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FOSS Science in Mastery Charter Schools

Jennifer Slavick, Science Education Consultant
February 23, 2016 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: Students from Stephanie Toronto's sixth-grade class working on an activity from the FOSS Weather and Water Module.

Recently I walked into Ryan Kollar's sixth-grade science class and noticed something strange. It wasn't the fact that the kids were basically operating the class through concentrated student-led group discussion. It wasn't the weird diagrams drawn on the board. Nope, it wasn't even the cockroaches perched on the walls of the aquarium in his classroom. The strange thing I saw was Kollar smiling. He wasn't just smiling; he was beaming. As Kollar circulated the class and listened to student discussion, he noticed me standing there. He walked over to a stack of notebooks, picked up a hefty handful, and dumped them in front of me, declaring, "Check out these focus question responses!" As I pried open the pages of the books and began to read, I realized how correct and detailed student responses were. Kollar beamed away. This man—who in the last two years of our time working together was the surliest teacher I'd met—was beaming! He and his students were truly enjoying science.

Mastery Charter Schools

answer written in notebook

Third graders explain "what causes moisture to form on the side of a cup" in the FOSS Water and Climate Module.

Mastery Charter Schools is a 21-school nonprofit network providing access to quality education to over 12,000 students in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Camden, New Jersey. The majority of schools are neighborhood schools, filling seats with catchment students. In a city where education has been gutted by underfunding and underperforming schools are closing, Mastery takes the same kids from the same schools in the same neighborhoods as before, but operates with different management. Mastery strives to serve all of the students in the catchment. The resounding motto at Mastery: "All means all."

In line with our vision that all students learn the academic and personal skills they need to succeed in higher education, compete in the global economy, and pursue their dreams, we began this year by rolling out FOSS Next Generation as our primary science curriculum in grades 3, 6, and 7 across 13 campuses. The goal is to ultimately take the curriculum to all of our schools in grades 3–8.

The First 30 Days: Implementation

We decided to begin the year implementing Earth Science modules: Water and Climate in grade 3, Weather and Water in grade 6, and Earth History in grade 7. Our goal for the report period was that 90% of teachers execute an appropriate FOSS lesson with accurate content and meet the requirements of the course structure: notebooks, working in collaborative groups, and active investigations. There are currently 23 teachers implementing the FOSS program, 10 in their first year. Needless to say, this was no small task!

Administrators in campuses using the FOSS curriculum participated in a two-day professional development. They experienced a model lesson that shared the vision for the program. This invested the leadership to allow teachers to take a deep look at each investigation with students. For norming and strategic support across campuses, administrators used a common set of rubrics to track student performance with group work and notebooks and provide structured feedback to teachers.


As this was the first time our students engaged with science in this rigorous way, we began with targeted support. Students participated in a week-long side course to develop notebook and group work foundations while planning investigations, collecting data, and graphing. Teachers were trained how to assign roles, monitor group work, and provide feedback to groups to meet the rubric targets. For instance, groups could score up to four points for teamwork and academic language. Teachers rated groups on a scale of 1–4 for each target, shared the score with the group, and told one specific person in the group what behavior to change and how so the team could increase their score. This might sound something like,

Your team is currently scoring a 2 for teamwork. To get to a 3, we need to get Samara to join the conversation. Khalid, since you're the Starter, you should begin by asking Samara what she thinks the answer is. Samara, once he asks you, you'll join in by sharing your response. Everyone else, you'll be actively listening. Samara, do you have an answer ready? Great! Khalid, I'll watch while you and Samara work through this.

Empowering teachers with a targeted way to provide feedback allowed students to be more accountable to each other and invested them in this challenging work.

Challenges and Teacher Supports

As the FOSS modules and courses were implemented, we hit some challenges along the way. The most immediate challenge was how to get those 10 brand-new teachers and other new-to-science teachers comfortable with managing active investigations almost daily. We tackled this issue with one-on-one coaching, in some cases for the duration of the report period. Coaching takes the form of co-planning, co-teaching, doing model lessons, evaluating student work, and providing in-the-moment feedback that is designed to move teacher practice quickly and ensure a lasting change of teacher habit. This is by far the most successful lever we use to maximize student achievement.

Besides building comfort levels, another initial hurdle for all teachers was helping them navigate a two- or three-day lesson. Teachers were used to hitting a specific target daily; they were struggling with the pacing of FOSS. To support teachers, we design central unit plans that include a calendar showing which steps in the investigation to complete daily, along with aligned objectives and exit slips to make the lesson goals more concrete.

Next, getting all teachers capable of navigating the depth of a FOSS lesson was a challenge. With limited time available and limited content knowledge, teachers needed to learn how to make decisions about which questions to ask during the lesson that would ultimately provide enough time and lead to understanding so students could answer the focus question.

seeds germinating

Third-grade students compare germination of three types of seeds in the FOSS Structures of Life Module.

