At Tuesday’s board meeting, we heard an administrative proposal to change the district’s science curriculum. You can read the full proposal here. One element of the proposal is to require all ninth-graders to take Foundations of Science; currently some students choose to skip the Foundations course and take Biology instead. That aspect of the proposal has generated some disagreement; Karen W. wrote posted about the issue here and here. I planned to write something about the issue here, but I received an email from a parent, Martha Terry, that I thought made the counterargument to the proposal particularly well. With her permission, I’m posting her email below. Please chime in with your thoughts about this issue in the comments.
I’m writing to express my concerns about the proposed science curriculum changes for ICCSD. I have a 10th grader at West High, and a 7th grader at Northwest Junior High. Both are extremely interested in science. I was not able to attend the board meeting last Tuesday due to another commitment, but I am concerned about what the new curriculum means for my 7th grader, and others in the district.
My understanding is that students entering 9th grade will no longer be allowed to opt out of Foundations of Science III by taking Biology instead. This change will effectively eliminate the science sequence currently recommended “for highly motivated students with high achievement records and a strong desire to pursue science in college,” which is outlined in the West High School Program of Studies, p. 23, beginning with Biology in 9th grade.
By taking Biology early on, students have a chance to take more advanced science courses and AP courses before they graduate. I have heard that students who qualify for Biology may still be allowed to take it if they “double up” on science in their 9th grade year, taking both Biology and Foundations of Science III. I’d like to point out some of the drawbacks of that course strategy below:
First, highly motivated students taking Biology in 9th grade are already doubling up on science that year. My daughter, for example, took Biology and Principles of Engineering, the major prerequisite course for the Project Lead the Way sequence, in 9th grade. If she had had to double up on Biology and FOS III in 9th grade, she would have had to wait to begin the Engineering sequence, thus limiting how many courses she could take in that area. This year, she is taking Environmental Sustainability (a PLTW course) and Honors Chemistry as a 10th grader. She plans to continue to take 2 science courses a year through her senior year. Highly motivated students are already doubling up on science! It isn’t practical for them to “triple up” on science without severely limiting their involvement in humanities, foreign languages, music, and so on.
Second, the science sequence currently recommended for highly motivated students is geared toward their future applications to colleges and study in the sciences. It would be foolish for ICCSD to change the science sequence available to its students, because the expectations of colleges will not be changing. Likewise, the science curricula of other similar high schools are extremely unlikely to change in such a way that students end up taking fewer advanced science courses. Therefore, ICCSD students would feel pressure to take extra science classes in 9th grade to overcome this disadvantage, leading to the consequences I describe below.
Third, the additional pressure to “keep up” with the customary science sequences and college expectations would cause highly motivated students to feel obliged to take FOS III and Biology in their 9th grade year. They would then have to choose what other potential courses to cut from their schedules—and looking at overall graduation requirements and college expectations, Performance Music (orchestra, band, choir) and Project Lead the Way classes would be especially likely to suffer. The district must be aware that such a curriculum change will have consequences.
Fourth, ICCSD is bound by Iowa Code to serve ALL of its students, and this includes highly motivated students. By high school, at the very latest, the district needs to allow acceleration in science, recognizing the differences between individuals in terms of interest in and aptitude for science. As a district, we can’t hold back our brightest students in order to make sure everyone achieves a minimum level of proficiency. Yes, we must work towards proficiency for all, but without penalizing those students who have been waiting for a greater challenge on entering high school. They have already waited long enough.
I’ve been told that the Earth Science component of the new curriculum will be taught in 9th grade, and is the main reason for the requirement of FOS III for all students. I agree that Earth Science is important, but ICCSD needs to explore alternative ways to fit Earth Science into the curriculum, rather than making students who are ready to pursue more advanced classes take another foundation course in 9th grade. The district must look for creative solutions. Perhaps an online Earth Science component could be offered to motivated students, to be completed concurrently with junior high course work, or over the summer before high school. There may be other solutions, as well—I am not knowledgeable enough about the specifics of the new curriculum to know where changes might be made, but I know others in the district are.
I’m a firm believer in lifting up all students through public education. Certainly, our goal must be to raise the achievement of all district students, including those who are struggling to meet minimum standards. But our responsibility doesn’t stop there. We must also challenge and uplift our best students. Not only is it written in the Iowa Code—it’s the right thing to do.