Middle School Madness: The Integrated or Discipline Specific Choice
by Robert Sherriff
As a middle school science teacher for the past 23 years, I am very interested in the implementation the Next Generation Science Standards. I was proud to be one of only two middle school teachers (along with one 6th grade self contained teacher who also represented the middle school grade span) on California’s Science Expert Panel (SEP) for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
In this context, I’d like to address the debate between the NGSS integrated model or alternative model for middle school (K-5 is required to be integrated). I started with the many of the same concerns that middle school teachers have expressed with an integrated model. In the end after much deliberation the SEP unanimously recommended the integrated model of NGSS for middle school to the State Board of Education. It concluded that the integrated model was the best model for our student’s scientific literacy. The State Board of Education decided the integrated model was the preferred model, but after much pressure brought by some teachers who made impassioned arguments in favor of the discipline specific model, the State Board reconvened the SEP to develop the alternative discipline specific, model. I am concerned that some teachers I’ve heard from believe the discipline specific model would be similar to the current model, this is not correct due to the fundamental educational shifts inherent in NGSS. The SEP had trouble making a clear conceptual flow using the discipline specific model, which is one reason for their preference for the integrated model. The integrated model includes logical links to the Common Core State Standards, and takes into account the progression of concepts from kindergarten through 8th grade with special attention to the progression between 5th and 6th grade so that the transition from 5th to 6th would be conceptually sound. Specifically, the SEP spent much time on the integrated model to ensure that it was developmentally appropriate for Common Core mathematics. With the alternative model, the SEP did not find it provided the developmentally appropriate Common Core math progressions, and has some conflicts in the conceptual progressions between 5th and 6th grade and therefore the alternative model was not considered to be in the best educational interest of middle school students. Overall the SEP found that the alternative model links and conceptual flow are at times a bit of a stretch. There are many examples of this, to demonstrate one example is:
Integrated model: Concepts involving gravity and astronomy are both in 8th grade.
Alternate model: Concepts on gravity are in 8th, Astronomy concepts are in 6th grade.
Below I’ve answered some frequently asked questions about the NGSS middle school model. Although they are strictly my answers I believe they capture the thinking of the SEP as a whole:
“Will my credentials authorize me to teach the NGSS integrated model?”
A member of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing spoke to the SEP and explained that the overwhelming majority of middle school science teachers will qualify to teach the integrated model. A handful of extremely rare credentials will either require some additional educational coursework to receive authorization or can be granted a waiver by the local school board. There is a link on the CSTA web page, which leads to the official document from the Commission on Teacher Credentialing about this matter.
“Is there research that shows that the integrated model of teaching is beneficial to students?”
Part of the research includes CA Scope, Sequence & Coordination: Students in integrated biology scored the same or better than students in traditional biology on the Golden State Exam. Scott, G (2000). Also, countries with top science scores require participation in integrated science instruction through Lower Secondary, and seven of ten countries continue that instruction through Grade 10. Achieve (2010). Finally to develop an expert knowledge base the research in learning theory indicates that what is needed are connections developed through an interdisciplinary real-world approach over an isolated discipline specific approach in K-8. (NRC 2012).
Did the composition of the SEP represent a broad spectrum of the scientific community?
The SEP was made up of 27 Science Experts who are representative of the SRT (State Review Team of 85 members of the science community). The SEP consisted of K-12 Teachers, COE Science Leaders, IHE Faculty, Business, Industry, and Informal Science Centers. Input from the larger science community was considered. Firms such as Boeing and organizations such as NASA had representatives on the SEP.
The SEP had Noted Scientist Advisors including:
Dr. Bruce Alberts, biochemist, past president Nat’l Academy of Sciences
Dr. Helen Quinn, particle physicist, who helped develop the unified theory
Dr. Art Sussman, biochemist, noted author of science curriculum
“Did the SEP consider a variety of models including the discipline specific models before they voted on the integrated middle school model?”
The SEP worked on various models including the discipline specific model, but in the end, SEP voted unanimously that an integrated approach was the most beneficial model for scientific literacy in middle school. For example, NGSS integrated model recognizes that it is meaningless to teach plate tectonics in earth science without incorporating the physics of density, as is teaching evolution in biology without the evidence found in earth science.
What were the guiding principles for making decisions for which middle school progression should be recommended?
