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.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Science in Other Districts

Based on the considerable interest my blog has generated over the past few days in the discussion about 9th grade science, I am doing a separate posting that reports on data I have gathered over the last few months. As I've said repeatedly, I believe the curriculum in our schools should look like the curriculum used in other schools--because we are preparing our students to gain admission to and succeed in colleges and universities with students from across the United States. So, I've gathered data from all of the MSAN (Minority Student Achievement Network) districts regarding science education in their schools. In addition, I also gathered information from six local and statewide districts: Northampton, Hadley, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Framingham, and Newton. Specifically, I gathered the following information in all of the 23 MSAN districts plus the 6 local and statewide comparison schools:

• The number (and type) of years of science required for graduation
• The type of science courses required in 9th grade
• The presence of AP Chemistry

I hope this information is helpful as we ponder potential changes to science requirements and course offerings in Amherst.

Graduation Requirements (Number of Years, Types of Courses) in Science

Amherst requires two years of science, requires that the first of these years be a class in ecology and environmental science, and places no requirements on the content of the second required course.

Most MSAN districts require three years of high school science. Districts with this requirement include: Alexandria City (VA), Ann Arbor (MI), Arlington (VA), Bedford (NY), Brookline (MA), Cambridge (MA), Chapel Hill (NC), Cleveland Heights (OH), Columbia (MO), Eugene (OR), Farmingham (MI), Montclair (NJ), Paradise Valley (AZ), Princeton (NJ), South Orange (NJ), Shaker Heights (OH), and Windsor (CT). Similarly, four of the statewide comparison districts require three years of science: Northampton, Hadley, East Longmeadow, and Framingham.

Amherst is thus one of only 6 MSAN districts requiring two years of science. The other MSAN districts with such a low requirement are Champaign (IL), Evanston (IL), Green Bay (WI), Madison (WI), and Oak Park (IL). In addition, only two of the statewide comparison districts requiring only two years of science: Newton and Longmeadow. Thus, Amherst is in the minority of districts that require only two years (21 require 3 years, 8 --including Amherst -- require 2 years).

Most districts require some type of distribution of these courses across types of science. Most typically, districts require courses taken in either two distinct areas (usually biology is one area, physics/chemistry/earth science are in a second area) or 2 of 4 areas (biology, chemistry, physics, earth science). The following districts require some type of distribution across scientific disciplines: Alexandria City (VA), Ann Arbor (MI), Arlington (VA), Bedford (NY), Brookline (MA), Cambridge (MA), Champaign (IL), Columbia (MO), Farmingham (MI), Green Bay (WI), Madison (WI), Shaker Heights (OH), and Windsor (CT). This distribution requirement is also typical in the statewide comparison districts: Hadley (biology, integrated physical sciences), Newton (biology, physical sciences), Longmeadow (biology, chemistry), East Longmeadow (must take biology, and another science – which, given their science options, must be in a physical science), Northampton (must take biology, and another science – which, given their science options, must be in a physical science).

Amherst is thus in the minority of MSAN districts in not requiring any type of distribution across scientific disciplines (13 districts have such distribution requirements, and 10, including Amherst, do not). In addition, Framingham is the only one of the six comparison districts without a science distribution requirement. Thus, 18 of these 28 comparison districts have a distribution requirement, and 11 do not (including Amhers).

9th Grade Science Courses Required/Offered

Amherst Regional High School requires that all 9th graders take classes in ecology and environmental science.

There is a wide range of 9th grade required/offered courses in MSAN and the statewide comparison districts. Most typically, 9th graders choose between a course in biology and a course in a physical science (earth science, or a broader physical science course). This is seen in the following districts: Alexandria City (VA), Ann Arbor (MI), Arlington (VA), Bedford (NY), Champaign (IL), Chapel Hill (NC), Eugene (OR), Montclair (NJ), Oak Park (IL), Princeton (NJ), Windsor (CT), as well as in 2 of the statewide comparison districts (Hadley and Framingham). In all of these cases, 9th graders are able to choose the course that they would like to take and thus are not required to take a particular course (as used to be in the case in Amherst, but is no longer the case).

