Politics trumps teachers on science materials

PHILADELPHIA — When Philadelphia teachers return on the first day of school, they will be surprised. The new science curriculum some had tested in their classrooms using kits from Science and Technology for Children (STC) or Full Option Science Systems (FOSS) has been replaced with materials from K12 Inc.

K12’s board of directors is chaired by William J. (Bill) Bennett, U.S. secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, while its senior vice president is Charles Zogby, chief planner for the state takeover of the city’s schools in 2002 and former Pennsylvania secretary of education.

Philadelphia’s schools are managed by a five-member School Reform Commission. Three members were appointed by former Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker and two by Democratic Mayor John Street. The commission approved a $3 million contract with K12 Inc. without asking if K12 Inc. had met the commission’s criteria for the new science program.

Philadelphia now becomes the country’s first school district to adopt K12 Inc. materials districtwide. The company formerly supplied only homeschoolers and “virtual cyber charter schools.”

In 2003 and 2004 a panel of top district science teachers and administrators developed a new science curriculum and examined a vast selection of materials that might fit the “hands on” science lessons for each grade level. The panel decided on materials from STC and FOSS, considered high quality by a peer-review process funded by the National Science Foundation.

When David L. Smith, director of professional development at the DaVinci Discovery Center, reviewed K12 Inc. materials, he found shallow factual content and numerous errors of fact.

“The choice of K12 Inc. materials rather than STC or FOSS came as a shock to the science curriculum leaders,” said panel member Donna Cleland. No one on the panel remembers even reviewing K12 Inc. materials. Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Cecilia Cannon said she decided on K12 Inc. because of its technology base and a saving of $700,000 to the school district over the other recommended materials.

While some parents ask, “Is cheaper better?” teachers question if their classrooms are equipped to use the K12 Inc. materials, which depend on computers, projectors and Smartboards.

K12 Inc. has received strong criticism for using federal funds to service private and religious homeschoolers, and for its anti-scientific approach to evolution and its aggressive, high-priced lobbyists. Said Bennett, “We’re centered in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We do not ignore faith and religion and we do not ignore the arguments against evolution.”

Though he denied that his friendship with Bennett was a factor in K12 Inc. getting the contract, School District CEO Paul Vallas argued that K12 would use its political connections to help lobby the state and federal governments for more resources for the city’s schools.

In 2007-2008 the No Child Left Behind law will require states to assess their students in science achievement as they now test reading and math. This year 45 percent of Philadelphia students in grades 2-6 scored in the bottom quartile in science on a national standardized test. Their improvement will depend on the quality of the new science curriculum.

phillyrose1 @ earthlink.net