To make consistently meaningful decisions, teachers wrote focus question exemplars. During bi-weekly planning meetings, teachers collaborated to determine the exemplar response. They read the Investigations Guide to learn the basic activity, read the "What to Look For" section, defined the new vocabulary listed, and then jotted down the evidence students collect throughout the investigation. This draft was then written into an extensive focus question response that the group revised until they were satisfied. Teachers and PD facilitators worked together on any confusion on the scientific principles at play in the investigation. Using the central unit plan, we've found that when all teachers are on the same investigations at the same time, we can utilize their collective knowledge to raise group performance.

Using the exemplar focus question response as a guide, teachers narrowed down the most important questions from each step of Guiding the Investigation that will get students to this high bar. Through these co-planning sessions, we've overcome the challenge of navigating FOSS, and students now have time regularly to write deep and meaningful answers to the focus question.

Our most recent big challenge was getting students to actually write. They have been trained for so long to answer in multiple choice responses that overcoming student trepidation over exposing themselves through writing in science was a very real issue. We also had to do some significant work to overcome teacher mindset about what students were capable of producing. Our answer was to award students points for perseverance on their focus question responses. If students showed revisions of the focus question, they received some credit whether the answer was correct or not. Providing the space to have students revise their responses (and reward them for doing so) opened doors for many teachers. Other teachers benefitted from participating in co-teaching where student revision time was modeled. It turns out that building a growth mindset is incredibly powerful for motivating students.

TEA Chart

Using a modified TEAMS tracker adapted from CPM (College Preparatory Mathematics), teachers gave specific feedback to each group about their ability to work together to create a collaborative classroom environment.


In our first report period, 95% of teachers successfully implemented the FOSS curriculum in their classroom. Twenty-two out of 23 teachers have students actively investigate, write in student notebooks, and participate in each lesson as groups. By the end of the first 30 days, students across campuses averaged a 5.6 of 8 for the group work rubric and a 6.6 of 10 on the notebook rubric. Our goals were 6 and 8 respectively. The teachers and students worked hard and as a result, there was more engagement in their science lessons. An administrator told me, "I love this new science program and I hate it at the same time. I LOVE how engaged kids are in science and how much they're learning, but I can't get them to stop talking about science in their other classes!"


Third-grade students investigate the behavior of water on natural materials during an outdoor investigation in the FOSS Water and Climate Module.

We collect a significant amount of data on student performance to measure progress. At the end of every report period, a centralized benchmark is used to identify trends across the network and accurately pinpoint places for support. One trend we noticed was students were finally performing better on open response questions. While students showed improvement, they still underperformed in proficiency, which at Mastery is scoring a 76% or better on the benchmark exam. We also noticed students who more frequently completed the focus question responses scored higher on the benchmark than their peers.

With all of this data in mind, our goal for report period 2 is to improve focus question responses. To aid this goal, we are requiring student explanations in the group work rubric. The more students explain their thinking to their peers, the more clear their ideas become, and so should their focus question responses. To aid teachers and students in organizing the focus question responses, we will have professional development centered on using notebook next step strategies such as the line of learning within a graphic organizer. This organizer will serve as the rough draft of the focus question response from which students will write the paragraph final version of the focus question in their notebooks. Finally, coaching will be provided to teachers needing the most assistance to move students toward this high bar.

FOSS's Impact in Our Classrooms

Student's answer to question

This third-grade student's work has grown in complexity; the pride he takes in his work is evident after just a few weeks using the FOSS Water and Climate Module. His deep answer to the focus question is a result of the hard work of his teacher and the FOSS curriculum; the hands-on nature of the curriculum provided a grounding experience from which he could then make connections.

While students are achieving at a greater level than before, the most notable impact has been in investment of Mastery's leadership, teachers, and students. Teacher mindset has changed from one of fear and discomfort to one of collaboration and genuine enthusiasm for teaching science. Administrators are asking over and over how much more FOSS we plan to roll out next year as they've seen student success and investment in science soar. And students are proud of their work—they feel a sense of ownership over their notebooks and they're excited to share. Yes, even those hard to reach middle schoolers are excited! I recently witnessed a class of seventh-graders having the most animated discussions over foliation!

Perhaps my favorite success story comes from a third-grade classroom. We received a module on consignment from Delta Education. Last year, one student's struggle stood out to me in particular. I was informed by his administration that he was struggling to find his place in every class he had. His investment was at an all-time low and his mother had to come to the school nearly every day for a meeting. Within a three-month time period, this student went from writing one sentence focus question responses to having more than a page of detailed and correct answers! I saved his notebook to show others, because it is a testament to the power of such a fantastic program. You can literally flip from page to page and see his growth through the notebook. At the end of the term, he scored a 95% on his last benchmark, which uses mostly questions from the FOSS posttest. I'm thrilled to be working with a rigorous and comprehensive program that has the ability to transform our students into the budding scientists we know they can all be.