08 April 2005

A Little History Lesson

Recently, I posted on my district's scope and sequence recommendations. There were two wonderful comments on the post---both pointing out that our current decision is not so different from when the writers attended school. In fact, it's the same sequence I had (long ago and far away). What's the deal?

The "traditional" high school science curriculum sequence was established in 1897. Ten east coast college deans formed an advisory group in order to help create the American high school. At the time, they recommended that students take science in the following order: biology, chemistry, physics. The "urban legend" that goes along with this is that the classes were simply ordered alphabetically. However, this was not the deans' mode of reasoning. In 1897, biology was still a rather young branch of science. It was still full of "naturalism": looking at plants and animals. Biology was placed first in the sequence because it was the most simple science and it did not require a lot of equipment (or training) to teach.

Since 1897, lots has changed in biology---but the sequence has not. Biology has a much more cellular and molecular focus to it. There is a lot of talk about reversing the sequence and putting physics first. (conceptual physics, not calculus based) The idea is that a student who understands something about forces will have a better concept of atoms, bonding, reactions, etc. when they take chemistry...and a student who is well-grounded in chemistry will have a much richer understanding of biology. This really makes a lot of sense given current scientific knowledge.

My district didn't choose to keep the three-year sequence in any form for high school. Why not? One reason is simply that students are only required to have 2 credits of science for graduation. Which class should we cut out? What we did instead was to ask that 9th graders take one semester of physics and one semester of chemistry and then have 10th graders take biology. This also ensures that all students have an opportunity to gain experience with the standards and a high-quality curriculum. High schools will still offer all the traditional courses: chemistry, physics, AP courses, etc.

One of the commenters to my original post mentioned that many students taking biology in his school fail. You know, so do ours. Biology is the most frequently failed class in our school. And in looking at test scores, biology has the fewest students able to meet the standards (vs. 10th graders taking other science courses). We have talked about this a lot at my school, but have not determined any hard and fast answers. Is it because their knowledge of basic chemistry isn't developed enough to handle DNA and other organic bases in biology? Is it because more new terms are used in a high school science text than a student is exposed to in a year of a foreign language class? Does it have anything to do with the brain's "readiness" in terms of pre-frontal lobe development---maybe the kids just are not physically able to process the knowledge? Is it bad teaching? Poor study habits? We don't have a ready answer. Why, oh why are we keeping biology as an introductory high school class? Well, we think we can change most of these items and are making efforts to do so.

Junior high/middle school is a whole different animal. I don't know when such an idea was established, and really, most districts seem to be struggling with how to handle the 6 - 8 grade band. Again, the "traditional" sequence has been General Science, Life Science, Earth/Space Science. Many schools are now choosing a more "integrated" model, where students have some exposure to each topic throughout the year. Our district did consider this---but there were a number of reasons why it didn't make sense for us to choose this option.

Since we were in high school, gentle readers, a lot has happened with the school day. One of you wondered if classes were shorter or perhaps the teaching day longer. I'll see if I can find any info on that idea. What I can tell you is that there are all sorts of permutations to the daily schedule: traditional 6 or 7 periods a day, block schedules, modified blocks, and more. A state may choose to set a number of "contact minutes" a student must have or the number of days a class must be in session. Again, there's a lot of discussion here. If a kid can meet standards, do they really need to be in class as long as a kid who doesn't? Does a one-size-fit-all-school-year make sense? Right now, legislatures are saying "yes."

A final note, as there was also a comment about the math sequence: algebra is now a 7th and 8th grade class...and the sequence follows from there. A kid who takes algebra in high school (as you and I did) is considered to be significantly behind his or her peers. It is the lowest math class available for credit. Since math also has a two credit requirement for graduation, we have many kids who finish that requirement in grade 8 and then opt out of math throughout high school. It's beginning to be a real problem, but it, too, is being tackled.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled Spring Break. :)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, thanks for that. It's very interesting to me. I think your first point, that biology is better tackled last than first is correct. I'm no expert or anything, but your argument makes good sense to me. The only thing there that I can't understand is the requirement for only two credits of science for graduation.

What cretinous academic thought that one up?! Only some blowhard steeped in modern "brain-based" learning could possibly conclude that 21st century children should go out into the world with only a light dusting of science knowledge. A single semester of chemistry will teach you that atoms get together and form chemicals. You might learn a bit about bonds, valences and orbits and perhaps Avogadro's Number and moles and a few other basic ideas, but that's it. A single semester of physics will get you some basic concepts of matter and energy and perhaps some statics, but I don't see how much further you're going to go. After all, the kids don't have even vector algebra yet (at least not if I understood your post), so they can't really apply much math beyond maybe calculating momentum or potential energy. In a society where deeply scientific concepts are daily items in the news (global warming, nanotechnology, environmental hazards, gene therapy, etc), every citizen needs to be armed with at least enough science education to understand the debate. I take it back, only a legislature could be that stupid.

Sorry for the rant, I'm completely aware that none of this is your doing.

As for math, I would type a similar rant about requiring only two to graduate, but you can guess everything that I would say.

So, thanks again for the post, it was extremely informative. My question, however, remains: if a kid only has to take two years of science and possibly zero years of math in high school, just what courses do they spend time in? They don't have to take PE every semester any more either, right? No doubt there is some sort of computer class that we didn't have and maybe they take more history or something (although judging by some college kids I have talked to lately, it seems like history has been dropped altogether)?

Over the weekend, our local paper (Austin, Tx, that is) reported that the local school district has improved so much that now a full 79% of high school kids get diplomas (up from 72% a few years ago). From the new story, however, this number is actually somewhat inflated and the real numbers are more like 70-75%. Is it that bad at your school?