In considering the path to MS Arrangement the SEP took into account that:
- NGSS middle school in grade span arrangement 6-8
- NGSS as both DCI and as a Topic arrangement
- CA instructional materials adoption dictates grade level placement
- Must align with Common Core ELA and Math
- Must build within and across grade levels to tell a coherent conceptual flow of ideas
- Be balanced in complexity and quantity at each grade level (In the integrated model there are fewer standards in 6th than 7th and even more in 8th. In the alternative model there are more standards in 7th than 8th.)
- Integrate the new engineering concepts appropriately
“Was teacher expertise and passion a consideration in deciding on the integrated middle school model?”
The short answer is yes; and it was brought up by myself and others. However, in response, SEP members concluded that students’ scientific literacy was paramount, but that some staff development should be offered by the state to help those who felt they needed more on a particular sub-discipline of science. I’d like to add that this was initially a concern of mine, but through dialogue, I eventually realized that teachers must be open-minded about, and be passionate for, science as a whole. In the end, the science advisers and the SEP group felt that to solve the more complex problems of today, we need experts that take a multidisciplinary approach. This is another line of reasoning to support integrated science through 8th grade with specialization after that.
What was the SEP rational for the decision for the integrated model?
I believe Dr. Art Sussman expressed the rationale well: “The SEP very seriously considered the option of having discipline focused concepts for grades 6, 7, and 8. It quickly became very clear that there had to be foundational physical science concepts in grade 6 to be able to do the NGSS middle school life and earth science concepts. However some of the physical science concepts were clearly too advanced for grade 6th (required math concepts and skills that are beyond grade 6 level in addition to being too complex for grade 6). That combination of needing some physical science in grade 6 but not being able to do all physical science in grade 6 made the discipline specific approach impossible.” This logic as well as many other examples and fact-based arguments provided the rational.
What criteria did the SEP use to arrange the particular PE’s (performance expectations) (standards) for grades six, seven, and eight.
- Performance expectations (PEs) were placed at each grade level so that they support content articulation across grade levels (from 5th through 8th grade) and provide the opportunity for content integration within each grade level.
- Performance expectations were aligned with the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics so that science learning would not be dependent upon math skills not yet acquired.
- The final arrangement of performance expectations reflected a balance both in content complexity and number at each grade level with human impact and engineering performance expectations appropriately integrated.
“What will assessment be like for NGSS and will they be biased towards the integrated model?”
Currently there are no NGSS assessments, but the state says there will be by 2018 if not before. Okay, this one is just my opinion. I do not think that the government will want to spend the money on more than one test. So, my question for you is that since there is a preferred model and an alternative model that was rejected by their own advisory group, which one do you think will get the most weight for developing an assessment?
Finally, I keep hearing “NGSS doesn’t have the standard on ____” what’s up with that?
Well that’s because these standards are overarching, encompassing the larger concepts or “big ideas” that are essential to understanding science and becoming a scientifically literate citizen. In order to teach the NGSS it will require many of the other concepts or “other ideas” that underlie the NGSS. For example oceanography concepts are not directly written in NGSS but in order to teach some of the NGSS, an understanding of the oceanography concepts is necessary. The thinking is that the state science framework, which will begin its work in September 2014, will help clarify these ideas as well as give much more specific direction to many who are struggling with NGSS.
A couple of final points are that Achieve (the group that wrote the NGSS) liked the California middle school integrated model so much that they included it in their appendix for the NGSS, and we are the only state to have that honor as of this date.
This time of transition to the new standards will be at the same time difficult and exciting, as it will require much change. Should we make the change the easiest for teachers or for the best interest for students; that is the decision districts must face in going with either the preferred integrated or alternative model. I hope that the state supports this time of change and know that CSTA will do all they can to support this immense effort. We will need much in the way of professional development to make this fundamental shift to a new way of teaching to help our students and our population as a whole to become scientifically literate problem solvers, a goal of NGSS. This is a challenging time and we all have much to learn in this time of science educational change, it is my hope that we can take a scientific approach to this debate, look at the data and support each other in a logical manner and hopefully leave some of the incendiary messages out of the conversation.
For your use I have created a comparison chart of the integrated versus the discipline specific models for an unbiased comparison, I made this chart so that each grade level would fit on one page so some of each P.E. standard had to be left off. The charts are available for download here.
Robert Sherriff is a middle school teacher, Science Expert Panel member, and CSTA member