July 26 — 2:27 pm, 2005

District’s science decision met with surprise

The Philadelphia School District’s unexpected decision to award a major contract for curriculum materials to K12 Inc., a company chaired by a former U.S. education secretary, has some science educators wondering why this controversial but politically influential firm got the deal.

Philadelphia’s kindergarten through third-grade classrooms will receive science lessons, kits, and books from K12, a McLean, Va.-based education company that says it “combines online technology with traditional content.” Since the company’s launch in 1999, its marketing of that content has largely focused on home-schoolers and virtual charter schools.

K12 board chair William J. (“Bill”) Bennett, now a conservative talk show host, served as Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan. The company’s senior vice president of education and policy is former Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Charles Zogby, a key architect of the state takeover of Philadelphia schools.

In Philadelphia, K12 edged out at least two nationally renowned science materials providers to win a $3 million contract in April for K-3 materials. Philadelphia became the first school district in the nation to adopt K12’s materials districtwide.

However, a number of interviews with Philadelphia science educators reveal that the company’s materials had failed to catch the eye of a panel containing 30 of the District’s own top science teachers and leaders. The panel spent many Saturdays and evenings together in 2003 and 2004, meeting to shape the new curriculum.

In drafting curriculum guides, the panel relied heavily on the widely used kits from two other companies: Science and Technology for Children (STC), made by Carolina Biological, of Burlington, N.C., and Full Option Science System (FOSS), made by Delta Education, of Nashua, N.H. Materials from the two companies will be used in grades 4-6, but not in grades K-3.

While top District officials speak enthusiastically about the advantages of the K12 selection – customized materials, high-tech instruction using interactive whiteboards, and substantial cost savings – some local science educators are questioning whether the contract can deliver the finely honed hands-on science lessons once envisioned.

“Are we saying we’re not going to have students do hands-on science?” questioned teacher Theresa Lewis-King, among the curriculum writers who took part in the lengthy process to come up with nationally recognized, standards-based science instructional materials at each grade level and align them with state standards. “Have they moved back from that pedagogy?” she asked.

Lewis-King, who participated in meetings until October 2004, said she was unaware of the subsequent decision to purchase materials from K12. In fact, Lewis-King and others contacted who participated in the curriculum-writing process could recall little if any discussion of K12 materials. (Most of the 30 participants were teachers who could not be reached for comment this month.)

Cecilia Cannon, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, explained simply that K12 had not at that time been explored as a provider for the materials. Noting that STC and FOSS kits would still be used in grades 4-6, Cannon said, “It’s not like we abandoned everything.”

Donna Cleland, assistant director for the Math & Science Partnership of Greater Philadelphia, who participated in the curriculum-writing process one Saturday to discuss hands-on curricula, commented, “The choice of K12 materials rather than the FOSS and STC programs came as a shock to the science curriculum leaders in Philadelphia.”

“Many of these teachers had been piloting these materials in their own classrooms and were enthusiastic about their use.”

Arlene Langman, a K-6 science leader at FitzPatrick who was not part of the curriculum writing, said, “All of the science leaders were provided initially a copy or a working copy of what was going to be finalized in September. So we sort of had an idea of what to expect.”

She expected FOSS and STC. But she added, “I haven’t heard anything about this K12 at all.”

Schools CEO Paul Vallas, in a July interview, acknowledged that he provided some direction on the science curriculum: “I told them that we needed to standardize the curriculum. I talked about models they should look at. I didn’t say, ‘Here’s K12, I want you to bring them in.’” He and Cannon both said the final recommendation was hers. And she named its technology base and cost savings as her chief considerations.

Asked whether he recommended a look at any models other than K12, Vallas responded, “There’s not a lot of work done in primary science curriculum, let’s face it.”

He further stressed, “Ultimately, it’s up to Ceil (Cannon) and her curriculum team to tell me whether they believe my opinion is justified.”

School Reform Commissioner Sandra Dungee Glenn, before voting with other members at an April SRC meeting to approve the K12 contract, questioned whether the District should “move so aggressively on a new and relatively untested product as to take it districtwide.”

Vallas and Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton responded at that time by stressing a number of advantages – a curriculum specifically designed with Philadelphia students in mind, K12’s willingness to infuse a multicultural perspective, and savings of $700,000 over other curriculum offerings.

Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer for K12 Inc., acknowledged that the Philadelphia contract is a breakthrough for K12. “For the first time, we’ve had a chance to really get involved with a district, and obviously a prominent district at that. It’s wonderful to have this opportunity, and that’s one of the reasons we’re working so hard to make sure it matches what Philadelphia wants.”

Approval for excellence?

SRC members did not publicly question whether K12 actually meets the guidelines described in the April resolution, which states, “Materials selected have received national recognition and approval for their excellence.”

But out of a half-dozen science education experts contacted by the Notebook, none expressed familiarity with K12 Inc.

Sally Goetz Shuler, executive director of the National Science Resources Center, formed by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academies and involved in developing and assessing curriculum, stated, “I am not familiar with K12 Inc.”

Shuler pointed out that developing quality curriculum is a long and expensive process: “It took us 10 years and $8 million to produce STC. And now we’re in the process of revising it.”

Jeff Winokur, of the Center for Science Education at the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass., expressed familiarity with STC and FOSS, but added, “I do not know K12 Inc.”

After reviewing K12’s online materials, David L. Smith, director of professional development at the Da Vinci Discovery Center of Science and Technology in Bethlehem, noted, “The portion of a sample earth science lesson that I looked on their web site was of very low cognitive demand, contained no inquiry at all, was oriented toward shallow factual content rather than deep conceptual understanding, and contained numerous errors of fact.”

Of the STC and FOSS materials, Smith explained that they are expensive to purchase but said, “Both are oriented to developing deeper understanding of the most fundamental areas of science. Their activities parallel the authentic activities of scientists, with enough structure to ensure that all students can succeed in doing the activity and advancing their understanding of the material. . . . Both were developed in a rigorous, peer-reviewed research process funded by the National Science Foundation.”

While some Philadelphia science educators expressed hope that K12 materials will be able to replicate lessons that had been designed with FOSS and STC materials in mind, some experts insisted that such an attempt would be akin to apples-and-oranges comparisons.

Progressive educators question K12’s use of the “Core Knowledge” sequence and its traditional, fact-based approach as a foundation of its curriculum.

Smith indeed noted, in science education, an increasing “polarization between a group of people who favor hands-on, investigative modes of learning and teaching, and people who favor highly restructured, teacher-led drills and vocabulary activities.”

But District leaders maintained that the K12 materials include a strong hands-on component. “It was customized to Philadelphia and was very hands-on,” Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton offered, in describing the elements that led to K12’s selection.


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