that sequence in some peculiar ways. Under the proposal, for example, rather than 8th graders being taught a combination of physics, chemistry, and astronomy – i.e., “physical science” – they will still receive some physics and astronomy, but they will also learn about heredity, genetics, and environmental science.
It’s not obvious what would justify that rearrangement. Under the existing state standards, the content at each grade level isn’t perfectly unified – 8th graders don’t really need to have learned the chemistry to appreciate the astronomy, say – but the earth/life/physical organization is very intuitive. It also results in each grade level’s content having a fair number of connections that can be appreciated by students operating at the middle school level.
This middle school science teacher makes an additional point:
How are teachers with Single Subject credentials going to be adequately prepared to teach these integrated standards at the middle school level? I have a CA Single Subject Physical Science credential and have been teaching 8th grade physical science for 25 years. I have no expertise in teaching gene mutation, natural selection or geologic time scale and yet those are standards I will be expected to teach in 8th grade science. In looking at the 7th grade standards, teachers with biology/life science credentials will be expected to teach molecular models, states of matter, chemical reactions, law of conservation of mass and plate tectonics. So teachers with Single Subject credentials are supposed to be able to teach content outside their discipline (for half or two-thirds of the school year) at a high enough level so that students can analyze, evaluate, experiment and construct models? This makes no sense to me.
Now, it’s possible to overstate this. The fact is that many science teachers – myself included – already teach multiple science courses.1 As a cell biology major my physics and chemistry coursework went well beyond anything 8th graders need to know about those topics. And teachers are perfectly smart enough to catch up on any of the science middle school students are expected to learn.2
Nevertheless, randomly shuffling the content across the grade levels just makes specialization that much harder. Veteran teachers will find it a little harder to apply the lessons of their past teaching in non-integrated courses and all teachers will be a bit less likely to be totally comfortable with the content to which they are assigned.
And most teachers prefer teaching particular content and so will find “integrated” courses less desirable to teach.3
These aren’t enormous costs, but what’s the point of incurring them?
- I’ve taught both life and physical science, as well as a computer science elective. [↩]
- This would start to get tougher at the high school level, but HS science classes will probably retain their subject matter coherence anyway. [↩]
- I think earth science is for the most part excruciatingly boring and so avoid teaching it like the plague. [↩]