Several districts require all 9th graders to take biology. These include 4 MSAN districts -- Evanston (IL), Farmingham (MI), Madison (WI), South Orange (NJ) -- plus 3 of the 6 statewide comparison districts (Northampton, East Longmeadow, and Longmeadow).

Several districts require all 9th graders to take physics. These districts include: Brookline (MA), Cambridge (MA), Columbia (MO). Newton also requires all 9th graders to take physics.

One district (Shaker Heights, OH) requires all students to take an integrated physical science course.

So, to summarize, of these 29 districts, 13 allow students to choose between 9th grade science options, and 13 require students to all take a given class (most commonly biology, though in some cases physics and in one case an integrated physical sciences). (I was not able to find data on the 9th grade options in3 of the districts).

Not a single MSAN district, or one of the 6 statewide comparison districts, other than Amherst requires all 9th graders to take classes in ecology and environmental science (nor, in fact, are such courses ever required at any grade level in any of the other MSAN or statewide comparison districts). Given Amherst’s requirement of only two years of science, and that the first one must be in ecology/environmental science and the second one can be any course, it is distinctly possible, and even likely, that some students will graduate from Amherst High now having had only classes in ecology/environmental science and biology (the most typical 10th grade course), and thus having absolutely no exposure to any physical science (earth science, chemistry, or physics). This course taking would be virtually impossible in any of the other MSAN districts.

Presence of AP Chemistry

Amherst Regional High School does not offer AP Chemistry or any second year chemistry course.

The following districts offer AP Chemistry – Alexandria City (VA), Ann Arbor (MI), Arlington (VA), Bedford (NY), Brookline (MA), Cambridge (MA), Champaign (IL), Chapel Hill (NC), Cleveland Heights (OH), Columbia (MO), Eugene (OR), Evanston (IL), Farmingham (MI), Montclair (NJ), Oak Park (IL), Paradise Valley (AZ), Princeton (NJ), South Orange (NJ), Shaker Heights (OH), Windsor (CT), plus five of the six local comparison districts (Northampton, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Newton, Framingham). Although Madison (WI) does not offer AP Chemistry, this district offers an Advanced Chemistry course, which is a second-year chemistry course. Similarly, although Hadley does not offer AP chemistry, it does offer an advanced, second year chemistry class. In sum, Amherst is the only one of these 29 comparison districts that does not offer AP chemistry or any chemistry course beyond the intro level (I was not able to find information on the presence of this course in one of the MSAN districts).


In my review of the course offerings and requirements in science at the high school level, Amherst distinguishes itself from virtually all of the other 23 MSAN districts and the 6 statewide comparison districts in the following ways:

• having the lowest number of required science classes
• being one of relatively few districts to place no requirements on the types of science classes completed
• being the only district to require 9th graders to take a non-core science
• being the only district to require students to ever take classes in ecology and environmental science
• being the only district to not offer AP or an advanced chemistry class

One additional note, for what it is worth: I also looked up the Mass Core recommended program of studies. This recommendation is for three years of science (including a class in natural sciences and a class in physical sciences). This report notes: “high school curriculum reflects 41% of the academic resources students bring to higher education” and that “the curriculum measure produces a higher percent earning bachelor’s degrees than either of the other measures.” In addition, and importantly, this report notes: “the impact of a high school curriculum of high academic intensity and quality on degree completion is far more pronounced and positive for African-American and Latino students than any other pre-college indicator of academic resources. The impact for African-American and Latino students is also much greater than it is for white students.” I would hope that, given our district’s commitment to social justice, we have the courage to require all of our high school students to complete what is recommended by Mass Core, which would include three years of science, including a class in natural sciences (such as biology) and a class in physical sciences (such as chemistry or physics). We currently do not follow any of these recommendations.


