Saturday, October 29, 2016

Proposed changes to the science curriculum

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.


Anonymous said...

Great email from Martha Terry. The district should not require all students to take the same science class as 9th graders. This will just slow down learning for the more academic students and make it hard for them to fit performance music into their schedule.

Karen W said...

Press-Citizen article today on proposed science changes. Looks like they may allow doubling up on science in 8th grade instead, but otherwise only offering acceleration through doubling up instead of working out an accelerated junior high science curriculum.

Mary M said...

"Lala said the district is considering an option that would allow some students to take the ninth-grade earth science course in junior high, alongside eighth-grade science, if they "have demonstrated an aptitude in the science area.""

The above would be one alternative. Those students who are 8th graders now, however, should not be required to double up on science next year if they were planning to take biology as 9th graders (there is no extra science course in junior high now).

I would like to see a junior high curriculum that permits some students to take social studies, English/language arts, and science courses with more rigor and a faster pacing than is currently happening. We have many students who are capable of handling more rigorous material at a faster pace in junior high, and especially given the science changes, it would be good for these students to have access to an accelerated science option at a minimum.

Following No Child Left Behind, my sense is that schools across the country focused a lot on getting students just below proficient to proficient, which is an outstanding goal; however, the needs of all students need to be met. There should certainly not be a return to inflexible tracking; however, there should be some more course options in our junior highs.

Thanks to Martha Terry for writing her email and to Chris for publishing it.

Amy said...

I think Mary's right on.

The thing is, for a lot of this, it doesn't matter what the box is -- earth science, biology, fundamentals, whatever. It has a lot more to do with the quality of the books and materials used and the teachers' depth. For instance: I've been very much impressed by the science team at Northwest. The Lawrence Hall of Science textbooks are really, really good, and the teachers are smart, too. It hardly matters what science you're taking at that level so long as it's taught well and you get to see a lot of it, are introduced to a lot of what's there to do and learn and choose someday, and begin learning to think and work as these scientists do. The social studies texts, on the other hand, are garbage, and the work itself is deeply unimpressive. Language arts is variable but flexible -- if a kid has a parent who can make suggestions, much is welcomed and accommodated -- and math is, oh, it's the MRE of math. It doesn't have to be. The Math club kids, I think, use the Art of Problem Solving books, and there's no reason why the others couldn't too. And so on. I don't think curricular grade-to-grade reorganizations are necessary so much as actually taking a close look at what's being taught to whom, in each course, and by whom, is necessary.

Mary M said...


ICCSD's strategic plan needs to better address the academic needs of highly proficient students or students with the potential to be highly proficient. While I don't disagree that "District Goals" #1 and #2 are important, I was dismayed to see at last month's DPO meeting that there is no "District Goal" for advanced students. There should be.

The "District Goals" also don't appear to address the academic needs of some special education students. Having "District Goals" that address all students' needs is more important than fitting "District Goals" on 1 page in a nice graphic.

See http://www.iowacityschools.org/files/_JNCpC_/1fd989d2efe73c763745a49013852ec4/Iowa_City_Community_School_District_Strategic_Plan.pdf