The Drawback of DIY Science Curriculum

When districts expect teachers to be able to develop science curriculum on their own, they are typically unable to do so quickly to the high-quality standards. This fails students who could benefit in the short term. That's when we can see 4-month and year-long earth science units, with no substantive connection to other units or evidence of students demonstrating proficiency with crosscutting concepts or the science and engineering practices. Or a reversion to that traditional model in which the teachers are under pressure to employ an "I do, you do" model for lack of resources to do anything else.

Higher order thinking

An "I do, you do" curriculum is not a mastery-level approach to the higher order thinking skills students  need to succeed in STEM settings. Creativity, evaluation and analysis depend on students having the opportunity to grow through challenge and practice them, which they can't get in an environment where standards are mistaken for curriculum.

This happens when no one wants to approve the time and cost required to build new curriculum at an administrator level. Creating material that aligns to the NGSS standards is thought of as just "too much." But this is a backwards and frankly erroneous way of thinking about new standards. The cost isn't driven by the Next Generation Science Standards. It's driven by the fact that we have science standards at all. If we are going to have standards, then we have to have curriculum that aligns to them. Otherwise, what is the point?

So really, the cost stems from the fact that education today teaches with standards. But if those standards are used as the material rather than the goal, their purpose gets lost. Increasingly, educators are beginning to realize that they haven't been creating curriculum. What they've been creating are outlines for people and expecting teachers to translate that outline into something that produces mastery-level outcomes. That's a fool's errand and explains why most states demonstrate at best a 50 percent level of proficient and advanced students. Typically it's a lot lower, especially in urban schools.

Grades 1-5 scaffold summaryGrades 6-8 scaffold summary

Without a thorough system that scaffolds student learning from September through June and year to year with attention to the interrelated nature of crosscutting concepts, disciplinary core ideas and science and engineering practices, we can't hope to create mastery ready students.

In those urban environments, we often see 20 to 30 percent advanced and proficient students. Why? Because there's no real curriculum. There's no real thought given to how you create a system of teaching and learning across a system of schools and a system of grade levels.

The reality is that a lot of the commercially available resources don't do a good job either. While we're biased, we have to point out that this is something we believe KnowAtom does really well, because we've done exactly what we're advocating here for the last 10 years. We have full-time people devoted solely to creating and testing curriculum, devoting the sort of time and funds calculated above. What we do, in our experience, is something very few districts are able to emulate… and with all the other demands on their plates, that makes sense. This is what we do, and it stands to reason we would be able to do it better than institutions who have competing priorities, especially considering we pay our curriculum developers much more than $25 an hour in order to ensure they have the skills necessary to develop excellent, effective STEM curriculum.

This is not to say there is no way for districts to develop material themselves or that there are no other commercially available resources that are worthwhile. It's simply to point out that if teachers are struggling to teach to NGSS standards in districts that aren't providing the time and money necessary to create appropriate curriculum, there is an obvious reason.

Material Problems

Further confounding the matter is that the above costs don't even take into account the price of the materials themselves.

Cost of K-12 curriculum (re)development

The total cost of developing NGSS-aligned curriculum for grades K-12 is significant, especially when you get to the top of the period and start paying for the actual physical materials needed to teach effectively.

Hands-on inquiry requires more than simply good curriculum. That's critical too, as has been made clear, but without reliable materials, there is no way to plan and carry out investigations and prototyping as scientists and engineers. Such process requires durable tools: microscopes, temperature sensors, graduated cylinders, scissors, hammers, screwdrivers, popsicle sticks, sand, paper, starfish, (reliable) frog embryos, clay, foam… and everything else necessary to prototype, experiment, gather firsthand data and get objective measurements. Students need those objective measurements in order to analyze, evaluate and reflect back on their hypothesis or their prototypes to decide whether or not the data answered the question or solved the problem and form claim-evidence-reasoning conclusions.

science curriculum

In addition to the hours needed to create quality STEM curriculum, materials represent another cost.

If you're creating curriculum in-house, then sourcing the materials adds a whole other level of complexity. You must get the materials from a vendor that lets you purchase through purchase orders, which requires lead time for vendor production and delivery. It also requires developing internal processes in your school or district for how you're going to store and distribute these materials and having a system for inventory and replenishment, which may also require some expenses. If somebody's going to be charged with being the one who buys the Q-tips and puts them in a box, you have to pay somebody for that time. Additionally, how will you deal with changes in standards that require new materials?

This is another place where doing it yourself can be really tough. From the perspective of an organization that contends with such issues all the time, there is a lot required to maintaining oversight of all these materials. Districts and states make adaptations all the time, and new standards come out, requiring a different approach. That means you'll need to be constantly tweaking and updating your curriculum, your materials, and your plan.

So the DIY approach begins to stack the odds against a district successfully creating and maintaining effective STEM curriculum on their own. Not only do they have to go through the ideation process and create everything for themselves over and over again with each change, but they must contend with the material needs as well. It's difficult, especially as performance-based testing is really going to tease out the three dimensions of these new standards and bring to light the evidence statements behind Next Generation Science Standards.

From a budget perspective, if you're thinking about transitioning from the old 7-year textbook adoption cycle for a class of 25 students to a yearly support model, the question becomes how to budget that cost in and ensure that curricular needs are met in a financially sustainable way. This tends to be more difficult for smaller districts and individual schools than for large districts.

At least if you're a large district, you will in theory have a budget or a department for curriculum development and production. In fact, for a large district, it's possible that the cost totals above wouldn't be a problem. For a small, rural district with a single elementary school and perhaps five to eight teachers, however, that's going to present a much bigger challenge.

Furthermore, school boards have gotten used to the idea of a large upfront expenditure every 7 years, followed by no need for updates until the beginning of the next adoption cycle. The problem is this neglects a lot of the continuous cost of professional development, which teachers may or may not be getting reimbursed for. It also neglects the cost of consumables, which are already a part of whatever kits teachers are using, as well as the stipends involved in replenishing those.

So, really, the idea that there is only a single upfront expenditure is false. Districts and teachers themselves are already paying every single year to maintain curriculum, directly or indirectly. That said, there's no reason not to have a yearly cycle. Only when we manage to make this jump can we finally ensure reliable, effective STEM curriculum that meets the performance expectations and sets students up for long-term success and workforce contribution.

“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”