Anonymous said...

To me, the biggest problem with the current REQUIRED 9th grade science class is that it is required. If students had a choice in the matter and were able to choose biology in the 9th grade I would have no problem with Ecology/Environmental Science also being offered. I don't understand why E/E is required. Let the student choose.

I also like the idea posted in the previous discussion of moving the E/E course to the 8th grade with the kids moving on to biology in the 9th grade.

Anonymous said...

This becomes a budget issue: You can't continue laying off teachers and substituting study halls for class time AND offer choices in science.

Anonymous said...

No, it is an equity issue. If a more rigorous curriculum in all areas, including the scieinces, benefits African-American and low income kids most, Amherst must provide these classes to fulfill its social justice goal. When it comes to helping these kids, it's not all about special education and extra support. It's giving them the same push that white middle class parents give their kids all the time.

Anonymous said...

I have a kid who is a ARHS senior and we are going through the college admission process now. Selective schools do look for it all. Rigorous course work, # of AP classes, GPA, SAT scores, SAT II score, research work in the area of interest, volunteer work, job, uniqueness to stand out, great essays....

It is very competitive and taking away the choices of classes they take (science in 9th grade), more study halls, removing art/music makes it harder for our students to compete against other kids from other schools when applying to highly selective schools.

I understand budget issues and doubling of science is not an option. Some colleges require SAT II in Chemistry or Physics if applying to Engineering major. This becomes a problem with lack of second year of Chemistry. My kid took Chemistry Honors (scheduled 2nd & third trimester) and SAT Chemistry exam was before the trimester was over and the Chemistry at ARHS didn't cover all the materials required for SAT II. Restricting science to a required course in 9th grade is a HUGE disadvantage to kids who are interested in majoring in Science in college at a selective school.

Anonymous said...

It is advantageous for the students to take the core science classes in 9/10/11 and based on their interest can decide to take a 4th year of science (AP, or elective science in Astronomy, Anatomy/Physiology, AP Environmental Science).

Also, Students start to apply to colleges fall of senior year. Classes they take in senior year (though colleges ask what courses you plan to take in senior year), doesn't help them in admission as much. Rigor of courses taken in 9/10/11 are mainly looked at by the college admissions.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Catherine for collecting and figuring out all of the data. Now we have an opportunity to consider it, digest it, compare it with the experience of our kids, and develop questions and opinions.

Anonymous said...

Think about the Massachusetts economy and where the growth and strengths are: biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, medicine, higher education and financial services. Science and math are critical to these jobs. We don't want to weaken or cut off our kids' options and job opportunities in high school. Even if kids don't go into careers where these courses are key, they need to know science to understand the natural world, global warming, etc.

Anonymous said...

Not having enough teachers to teach Physics? The decision of hiring is a deliberate process and they could have hired more teachers in the area of Physics or Chemistry. The high school chose to hire many teachers(possibly all new hires) in the area of Ecology/Env. Science in the last few years.

Joel said...

Perhaps it would help the community if the teachers and the HS principal who wrote up this new curriculum and who guaranteed that it was 1) the best way to go; and 2) without downside impact on the overall science curriculum could come to a special regional SC meeting to explain how things are in fact working.

They should explain to the community how exactly this isn't negatively affecting the sequencing of courses, etc. From what I hear, this was a terrible decision, but I could be wrong. Science isn't my field and my kids are still in elementary school.

The SC that passed this didn't ask a single tough question of the teachers. The chair of the SC limited debate from parents, etc. I think several of the new SC members would be much more willing to ask probing and tough questions.

My hope is that the principal and the teachers will either convince us that this really is the best option or will be willing to admit that there are flaws.

If it's better than many of us believe, that's terrific. If there are problems that can't be solved with this class remaining as required, then we should simply change back to a choice between Biology and Earth Science or Ecology.

That seems quite reasonable and will provide a much more open and honest process that we had in the past.

