My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Why 'Physics First' May Make Sense for Amherst

Although my oldest child is now in 5th grade, I've spent a lot of time over the last year becoming educated about high school science courses, in part because of my concern over the School Committee's unanimous adoption of the new required 9th grade ecology and environmental science course in January 2008 (making Amherst High the ONLY high school in the country, and likely the world, in which ecology and environmental science are required courses for first-year high school students). And what my reading suggests is that our high school missed a wonderful opportunity to adopt what many leading public and private schools are adopting: the Physics First approach.

What is Physics First? "The Executive Board of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) recognizes that teaching physics to students early in their high school education is an important and useful way to bring physics to a significantly larger number of students than has been customary. This approach—which we call “Physics First”—has the potential to advance more substantially the AAPT’s goal of Physics for All, as well as to lay the foundation for more advanced high school courses in chemistry, biology or physics." In brief, the physics first approach requires all 9th graders to take physics. They then move on to take chemistry at sophomores, and then biology or AP biology as juniors. Students can then, in most districts, take AP physics or AP chemistry (or both) as seniors. This is the model now used in leading Massachusetts schools, including Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, and Deerfield, as well as high schools across the country (Missouri, Maryland, Illinois, Rhode Island, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, etc.). Here's what a 1999 New York Times article describes about this movement:

What's better about Physics First? Here's what the Newton North High School website describes as the reasons this district adopted a physics first model:
  • Physics is the foundation of all science and is the easiest to observe through experiments with light, sound, motion, electricity and magnetism.
  • Physics deals with phenomena that relate directly to the student's world, making it a course in which students can make predictions, practice data collection and graphing techniques, and start to make scientific sense of their observations (Hickman, 1994). It maximizes the use of students’ personal experience in the everyday world and in their everyday language.
  • Physics gives students the opportunity to apply their mathematical skills to real situations.
  • Physics is the basis for understanding the more abstract concepts introduced in chemistry and biology. Today chemistry students learn about the electrostatic and nuclear forces in atoms, energy transformations that occur in chemical reactions, and gas laws while biology students delve into the biochemical processes in cells. Providing a strong conceptual framework in physics will only help students understand these complex processes (Hickman, 1994).
  • The performance of 9th and 10th grade students taking a conceptual physics course on the NY Regents exam compared favorably to that of 12th grade students mathematical-based course (Hewitt, 1990).
  • The sequence of biology-chemistry-physics for high school science was created in 1894 by a national commission, the Committee of Ten. This was when biology was a descriptive science focused on classification. Those rules no longer apply (Lederman, 1998).
  • More girls and minorities are succeeding in science and pursuing more advanced science courses in schools which start physics in the 9th grade (Cohen, 1999).
  • The science framework and related MCAS will be changing to include subject area courses and exams, one of which is a grade 9/10 conceptual physics course.
  • All students will have had a physics course providing relevance and real world connections to their lives. All students will see physics for what it really is, not a course which is too difficult to take. With this in mind, more students may go on to pursue higher level physics.
Research also shows that students who take physics first do better on the math PSAT, and thus potentially on the math SAT I and SAT II tests (,july04.pdf).

As noted on the Newton website, one of the key benefits of a physics first approach is that this strategy helps increase the percentage of girls and students of color in taking physics, which in turn could increase the percentage of girls and students of color who choose physics as a college major or even a career. Considerable evidence documents that students of color are less likely than white students to take a physics class (, and students of color are very underrepresented in physics at the college level, even at elite schools such as MIT ( Similarly, women are underrepresented in college physics classes and in graduate programs in physics and engineering. In line with this view, a 2006 article in the Yale Daily News ( noted that even at this very elite school, "engineering, physics and mathematics lagged behind many of the humanities departments in attracting women, who tend to flock to fields ranging from art history to English, as well as the "softer" sciences, such as biology and environmental studies.... In the 2005-'06 school year, anthropology, environmental studies, art history and psychology are among the majors in which women are most overrepresented. At the same time, women are underrepresented in many of the physical sciences, including electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering, mathematics and physics." So, our approach to teaching ecology and environmental science is simply exposing girls to precisely those areas of science in which they are already more likely to be interested.

