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. :)