With an override looming our schools really have to be proactive in assuring the community that they're taking the best actions in such curricular decisions.

Abbie said...

This kinda fits this post:

In looking at the HS and what I think should be considered for cutting for the forthcoming dreadful budget, I examined the academic areas. The language department is about the largest. This is what I retrieved: 45! world language courses (11 faculty, SCIENCE has 12 faculty and 17 courses, math has 13 faculty with 21 courses. I don't think the language department should be on the same level of staffing as the "core" subjects (English/writing, science, math, history). (Yes, I recognize not all the courses are offered every trimester and so this is a very weak comparison of course numbers.) Every year cutting Russian is talked about and every year a vocal minority presses to keep it. I think the number of languages offered and the enrollment numbers for each requires very close examination. I understand these courses represent teachers' jobs but all the cuts that will be needed represent jobs, it becomes a question of priorities. I also recognize that all the language faculty might not be full-time (?). Cutting Chinese and Latin should also be considered and enrollment numbers examined.

Our college entrance experts can pipe in here, but I don't think it matters (much) to admissions whether a student took Russian/Chinese/Latin vs French/Spanish.

I am not sure everybody comprehends how bad the coming budget is going to be- it is going to be gut-wrenchingly bad.

Anonymous said...

With the reality of the budget issues and the number of courses students can take at the High School, it is critical that the students are given options to take science classes based on their interest and ability levels. I am not talking about new courses like AP Chemistry. I am talking about existing courses.

Also, one other key point is that just because a course exist and the student is eligible to take it, doesn't guarantee the student will get it. Based on the schedule and the demand, sometimes student may not get the course they have signed up for which they would not know until the day before the start of the school. My kid who is a senior didn't get A.P Environmental science this year. So, there is one thing to say how many AP classes are available vs. how many studenta are given based on schedule and demand.

Anonymous said...

I know this is not a related thread. But I have to say that my son who is a senior now at high school have had some great teachers for different subjects. Kudos to them for their hard work and dedication. Not sure if it is appropriate to mention their names here...

Anonymous said...

Abbie is right. Not only do we have more language offerings than we can probably afford, we also have more non-academic electives. Business ed has 8 courses, family/consumer science has 8, performing arts has 18 (including ensembles), art has 12 and tech ed has 20--that is more than science! If we raised the graduation requirements for all academic subjects, our kids would spend more time in academics and less in electives and we could then shift our spending on funding for core academic teachers. Nowhere else can our kids get this type of education; it is up to us to provide it. Kids who are interested in tech ed or performing arts do have other options (yes, I realize our district must then pay but the net gain would still be on our side given how much it costs in benefits for teachers, even part-time ones).

Anonymous said...

The question is they have so many options for kids interested in other areas but not for kids interested in Science -- all kids take the same road for science the first three years (Ecology, Chemistry, Biology) (Biology & Chemistry can be switched.

Strange for4 a town with 5 colleges within 10 mile radius...

Anonymous said...

Northampton has semester and 4 classes in each semester. You are ON for one and OFF for other.. For example, first could be math, English, language, wellness. Second semester would be SS, science, elective, and one other class.

Kids could double up in math or Science. For example, they can take Geometry in Fall and Algebra II in Spring. Or if they choose to double up in Science they can do Biology in Fall and Chemistry in Spring. Many public schools in California have block classes in semester schedule where they can have consecutive math or science classes and they can do two in one year.

Anonymous said...

If we gut the high school of electives kids will begin to leave in droves. You think the budget is in bad shape now...just start gutting the electives and see how bad it can get!!

Yes, academics are important...but the electives are also important.

Anonymous said...

College admission looks at core academics and not electives or languages. Yes, the students has to be well rounded but no use if they have taken 5 electives and not have any rigor in core academics.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:21, where do you think those kids will go? Yes, there are vocational school options, but what sorts of "droves" you to envision leaving? Yes, there are charter schools but they have only a certain number of slots available, not enough for the "droves" you envision. I have also seen many of my childrens' classmates leave Amherst for private schools; perhaps not in droves but more kids we know have left for schools with higher academic standards than we have seen leave because they don't have enough elective choices! Call Hadley to see how long their waiting list for school choice is. They have very few non-academic electives and still people want to send their kids there.

