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LCUSD puts approval of science textbooks on back burner after parents allege errors

La Cañada Unified School District
La Cañada Unified Board members agreed to halt the approval of elementary science textbooks Tuesday after a parent who works as a JPL engineer claimed the books contained errors and misconceptions.
(File Photo)

La Cañada Unified School Board members halted the approval process of two elementary-level science textbooks Tuesday after one parent, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, claimed the books contained scientific errors and misconceptions.

The board was to consider a recommendation made by a committee of 21 elementary school teachers who, working from a state-generated list of books aligned with California’s Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and using a rubric to guide decision-making, ultimately selected three possible options.

Science teachers then used those materials in a pilot program that began last school year and continued into 2019-20, according to LCUSD Associate Supt. Anais Wenn. They explored the books’ ability to keep kids engaged with hands-on materials, digital elements and parent resources, among other factors.

Three parents participated in the committee, and all elementary parents were invited to review the textbooks and provide feedback. Wenn said 10 parents responded.

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In December, committee members selected National Geographic Exploring Science for kindergarten and first-grade classes and Accelerate Learning’s STEMscopes CA NGSS 3D for grades 2 through 6.

LCUSD parent Sheila Dunbar served on the committee and said teachers diligently reviewed and tested the texts.

“They really did comb through the material,” Dunbar said. “They’re not just looking at the materials, they’re also looking at the varied populations in their classroom that they’re looking to present to.”

La Cañada Unified parent and JPL engineer Shanti Rao, speaking in public comment, shared his reservations about some of the principles presented in the selected works with board members.

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“STEMscopes is probably the least bad of the options that were given us. There were textbooks we reviewed from major publishers that were wrong on every page,” Rao said. “[But] even though it’s used by millions of people it’s not factually correct.”

He said the book veered from scientifically valid pedagogy, introducing new terms and concepts that were likely to feed misconceptions that would have to be corrected in high school or college.

In a lesson about waves, for example, the National Geographic textbook depicts surfers and suggests they must catch the top of the wave to move, which Rao said is factually incorrect.

“There are publishers who are working closely with the scientific community and are very interested in interactive components and have made better products,” Rao suggested. “Perhaps we can try again.”

Board members asked if Rao and other parents who expressed concerns would provide specific examples of factual errors that could be independently reviewed by various science teachers and working scientists within the community.

“Let’s give ourselves a little bit of time,” suggested board president Joe Radabaugh. “We definitely want the teachers involved — they ultimately have to teach it, and it’s ultimately something they have to live with. But I think if we’re blessed in the community to have [people] with your background, shame on us if we don’t take one more look at it and make sure we’re on the right track.”

The matter is anticipated to be brought back at a future board meeting before any textbooks are approved.

Also Tuesday, board members

• Heard an update from representatives of Irvine-based LPA Architectural Consulting, which recently completed schematic designs for a renovation of the Palm Crest Elementary School Campus. In a walk-through of plans, Lance Hunter said two modular buildings, newly configured into a V shape on the northwest corner of campus, would provide both indoor and outdoor learning opportunities for students in grades 2 through 6. “What we see this space becoming is something that fosters a sense of collaboration,” he said, displaying outdoor classrooms with movable furniture pieces. Other buildings on campus would be updated, Hunter added, and a defunct office on the northeast corner demolished to make room for a 61-stall staff parking lot. The project is part of a $149-million bond passed by district voters in 2017.

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• Learned more about the La Cañada High School south campus improvement plan, a $13.9-million bond project that will include installation of a 40-meter swimming pool and pool facilities on the south end of campus as well as new basketball courts in the pool’s current location. Architects from Pasadena’s Gonzalez Goodale explained once the design was agreed upon, construction plans would be drawn up. La Cañada resident David Haxton expressed concern plans for a gliding bulkhead created unnecessary expense, but consultant Greg Cannon, project manager for Carlsbad-based Aquatic Design Group, said the design was solid. “We’ve designed a pool that has maximum flexibility and maximum capacity and, at the same time, provides maximum value to the school,” he said.

• Considered board policy language relating to LCUSD’s commitment to fostering diversity, equity and inclusion across all campuses. Supt. Wendy Sinnette presented drafts of the commitment statement along with definitions of key terms. Board members said they would examine and potentially refine the draft in the coming days and weeks, and Sinnette said she was pleased to see initiatives relating to wellness and inclusion beginning to be incorporated into LCUSD’s vision. “A world-class educational program for today’s kids also involves a really firm commitment to wellness,” she said, highlighting efforts undertaken in recent years. “We finally are on the doorstep of our next step — to look at diversity, equity and inclusion — it takes us to the next level.”

• Accepted initial negotiation proposals between the district and California School Employees Assn. union members, which will allow for the beginning of talks, scheduled to begin Thursday, according to Assistant Supt. Mark Evans, who will head the effort.

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