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Controversy swirls around Seattle school district's science curriculum adoption process

Seattle Public Schools is in the final stages of choosing new science curriculum and that process is now embroiled in controversy. 

Since last summer, committees of educators, parents and community members have invested dozens of hours evaluating science instructional materials from different vendors to choose top selections for elementary, middle and high school levels. The curriculum choices are on the agenda for introduction at the school board meeting on Wednesday, May 15.

For elementary and middle schools, their choice was AmplifyScience, in a purchase estimated to cost about $4.4 million for instructional materials through the 2027-28 school year. But even before that decision, critics say the company, Amplify, had gotten its curriculum into the school district without a regular adoption process.

That’s because 20 middle and elementary schools applied in 2017 for waivers from the superintendent to use Amplify’s science curriculum. The company provided program subscriptions for free to the district, according to a Seattle Public Schools FAQ.

The district said it’s common for schools to request waivers, but Sue Peters, a former school board director, said the district kept the board in the dark and circumvented board approval. She said she only found out a week before her term on the board ended.

“It was being done on such a large scale that it looked a lot like a de facto adoption,” Peters said. “The waivers had already been submitted, approved, the whole thing was already in process and the board didn’t know anything about it. It really looked like an end run around the board.”

Peters said it's also problematic that the curriculum was given to the district for free because its value was probably more than $250,000, which is the threshold for gifts to the district that require school board approval.

In essence, she said because the curriculum got a head start in many schools, it had an unfair advantage when the district began its formal science curriculum adoption.

The district said the waivers stemmed from middle school teachers who came together in 2016, attempting to align the existing curriculum to new science standards the state adopted in 2013.

They opted to use Amplify instead of continuing to use science materials that Seattle Public Schools had selected in the late 1990s and early 2000s that, at least in the case of middle school curriculum, fail to mention important topics such as global climate change and genetics.

The district said the waivers were completely separate from this curriculum adoption process, which it said has been conducted carefully and fairly. Officials said Amplify did not have any kind of advantage in the selection process.

Anastasia Sanchez is the head of the science department at Denny International Middle School and was on the middle school curriculum adoption committee.

She said Amplify is a big improvement over what schools had been using. Students see themselves more as scientists working to understand natural phenomena and evaluate evidence rather than just absorbing facts. And, she said, the lessons get them thinking.

For example, her students have been learning about the rough-skinned newt and how it adapted to become toxic to predators.

“So we show this video where one of its predators, a bull frog, eats it and then quickly dies," she said. "Then the newt climbs out of its mouth and the kids are like, 'Oh my gosh, gross,' but they’re super engaged.’”

The lesson then prompts students to ask themselves whether humans will be able to adapt to climate change in the same way the newt has developed biological survival mechanisms, or whether humans will have to use engineering and design to come up with solutions.

But Peters and others have raised concerns that Amplify requires students to spend too much time on computers, a topic KUOW covered in a recent story.

Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

The company said that the curriculum incorporates many types of lessons, including hands-on instruction, and students in younger grades in particular spend little time online.

But there appears to be some concern among school board directors. Directors Rick Burke and Scott Pinkham have proposed using a different curriculum, HMH Science Dimensions, at the elementary level. They said the curriculum slightly outscored Amplify in the curriculum adoption process and that the board has never adopted formal guiding principles supporting or opposing computer-based instruction.

Board Director Jill Geary, by contrast, said it's important to listen to the teams of people who put in the time looking at the different materials.

“I have not heard that there was a deviation from the procedure as it was set out in such a way that I would think that we should now, as a board of non-educational professionals, override our own policy procedures and the team that does contain educational professionals,” she said.