Rick said...

A and C are non controversial for me. We should just change those – if we have the budget. It’s just B that is controversial.

A. The number (and type) of years of science required for graduation
B. The type of science courses required in 9th grade
C. The presence of AP Chemistry

Based on this data, and based only on course name, Amherst is different than almost all other schools. However, should one compare the curriculum of other schools with the curriculum of Ecology/Environmental Science in Amherst to see what is actually being taught? Do we already know that it’s not just the name of the course that’s unusual?

Partly for equity reasons, I think the ninth grade course should be a required course. Whether that course is Ecology / Environmental Science, Biology or Physics is the issue. People seem to be fine with the course being required if it’s Biology or Physics, but not if its Ecology / Environmental Science – so the issue is not really that its required, it’s the course that is the issue.

Anonymous said...

Equity is one thing and students readiness is another. In math, students can take Algebra or Geometry in 9th grade based on their readiness and interest.

The same option should be there for Science (Ecology/Env Scie or Biology) based on the readiness and interest.

Joel said...

I agree with Abbie on the issue of the languages, especially something like Russian.

Look, we're broke, so let's leverage the strengths of our town, specifically the presence of UMass and Amherst College. Kids who are truly interested in a language e.g. Russian could enroll in intro class at UMass or AC.

Again, my kids aren't in HS yet, so I don't know the answer to this, but wouldn't having a semester system make taking classes at UMass and AC easier? After all, they're on a semester system.

I still think we should hear from the science teachers and the principal. This curriculum seems very problematic and they're the only ones who can explain how it isn't -- if it isn't.

Joel said...

To Rick's point on equity, isn't part of the issue how kids arrive at HS and what skills and interests they have? Perhaps not everyone is ready for the same class.

Not all of us have the same skill sets. One of the most tiring narratives in town is how AP and other high level classes are somehow racist. I'm white and well educated and I sucked at science in HS. We had a very rigorous tracking program and I ended up in "B Level" Chemistry (of Honors, A, B, & C -- yes it was poorly named -- tracks). I got into a good college and did fine, but I never did well in science. Being a middling to poor science student didn't make me a bad student overall.

Some kids who write beautifully or are math geniuses and clods in other classes. I think we really have to rethink what we mean by equity. To me it's giving every student every chance to excel in the areas they can excel in and every chance to do as well as possible in the subjects they find challenging. It's also about admitting that there are differences in interests, learning abilities, etc.

Equity should never be about dropping standards to the lowest common denominator. In a school filled with wonderful students there will always be kids who do better in some subjects and worse in others.

Rick said...

Maybe I shouldn’t have used the term “equity”. Mainly what I meant to suggest is to offer what is thought to be a good foundation and give that to all kids, with honors and AP options. Is there a specific reason why we don’t do that in math?

”Equity should never be about dropping standards to the lowest common denominator.” Of course – totally agree.

Rick said...

I also agree with this:

"I think we really have to rethink what we mean by equity. To me it's giving every student every chance to excel in the areas they can excel in and every chance to do as well as possible in the subjects they find challenging."

Sometimes the way to do that is to give choice. Other times it's to direct students into a course that will give them a good foundation. Which is best at the ninth grade level?

Joel said...


I think we're on the same page. I highly encourage you to read through the minutes of the meetings when the SC approved the switch. What became increasingly clear to parents in the audience, but was ignored by the SC of that day, was that part of the reason for the change was that kids were coming out of the MS with varying math backgrounds that ended up segregating them into 9th grade Biology (for the kids with stronger math skills) and Earth Science (for those with weaker math skills). This smacked of tracking and so it was "fixed" by creating one class for all 9th graders. No de facto tracking, but a leveling and that either hurts the science-oriented kids because the work is taught in too basic a level or it hurts the non-science-oriented kids because it goes too fast or is on too high a level for their interest or level of preparation. (Having different tracks can benefit all the students, even though saying that makes you radioactive to some folks in Amherst.) Even some of the parents who supported the change worried about how kids with such varying skill sets could end up in the same class.

