Textbook Battle: Top High Schools Fight New Science as Overly Simple
Ohanian Comment: Here's an issue related to NCLB, but really involving a much bigger topic, science for all. Tomsho does a good job at pointing to the issues. My experience in working on these same issues in middle school math curriculum tells me that, as usual, Kati Haycock oversimplifies parent concerns and motivations.
As is often the case with massive curriculum reform this one probably couldn't have been handled worse. The new text/course was chosen by administrative fiat, and now San Diego's czar, Alan Bersin, United States Attorney for the Southern District of California before being put in charge of San Diego Schools, is now California Secretary of Education.
San Diego's Physics Overhaul
Makes Classes Accessible,
Spurs Parental Backlash
Test Scores Barely Budge
By Robert Tomsho
SAN DIEGO -- When San Diego's school district began overhauling its science-education curriculum five years ago, it wanted to raise the performance of minority, low-income and immigrant students.
But parents in middle- and upper-income areas, where many students were already doing well, rebelled against the new curriculum, and a course called Active Physics in particular. They called it watered-down science, too skimpy on math.
A resistance movement took hold. Some teachers refused to use the new textbooks, which are peppered with cartoons. They gathered up phased-out texts to use on the sly. As controversy over the issue escalated, it played a part in an election in which the majority of the school board was replaced. Now, further curriculum changes are under consideration.
The skirmishes in the nation's eighth-largest urban school district reflect a wider battle over how to make science classes accessible to a broader array of students while maintaining their rigor.
Amid mediocre U.S. scores on international science tests and predictions of future shortages of scientists and engineers, policy makers have begun requiring more science in schools. By 2011, 27 states will require high-school students to take at least three science courses to graduate. In 1992, only six had such requirements.
But the changes sometimes don't sit well with families whose children were already doing well. Last year, parental pressure led the West Hartford, Conn., school district to establish a new honors-level biology course in 10th grade after the district stopped grouping students by ability in earlier grades. In Dearborn, Mich., similar efforts quashed a 2003 proposal to provide all ninth- and 10th-graders with the same science courses in a bid to boost state test scores.
Such disputes are likely to erupt elsewhere as more school districts try to spread their resources for teaching science across a wider array of students. Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for at-risk students, says parents in affluent schools often resist changes that affect students who are already thriving. "People with privileges fight to keep privileges," she says.
The problems with high-school science education are rooted, in part, in the federal No Child Left Behind law, which mandates that students be tested on math and reading. As a result, some elementary and middle schools, particularly in high-poverty areas, have been teaching less science.
In 2005, 29% of the nation's school districts reported significantly reducing the amount of time devoted to science instruction to make way for additional reading and math, up from 22% in 2004, according to a recent study by the Center on Education Policy, an advocacy group for public education. Currently, only about two of 10 black and Hispanic students nationwide take high-school physics, compared with one-third of white students, according to the American Institute of Physics.
Next year, the No Child Left Behind law requires testing to begin in science. But even after the science tests are phased in, only the math and reading tests will carry the threat of restructuring and other federal sanctions for schools that fail to improve test scores.
Kim Bess, a former teacher, says she was struck by disparities in the San Diego school district when she became director of its science department in 2000. San Diego high-school teachers were largely free to teach what they wanted. While top-performing schools offered specialties like marine science, those in low-income neighborhoods offered less challenging fare such as a course in cooking with chemistry aimed at preparing students for food-service jobs.
Under pressure to boost reading and math achievement, some elementary and middle schools had stopped teaching science altogether. At many schools, classroom experiment kits went unused.
One spark for the curriculum overhaul was a 2000 district study showing that less than one-third of recent graduates had completed the course work required to gain admission to California's state universities. The district also found that about one-third of its freshmen failed biology, and that fewer than 20% took chemistry or physics.
In many ways, the changes San Diego decided to make followed strategic lines long advocated by groups such as the National Science Foundation. The new program de-emphasized textbook learning in favor of hands-on activities designed to engage students with little science background or limited English skills.
Initially, district officials also aimed to stop dividing students by ability and to make all take the same courses. They reasoned that lower achievers would benefit from mixing with better students, and that uniformity would allow officials to better assess what teaching strategies were working best. "The thrust was to say that all kids have the same access to the same quality materials," Ms. Bess says.
Nearly one in three of San Diego's 134,000 students speaks English as a second language, and 54% qualify for a federal lunch program for low-income families. But the sprawling 211-square-mile school district also serves La Jolla, a coastal enclave that is home to some of the nation's most expensive homes.
Under the district's reform plan, all high-school students beginning with the class of 2006 would have to pass three science courses to graduate, up from two. Moreover, students would take them in a new order: physics first, in ninth grade, then chemistry, then biology.
For decades, physics at most high schools has been a calculus-based elective for high-achieving juniors and seniors. Many educators justified the new lower-level physics as necessary for studying other sciences, particularly biology.
