Sunday, January 8, 2017

Follow-up: Changes to the science curriculum

At a board meeting last month (the one I missed due to illness), the board approved an administrative proposal to change the junior high and high school science curriculum. One aspect of the proposal was a change to the current practice of allowing students to accelerate by skipping the ninth-grade Foundations of Science class and taking Biology instead. By accelerating in that way, those students are then able to take more advanced science classes before they graduate. Under the new proposal, students would be able to accelerate only by doubling up on science classes in either eighth or ninth grade. Moreover, eighth-graders would be allowed to accelerate only if they scored in the 95th percentile in science on the Iowa Assessments as seventh-graders and were enrolled in the more advanced junior high math course.

Others have written more extensively about the drawbacks of this new approach (links below). I agree with the one dissenting board member, Lori Roetlin, that the administration should go back to the drawing board and develop a proposal that would not make acceleration so problematic. In particular, I have the following concerns (all of which have been raised by others as well):

  • The new requirement, by incentivizing students to double up on science courses, will inevitably hurt enrollment in other elective courses. It will likely decrease participation in music and art courses. Many disciplines, given free rein, might choose to expand their share of the students’ school day, but the board needs to take all disciplines into account when setting curricular requirements.

  • The 95th-percentile cutoff for allowing students to accelerate in eighth grade appears to be entirely arbitrary—designed to fill a set number of seats, rather than to match students with the best course. As Karen W. writes, “The Iowa Assessments are not placement exams and the administration has provided no evidence that this particular cut score would predict success in the new [Earth and Space Science] course or that students with lower scores would not be successful.”

    More broadly, I’d like to see the board discuss the way the district uses Iowa Assessment scores to limit enrollment in advanced courses. What are the costs and benefits of that system as opposed to one in which students (with the advice of parents and counselors) could self-enroll in advanced course by choice?

  • The 95th percentile cutoff appears likely to have the effect of minimizing the number of minority students enrolled in the accelerated science track (see commentary here and here).

  • I’m not convinced that the new approach is the only workable way to comply with the state science standards. Karen W. makes a good case for the idea the material that would be covered in the 7th-8th-9th-grade sequence could be covered in 7th and 8th grade in an accelerated course, without doubling up. Apparently alternative approaches are being taken elsewhere (see the comments here).

Others have expanded on this list of concerns. Here is a list of posts on the topic (please chime in with a comment if I’ve missed any):

ICCSD Science Program Proposal, Revisited
Curriculum Review and the School Board
New science curriculum deserves more attention
ICCSD Science Program Proposal
Community Comment 11/8
Proposed changes to the science curriculum
More Questions Than Answers
Science Curriculum Review Report


Mary M said...

Thank you for writing about this issue Chris. T

I'd like to see the board revisit the science curriculum and cover the three year planned science courses in two courses over 7th and 8th grade and leave enrollment up to the parents and student.

I'd also like to see the board revisit the junior high literacy and language arts curriculum.

Amy Charles said...

It seems to me that the terms of this discussion are screwy. I'm speaking as someone who's worked in science for most of the last 20 years and who has a kid who's above the cutoff and is interested in science, but has no intention of doubling up, because she has more sense than that.

I can tell you that none of this has anything to do with "future success". A bright kid who's interested in ESS can catch up on 9th-grade year's worth of work in about six weeks in her freshman or sophomore year of college (or any other time) if she's interested. Yeah, she really can. It's not that thorough. Nor will universities care, partly because a kid bound for bio or med school who's really interested in this stuff should be blowing off other things to read and learn on his or her own.

If you're talking about general science literacy, making a sci-literate public, you're better off teaching logic, numeracy, literacy, and rhetoric. The particulars will change, and the curriculum hasn't a hope of beginning to touch the gazillions of scientific fields that exist. But the ability to reason well and read well will allow the kids to follow whatever track in science they might later be interested in. Science profs routinely lament the lack of these skills in sci majors, incidentally.

Better questions, it seems to me, has to do with what you want to expose them to and why. But all I'm hearing about is scores. Please ignore the scores. It's actually very important to do that.

Amy said...

You know, it's only just occurred to me that people might be obsessing over the scores because they care in a general sense about education, and have hazy ideas about scores=success=jobs=USA,USA, but don't in fact know a whole lot about the subjects under discussion, and so can't really talk about these things at the level of what's actually being taught.

I've worked with NGSS, and I worked with the standards set that came before it. It's not a bad set of ideas at all, and if you're being at all reasonable and smart in how you teach science, you're going to cover these things without even looking at the standards. So it really isn't too bright to stress over the standards: worry instead about what branch of science you want to introduce the kids to and when and why, and what you want to do there, and then do it well.

One of the things I might suggest is to avoid hyperventilating about the Jobs of Tomorrow, because we have no idea what those will be. We really don't. One hot discovery, one new technique, one new social change, can turn a whole field on its head, and new fields get born and become important with some regularity. So I would suggest instead concentrating on what science is and how it works, and why, and how it got that way. The concept of failure as the norm is extremely important in science, but in K12 we shy away from it. The question of how scientific theories are born and convince is important if you can avoid the fairy tales. The importance of clarity about what you do and do not know (and that Rumsfeldian third category, the unknown unknowns) is important. And an understanding of the development of ideas across centuries helps students who are going to be in serious trouble if you dump them into thermo-based exercises without teaching the thermo (you can't right now) and tell them it works because it works.

I'd get rid of any kit that works reliably and doesn't frustrate. I don't know much in experimental science that works reliably and doesn't frustrate. That's part of why there's new science. And avoid teaching science catechisms. This makes teaching much harder, which is why you need to pay the teachers properly.

The idea that the fields are distinct is also kind of silly. You want ESS? I don't know how you're going to avoid biology and chemistry and physics in there. You want biology? Good luck getting it without chemistry and physics and earth systems or, if you're looking at exobiology or origins of terrestrial life, space.

Anyway. We're chock full of science professors around here; I don't know why we wouldn't just ignore the tests and standards, figure out what's good to teach the kids now and why, offer the courses, allow kids to take, say, MIT OCW or EdX courses as supervised electives, and then clean up around the edges for the tests. The only trouble the kids might have on the tests then is that they'll be arguing with the items.