By W. Patrick Cunningham with Carly Busarello, Eric Garcia Huitron, Jun Heo and Angel Hernandez - C. T. Johnson High School, San Antonio, TX
Every Texas public school educator, from administrators to teacher aides, is almost daily confronted with the TEKS. However it is pronounced (Tex or Teeks), this acronym for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills seems to make its way into the majority of conversations that teachers conduct about curriculum and instruction. Under public and legislative pressure, mostly revolving around dissatisfaction with graduates’ readiness for college and career, and with high-stakes testing, the State Board of Education (SBOE) in January 2016 “approved a process that will be used to streamline the science TEKS.” At the first general meeting in late July, 2016, the science streamlining committee learned from TEA leaders that science would be the first candidate for the process. It would, it was thought, be less trouble and cause less controversy than social studies.
Science teachers from K through 12 applied for the various committees, and began work in the following summer. TEA leaders made it clear that the charge for each committee was to shorten or condense the TEKS in each grade or subject area, not to add new skills or objectives. The much more complex process of actually rewriting the TEKS or moving skills around would be delayed into the next decade, because that would create a need to radically revise curriculum resources.
The entire science streamlining task force consists of about five dozen educators from across the state of Texas. Most of these attended the first three-day session in late July. I was one of three who represented SBOE district 5, and served on the seven-member streamlining committee for chemistry. The process was quite straightforward: look at each of the skills and concepts and decide whether it was critical to a basic understanding of the subject, or a crucial part of the scaffolding for future grades or courses. The primary resource tool cited would be the College and Career Readiness Standards. The College Board’s AP curriculum, the Next Generation Science Standards, American Chemical Society recommendations and–above all–Common Core were avoided in reasoning and documentation.
The chemistry team, in my opinion, was well represented geographically, each with many years of teaching and leadership experience. The conversations were cordial, if occasionally warm, and well-focused. From time to time the frustrations classroom teachers face percolated to the surface and colored the discussion. A few ideas were put on a “wait list” for consideration when a true TEKS revision is planned. In chemistry, for instance, it is a continual irritation that nuclear change, which is physics, not chemistry, and can’t be safely the subject of experiment, is part of the TEKS. On the other hand, reaction rates, true and essential parts of chemistry with many lab investigations at the high school level, are not. Those kinds of changes would have to wait, but the “trimming” would give teachers more flexibility and the students more time to learn the really critical topics.
The process continued over the three days and a final product was delivered to the TEA for review and initial oversight by the State Board. At this writing, the committees are waiting for the next step to be outlined so that committees, meeting in late September, can massage and edit their final recommendations.
Trimming Avogadro Calculations
The process of streamlining reminds one of the old saw about not wanting to know how laws or sausage is made. But a look at a small part of the process could be instructive. One irritation that I and other practitioners have frequently complained about is the inclusion of calculations using Avogadro’s number, 6.02 x 1023 particles per mole. This huge number, named after one of the “fathers” of chemistry, Amadeo Avogadro, “provides the connection between the number of moles in a pure sample of a substance and the number of constituent particles (or units) of that substance” as the AP chemistry guidelines state. The TEKS (ch 112c-8b) require the chemistry student to be proficient in “[using] the mole concept to calculate the number of atoms, ions, or molecules in a sample of material.”
Ironically, Avogadro never knew the value of the constant named for him, although he did demonstrate that equal volumes of gases at the same temperature and pressure contain the same number of particles. Avogadro’s number was only calculated in 1909; its namesake died in 1856.
The calculation using Avogadro’s number leads nowhere in the rest of the first-year chemistry curriculum. It stands alone in the quantifying of changes that “occur during chemical reactions.” So I suggested to the committee that the TEKS be trimmed by eliminating the requirement. There was significant push-back (although cordial) from the other members of the chemistry committee, so we left it in the TEKS with a strong comment that some want it eliminated.
On returning to school, I asked some of my seniors, who are in the Scientific Research and Design class, to do some quick checking of the college texts and a number of college professors in local universities. They found, in general, that “Avogadro’s number is not used outside basic calculations from moles to molecules in class.” A researcher reported using it to calculate the surface density of molecules in a small space. A senior lecturer at UTSA reminded us that Avogadro’s number is used in the calculation of atomic volume in crystalline solids, especially metals. I acknowledge these four students as coauthors of this paper.
The argument over Avogadro’s number calculations will continue when we resume, and I have to be prepared to lose this one. That’s what trying to reach consensus is about, when working with professional colleagues. Nonetheless, as the TEKS continue to evolve past this “streamlining,” we should constantly have to ask ourselves whether the basic concepts and skills we require of all science students should be those that help them prepare for life, for being good citizens ready for many avenues of study. Alternately, we may be preparing them chiefly for becoming a college student in our own disciplines.