Having already battled teachers and parents over reading and math reforms, the San Diego district moved quickly to institute its science reforms, starting with high-school physics. "If you study something long enough and try to get buy-in from everybody, you get nothing," says Ms. Bess, whose office unveiled the science overhaul in the spring of 2001 and began putting it into effect that fall.
Drawing from a $10 million annual combined budget for science and math reforms, the district undertook a massive effort to retrain teachers. It hired six new administrators and trained teachers to serve as science team leaders at their schools. By the fall of 2002, the district had 368 high-school science teachers, up 50% from 2000.
The curriculum San Diego chose for ninth-graders was Active Physics. Developed with funding from the National Science Foundation, its approach was far from conventional. The course employed breezily written booklets focused on physics in arenas such as sports and medicine. They were full of short blocks of text and cartoons, including recurring images of a pint-sized scientist with wild Einstein hair.
The course also included kits containing boccie balls, toy cars and other items for classroom activities. To explore Newton's laws of motion, one suggested exercise had one student gently pushing another while both stood on skateboards.
Arthur Eisenkraft, a professor of science education at the University of Massachusetts who designed the Active Physics curriculum, says he aimed to create a course that could provide all students with an appreciation for physics, even those who didn't have the math skills usually demanded by the conventional course.
After the district's plans were announced, a backlash erupted immediately in affluent areas such as La Jolla, whose high school had a long tradition of winning science awards. When top district administrators came to La Jolla High that April to discuss the changes with the public, Principal Dana Shelburne opted not to join them on stage. "I wasn't going to chirp in and support Active Physics in any way, shape or form," he says. The meeting became rancorous.
In the months that followed, one group of La Jolla High parents and teachers hashed out a plan for the school -- the district's highest achiever on state tests -- to break away and become independent.
The district responded in 2002 by giving La Jolla academic autonomy, effectively letting it ignore the new science curriculum. But by then, the changes also had sparked protests elsewhere in the city. There were petition drives and an unsuccessful bid to persuade the University of California not to recognize Active Physics as a laboratory science for admission purposes.
Some teachers found that the new physics course made a difference in the classroom. Stephanie Rico, then a science teacher at San Diego High School, says the new activities were engaging for her students, many of whom had little background in science. "Several commented that this way of learning was so much more interesting for them," says Ms. Rico, who is on leave this school year but plans to return. "I think it's a good idea. I'll fight for it to stay."
After the new physics course became mandatory in 2002, many parents figured they had lost the battle, and the public protests subsided. But resistance continued to fester as the district phased in more hands-on chemistry and biology courses that put less emphasis on traditional textbooks.
When Martina Galinato was assigned two years ago to take Active Physics at Mira Mesa High School, her mother, Diane Galinato, who is a pharmacist, protested. An older daughter had already taken the course, she says, and "it was wasting a whole year of science." Martina was subsequently assigned to a teacher who opposed Active Physics and was using alternative teaching materials.
Mitz Lee, a parent activist at Scripps Ranch High, also a high-achieving school, continued quietly organizing opposition and eventually made it a cornerstone of her 2004 campaign for a seat on the school board.
Opposition to the program remained sharp among some veteran science teachers. Tom Deets, who teaches at Patrick Henry High, argued that freshman who hadn't passed eighth-grade algebra weren't ready for physics. Rather than teach the new course, he switched to math until the district offered him an administrative job.
Aiming to keep their hands on alternative teaching materials, an active underground sprang up, with teachers squirreling away old physics textbooks to make sure the district couldn't collect them. "At one time, I probably had 400 books," says Hal Cox, a retired submarine commander who teaches physics at Hoover High School. "I put them in lockers, everywhere I could find."
The opposition came to a head with the school-board elections of 2004, when three critics of the district's overall curriculum changes, including those in math and reading, were elected to its five-member school board. The winners included Ms. Lee, who had campaigned for an end to "fuzzy" science and was elected by the widest margin of the new board members. She has lately been pushing for giving individual schools more autonomy on course choice. "I don't want any more central mandates," Ms. Lee says.
Although all high-school students now take science, the new curriculum has done little to raise test scores. In 2005, only about 2% of Hispanic and African-American students scored at proficient or advanced levels on the state physics test, up from 1% in 2003. Overall, 10% of San Diego students scored at proficient or advanced levels in physics last year, up from 6% in 2003.
But nearly two-thirds of the city's students continue to score in the below-basic range. With more than 15% of all San Diego ninth-graders failing Active Physics, which is required, district officials are considering whether to offer additional instruction in basic math and science during the first semester of freshman year.
The reconstituted school board has given several teachers permission to develop a new earth-science course for freshmen who lack the algebra skills for physics. Meanwhile, after heavy lobbying from teachers, the district will decide next year whether to adopt a different physics curriculum. As it stands, Ms. Bess, the district science director, estimates that fewer than 30% of her physics teachers rely solely on Active Physics in their classrooms.
With the district doing little to force their hand, more teachers are using old textbooks or handouts of their own design. Rudy Shaffer at San Diego High School is among them. "Not a whole lot of what happens in my classroom comes directly out of the book," he says.
Write to Robert Tomsho at firstname.lastname@example.org
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