Rick said...

"I think we're on the same page." Yes.

"I highly encourage you to read through the minutes of the meetings when the SC approved the switch."
Yes, I read that yesterday. Voting the same day of the major presentation on it was probably not the best idea. It’s not at the level of closing Marks Meadow, but it’s pretty major, and some process similar to that would have been a good idea.

On the subject of tracking:

The obvious problem with tracking is that a kid could go down the wrong road at a young age and not be able to turn around. There are two solutions to that:

1. Don’t have forks in the road.
2. Make sure to have plenty of road signs explaining that the fork is approaching.

I get the feeling we do a lousy job with #2.

That came up the other night at the SC meeting thanks to Steve Rivkin’s questioning of the MSAN kids who presented that night, which revealed that perhaps extensions were not well explained at ARMS. There was a of lot discussed that night, but Superintendent Rodriguez noted he was most disturbed by what he heard on that. It was good to hear he was concerned about that.

On #1, I don’t know when it’s OK to start to have forks in the road.

BTW Honors and AP are not necessarily forks and in general I don’t consider them to be. A fork is a path you go down that completely leaves you out of some major option further down the road.

Joel said...


I'm happy you got to see the process. It's part of what's angered so many parents in town. I totally agree that the MM issue was handled in a much more transparent way.

Tracking works when you have good teachers. I believe we have good teachers. They can identify kids in the wrong tracks and move them around.

I think there's a lot of misinformation in town about tracking. For example, I used to believe we got rid of it because we lost a lawsuit. That never made sense to me because that sort of thing would have ended it everywhere in the state and it didn't. It turns out some people threatened a lawsuit and the district caved. In other words, they acted for political reasons, not pedagogical ones.

Maybe it's time to revisit the issue and see how high performing MSAN districts handle either tracking or what they do in place of it.

Rick said...

"I used to believe we got rid of it because we lost a lawsuit."

It was settlement of one, brought by NAACP. Wish I had a copy of the settlement but I don't. I know the Super has it.

At any rate, we do need to work on this. Look at kids in honors math and they are pretty much all white. A classroom right next door for non-honors math is full of kids of color.

We need to find out why that is and work on it.

Joel said...

My understanding is that there was the threat of a lawsuit and the district settled. I don't believe anything actually happened in a court of law, but I could be wrong about that.

If tracking were such a problem for school districts throughout the Commonwealth, the NAACP would have moved from district to district and had tracking ended. I don't think that that happened. It seems to me, and again I may be wrong about this, that the NAACP or some local people in a local chapter found a place where they could use such a threat of a lawsuit to end a practice they opposed.

My point, though, is the district didn't evaluate tracking and decide it wasn't working, it responded to the threat of a lawsuit.

So, we really should see how other MSAN districts deal with this issue and embrace best practices.

Rick said...

"...there was the threat of a lawsuit and the district settled.”
That could be – don’t know. Doesn’t matter really – whatever the settlement is won’t be an issue if we do a good job on what I mentioned above.

"So, we really should see how other MSAN districts deal with this issue and embrace best practices.”

Have a good Turkey Day everyone.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses (after having finished Thanksgiving Dinner festivities in Alabama):

Anonymous 5:36 - I begged several SC members and Jere Hochman to make the class optional. I still don't think offering the class in 9th grade is a good idea, since ZERO other districts do it. But at least then kids who wanted a traditional route (e.g., biology) could have done that. That option, unfortunately, was not requested by any SC members. The idea of 8th grade ecology/environmental science was also mentioned -- and rejected. I'm not sure why.