I believe the high school science teachers were right to shake up our required 9th grade science curriculum to increase interest and accessibility to science constructs for all students. But I believe that considerable evidence suggests the best way to accomplish this goal would have been to move Amherst Regional High School to a physics first model -- which would have the added benefit of eliminating tracking (all students in Newton take the same physics course in 9th grade - unlike our divide between "honors" and "college prep" in the 9th grade course) and exposing all students (including girls and students of color) to physics in 9th grade, followed by chemistry in 10th grade, and biology in 11th grade. This approach would increase the rigor of science education in Amherst for all students, and keep options open for all students in terms of college majors and professional careers. I hope that our new superintendent, Dr. Alberto Rodriguez, will take a serious look at the physics first approach now being used in leading high schools, and will consider recommending such an approach in Amherst.


JWolfe said...

As I recall, the Amherst Regional High School principal literally scoffed at you and me when we mentioned the importance of comparing our science curriculum to those in other districts in the state, particularly Newton and Brookline. Moreover, not a single SC member then questioned the idea that having a completely unique science curriculum might prove to be problematic.

I fear your post is just more ammunition for the know nothings who think if we do it here it is by definition the only way to go.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

I'm sold! Do you think that, as part of the assessment strategy, the School Committee could convince the ARHS administration to allow ninth-graders next year to sign up for physics? Either instead of or in conjunction with the current environmental science course? As the parent of a rising ninth-grader interested in science, I would definitely sign up!

Anonymous said...

I was very surprised when Amherst made the change to a required 9th grade environmental science/ecology course. I had been reading over the last few years of the excitement of the Physics First idea. I thought it was a great idea!!! So when Amherst made the change I was very surprised they did not go to Physics First. We lost an opportunity. For all the reasons you outline, Catherine, I hope Amherst rethinks its decision on 9th grade science.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, this is yet another decision that was made without the checks and balances of a strong, informed school committee that is willing to challenge assertions.

Anonymous said...

"We're not Brookline or Newton", we're a progressive community that cares more about evolved thinking and social justice than those unenlightened (rich) towns. There are more important things than getting into the "right" college or advancing learning or even curing diseases or harnassing alternative energies. Like: getting along really well with others and not harming their self-esteem.

Abbie said...

Anon @12:40

I hope you are being sarcastic, if not, your ideas are very scary to me.

Nina Koch said...

just curious, how did you ascertain that Amherst is the only school district in the country to offer Environmental Science as the 9th grade curriculum?

If you have access to a comprehensive database of curriculum for school districts nationwide, I would be very interested in the link.

JWolfe said...

"We're not Brookline or Newton," because those places care about educating ALL THEIR CHILDREN so that they can feel good about themselves throughout their lives not just while they're in school.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 12:40

Here is the problem as I see it with the current science curriculum and yor thinking. Many in Amherst (myself included) want our kids to have the same academic opportunities as Brookline or Newton.

Amherst is a great community and I love that its progressive but I don't think that kids who are scientifically inclined should have to choose between having important science courses like AP Chemistry and being progressive. You can take these more traditional science courses, even become (gasp) rich, and still care for the environment. I don't think you need a required 9th grade science class that deprives you from other opportunities to do right by the planet.

JWolfe said...

I agree with Anon 2:48

What on earth is progressive about studying environmental science? Why is physics first less progressive? You can use the google to locate plenty of right-wing climatologists who will happily explain away global warming.

This is one of the really annoying things about how these debates are framed, as if opposing the current SC puts you on the right or left of things. That's why I was so put off by Baer Tirkle's comments about him being in the "sensible center."

This isn't a left-right debate. It's about a quality education that serves as a foundation for all our kids to make their own way in the world.

Anonymous said...

An ARHS graduate thinking of majoring in science at college will be handicapped by the lack of current high school course offerings. (This is no reflection on ARHS teachers, but strictly the present science curriculum.) Ideally, future science majors should have access to AP Chemistry and AP Physics E&M - not offered at ARHS - in addition to AP Biology and the AP Physics now offered. Also good: AP computer science. Some college-level science programs expect students to have covered the material that these courses include.

Ed said...

Physics First is an interesting approach -- to make the math relevant so that the kids learn it with it having some relevance in the first place. On the other hand, there are good chunks of Physics (albeit the stuff that was more stressed during the space race than today) where you really do need to have the math lest you become hopelessly lost.

There are some real policy issues here that do need to be thought through.

Neil said...

There is nothing incompatible with Physics First and social justice.

There is nothing wrong with "values teaching". Private boarding schools do it in the place of the parents by necessity.

Public schools can teach and encourage common (community) values such as social justice et cetera.

I find it interesting that anon framed them in opposition (divisively) and simultaneously satirically.

Anonymous said...

