After intense public scrutiny, the Seattle School Board approved the district’s recommended science curricula for the city’s elementary- and middle-school students at a Wednesday night meeting that adjourned just shy of midnight.
The vendor, Amplify Science, came under suspicion over the past month because of the way it was introduced to the district: through a waiver process that included donated or discounted materials from the company, and not a formal districtwide vetting process. A few School Board members, parents and teachers also voiced concerns about the company’s use of digital tools in the classroom.
The hourslong discussion and public testimony leading up to the votes reflected those concerns and a dizzying array of other issues affecting the district, including its budget shortfall, teacher training, ethnic studies and the impact of screen time on students.
A large crowd of teachers and science instructional leaders waited in suspense, chiming in to boo or applaud during the deliberations. To reach majority consensus, the board amended both the middle- and elementary-school contracts to include a “check-in” period after four years to evaluate student outcomes under the curriculum with an option to renew. This check will entail “a comprehensive analysis of outcomes across formative, summative, and interim assessments for K-12,” according to the amended proposal.
A few district leaders cautioned against the compromise because it was unclear how the vendor would respond, and what the district would have to pay for the new arrangement.
The move advances the district’s plans to replace decades-old instructional materials and align the city’s schools with the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of national science-education guidelines created in 2013 and adopted by a coalition of states including Washington.
Brooklyn, New York-based Amplify provides reading, math and science curricula to districts in all 50 states. Previously owned by News Corp., it was sold to Emerson Collective, a philanthropic firm founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, in 2015.
Licensing or the vendor alone could cost the district more than $4 million through the 2027-28 school year. The district is also authorized to spend up to $5 million for professional development associated with adopting the elementary-school curriculum.
More than 1,000 districts around the country have adopted Amplify, which was recently given high marks by EdReports for its alignment with the new science standards. (Education Lab and EdReports both receive funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)
Lessons under the new standards are supposed to be more hands-on. At a recent visit to a Seattle classroom piloting Amplify’s curriculum, a teacher asked students to guess the definition of a scientific term they had rarely encountered before. As part of their lessons, they work on computer simulations, animated games or videos of “invisible phenomena” such as climate change.
Students interviewed said they found the class engaging, and that it helped them better understand global warming.
But skeptics worry about the accessibility of a curriculum that doesn’t provide paper textbooks and uses computers to simulate some scientific phenomena. Amplify said it began offering the option for teachers to print homework and readings for assignments in response to feedback from school districts.
Middle schools will begin using the curriculum next school year. Given the extra costs associated with training teachers at the elementary-school level, the district will phase in Amplify and professional development at a few schools every year as the budget allows.
“The question for me as a board director is balancing a budget which is not funded,” said Eden Mack, who voted no on the elementary-school proposal. “When we are making a decision to spend this much money, what else are we forgoing?”
The School Board also voted to approve the district’s recommended (and less controversial) curricula for high-school science classes — a mixture of in-house curricula and third-party vendors (Carbon TIME and PEER) to cover biology, chemistry and physics sequences. It will cost the district a little more than $1 million through spring 2028.