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Here's a couple of suggestions to all those with NewtonBrookline Envy.

1. Have your doctor check that out. If you don't deal with it soon, it may fall off.

2. Move to NewtonBrookline.

It's clear reading this tripe that this little group is geared toward whipping the community into hysteria over our children's education.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

How did Amherst ever know what to do with its schools before Ms. Sanderson rode into town on her white horse?

Thanks, Ms. Sanderson for being the guiding light.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 7:51

I continue to be confused as to why its somehow wrong to want the best possible education not just for my children but for all children in this town. Whats wrong with looking at Newton and Brookline, both outstanding school districts, for guidance, ideas etc...

I personally reject the one size fits all approach that ALL people want and value the same things in this town. Why can't we embrace these differences and create curriculum that serve all (or as close as we can get). In my mind that means both offering environmental science to those who want and a more traditional science curriculum which includes AP chemistry for those who want. That idea doesn't seem so radical to me.

Finally, why demonize Catherine. She's the one whose putting it out their for us and being very clear and straightforward about her opinions and ideas. Its fine not to agree with everything she says, but I think she should be applauded for being upfront and the voice to many in this community.

JWolfe said...

To Anon 7:51:

You know the schools used to be pretty good and probably did quite a few things that were copied in Newton and Brookline. Right now we have a pretty lousy SC and some weak administrators on the upper levels (I think the new crop of elementary school principals and the MS principal show real promise).

What I don't get is the weird fear of excellence. When did some people start equating mediocrity with social justice? How exactly does mediocrity help the kids on free and reduced lunch? Isn't keeping a quality education from them really the opposite of social justice? Isn't it classist to think well "those kids" don't need AP Chemistry?

Anonymous said...

anon @ 7:51 AM

Here's a couple of suggestions to all those with NewtonBrookline Envy.
1. Have your doctor check that out. If you don't deal with it soon, it may fall off.
2. Move to NewtonBrookline.

There are ignorant people in Newton and Brookline too so moving won't help. We spend a lot of money on our schools. There is nothing wrong with wanting them to be the best for it. In fact, I think that's a good goal: Make our High School top five in the state (regardless of which the other four are.) This would help our kids compete in the best colleges in the nation. (Most people are motivated by giving their children opportunity in life.)

If you're not interested in making our schools better. I don't understand why you would post here... unless the point is to troll.

Maybe that's your point, mock (becuase your point of view is allegedly superior) and distract becuase it bothers you that you disagree.

Cathy C said...

To me CHOICE is an ultimate practice of freedom. When we talk about justice, it is hard for me to understand why anyone would argue with having multiple options.

The ecology/environmental science class seems like an interesting choice for some, but why does it have to be a requirement? Can't CHOOSE ONE of 2 or 3 options be a reasonable decision for 9th grade science students? This seems like a non-issue if students had a choice.

Anonymous said...

Get over it woman. It's not the school committe's job to dictate which courses are offered. As long as they meet state requirements, there's nothing you can do about it.

JWolfe said...

To Anon 1:07

The SC did in fact vote to make Environmental Science the required 9th grade science class. I'm not sure where you get your information about what the SC can and can't do, but I attended the meeting. Without the SC's vote, there would have been no change in the curriculum. That isn't an opinion, it is a fact.

Michael Jacques said...


As a person who voted for you I thank you for riding in on your white horse.

You are doing an outstanding job of showing our district many of the options and choices we have. You foster open and honest dialog while receiving at times rather harsh criticism. Thank you for representing me.

Anonymous said...

"the School Committee isn't in charge of evaluation, and thus this was not our job, and also that this decision has already been made, so it was not going to be re-visited"


Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Joel - I am hoping that the new SC is going to be more interested in both doing such comparisons and evaluating what we are doing.

Alison - going to a physics first model requires some changes in how physics is taught ... and a revamping of the entire science curriculum. So, sadly, I don't think next year is an option for it!

Anonymous 10:44 - I agree that we lost an opportunity. Please convey your thoughts to the superintendent so that we can encourage this option to at least be considered.

Anonymous 12:14 - I agree that having a strong SC is crucial -- it is the check and balance that we need to make sure good decisions are made, and evaluated, and, if needed, changed.

Anonymous 12:40 - I think public schools in all towns, including Amherst, have a responsibility to challenge and engage all kids and prepare them to succeed in any college major. This requires rigorous preparation ... and I think actually builds self-esteem.

Abbie - I hope you are right, but I'm not sure you are.

Nina - I do NOT have a comprehensive data base! However, I contacted each of the 22 MSAN districts (across the country), and each of the districts in Massachusetts ranked by Newsweek/US News and World Report and asked about their science curriculum. Then I asked if they knew of ANY district requiring ecology/environmental science in 9th grade. None of these districts had this requirement, and no one had heard of any district having this requirement (and they all seemed quite surprised, even shocked, that we would be adopting such a model). I also asked the science teachers for examples of such districts, and they didn't know of any. So, if you can find some, let me know -- but my looking has revealed no districts using this approach to teaching science.

Joel - Indeed.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 2:48 - I agree completely with your point. In addition, some of the other districts I talked to said that for kids who are really interested in the environment, the best preparation was a year each of biology, chemistry, and physics, followed by AP Environmental Science (which you USED to be able to do in our district). But in our current system, a student who is interested in taking AP environmental science would not be able to take physics -- because they take ecology/environmental science in 9th, chemistry in 10th, and biology in 11th. Then they have to choose physics OR AP environmental science. So, in a sense, our new curriculum is even worse for those who are strongly interested in the environment.

Joel - Agreed.

Anonymous 3:42 - Excellent point about the problem of lack of preparation for our kids ... and about AP computer science!

Ed - one of the challenges of Physics First is that you do need to have a strong math background. But I think adopting this approach in science would help push up the math curriculum so that all kids got 8th grade algebra -- which I think would be good.

Neil - good point!

Anonymous 7:51 - I was going to respond, but then others have kindly done so for me. See their comments (Anonymous 8:46, Joel, Anonymous 10:27)for my response.

Cathy - I think the OPTION would be a great compromise. I pushed hard for this last year with the superintendent (Jere Hochman) and several members of SC. I would encourage you and other parents to suggest this approach to Maria Geryk, which yes, would solve the problem completely for me (kids who want something innovative and/or are interested in the environment can take this course; others can take a more traditional approach and have biology).

Anonymous 1:07 - the SC evaluates the Superintendent. If the SC wanted a real evaluation of the 9th grade course done, it could require the superintendent to do one. And then it could determine whether this course was in fact working or not.

Joel - thank you for pointing this out!

Mike - thanks much for the support. It is much appreciated.

Anonymous 4:49 - not quite sure how to respond here ...

Keith Ulrich said...

I'm no fan of requiring environment science in ninth grade, but I'm puzzled by this "Physics First" idea. I was hugely into science and math in high school, especially physics -- so much so that I started college intending to major in it.

But they taught us physics before calculus in high school, and once I'd taken calculus it seemed crazy to me that I'd taken physics first. Physics problems that had required real effort to wrap my mind around became almost trivial once I'd learned derivatives and integrals. Didn't Newton invent calculus specifically to help him figure out physics? Why teach physics before calculus (or do Amherst kids have the opportunity to learn calculus by ninth grade)?

Ed said...

Didn't Newton invent calculus specifically to help him figure out physics?

Absolutely - although I was going with algebra & trig.

Why teach physics before calculus (or do Amherst kids have the opportunity to learn calculus by ninth grade)?

There is the rather asinine theory of including calculus principles into 3rd grade math. My gut feeling is that it is a bad idea that will just confuse kids more, but it is out there.

As is the rather asinine plan of the DPW to make me drive an extra 5 miles every time I leave my apartment, but I digress....

Anonymous said...

While we're on the subject of required courses for our high school students, how about a course in economics. The reasons for it would be very similar to those offered for the Envionmental Science course. Kids would gain specific, useful content knowledge. The subject matter would be engaging and relevant. Kids would come out of it with a greater understanding of what they could do personally to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
The Social Studies department could hype the course with attention-grabbing questions like,
"You may have loved (or hated) music by Sublime, but will you like that produced by Subprime?"
Or, "Is a credit card an addictive drug?"
Considering our economic problems are severe, like our environmental problems, and ignorance and/or carelessness by the average citizen contributed to the problem (No, I"m not minimizing the greed and corruption that those in power contributed) shouldn't we be arming our students with this vital information?

Anonymous said...

They do offer economics and economics/honors but it is not required. My daughter took it a couple of years ago and loved it. It was my understanding that it was popular though it may have been due to the teacher.

Anonymous said...

"not required" - that's the catch.
Read Anna Quindlen's article in the March 30th Newsweek for a good argument to think about how requiring it might be good for all children, all the time(or whatever that catchy phrase is that Jere repeatedly used).