Anonymous 8:35 - You absolutely can offer such choices for no additional money -- all 9th graders can be required to take science. You ask them which they want, and those choices are made in March. You then offer the right numbers of sections to meet the demand -- no big deal at all. That is how we handle the massive differences in math (e.g., IMP, algebra, algebra II, and geometry and all offered in 9th grade). Same thing, no budget consequences.

Anonymous 9:12 - well said. We have dumbed down the science curriculum because ALL kids weren't ready for biology in 9th grade (only those who had 8th grade algebra could take it). So, instead of getting all kids ready for 9th grade biology, which I suggested, we refuse to let any kids take it. Social justice would have meant requiring a core science that would open doors for all kids -- ecology/environmental science is just requiring a delay of one year until kids can take real science.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Anonymous 9:19 - well said on all fronts. That is why I really wish the science teachers would re-think requiring a one year delay for kids to take a core science, which also will eliminate the option for kids to take AP chemistry. I hope current and future SC members will recognize the worth of changing the 9th grade class.

Anonymous 9:27 - virtually all other districts allow or require kids to take core sciences in 9/10/11 (including the elite public schools like Brookline, the elite private schools like Deerfield, and the non-elite public schools like Springfield), and then allow various AP and other options in 12th grade. I just don't see why we think it is good for our kids to have such a different sequence of science classes -- are we really better/smarter than those in other districts all across Massachusetts?

Anonymous 9:27 - thanks for the thanks! I'd like to see this type of comparison done of all programs/curricula in our schools ... there is just way too much re-inventing of the wheel when there are actually some really good wheels out there! I hope this information is helpful to the community as they ponder what our schools should be for all kids.

Anonymous 9:30 - yes ... it is clear that having a strong background in math/science is really essential for many careers in today's world. We do our kids a disservice in many ways by requiring three years of social studies, yet only 2 of math and 2 of science.

Anonymous 9:31 - exactly -- you choose what our kids should know and THEN hire teachers accordingly! Imagine if the language department had said we are now going to teach Japanese and Portugese because that is what our teachers know the best! You hire based on what you need, and I'm quite confident that our high school science teachers (who I hear are quite good teachers) could have learned to teach physics very well. The Springfield public schools just went to Physics First and they trained their teachers in a course taught at a local college -- this would be easy to do and I'm sure the district would have found money to pay for this IF the teachers had said this was the best approach.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Joel - as you note, and as you experienced live, the process that led to the ecology/environmental science decision was AWFUL. Not based on any presentation of data, comparisons to other districts, information about pros/cons of other potential approaches, no plan of how/when to evaluate, etc. It frankly was the most discouraging thing I've seen in our schools, and it was what led me to run for SC -- because I saw it as an example of how the district doesn't use data or the experience of other districts to make decisions. I would hope that the SC, and superintendent, would at a minimum insist now on hearing the plan for an evaluation of this curricula at the earliest opportunity so that we can figure out if this is or is not working ASAP. I would hope aspiring SC members, like Rick, would support such an evaluation.

Abbie - I agree with all you've said on this issue of languages. I've looked at enrollments for all languages, and what is clear is that French, Spanish, and Latin are fully enrolled ... German, Russian, and Chinese are not. I think the SC has bowed repeatedly to pressure from the Russian/German parents (I don't think Chinese has been on the table, though I can't remember whether this is because the numbers are in fact better - but they might well be) to keep these languages, and this just may not be something we can continue to do. I certainly support a thorough look at costs associated with all languages, and whether we need to offer such a rich array.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 10:14 - I agree about allowing kids to take classes that fit their interests ... and that was one issue that I raised about the new ecology/environmental science class! That may be very interesting for some kids. But biology isn't exactly boring -- AIDS, cancer, evolution, twin studies, why do I have brown eyes, etc. are all topics covered in biology. I also think you raise a great point about not having space for all kids in all classes - I wonder if the HS tracks that so we can know what the true interest in a class is? That would also be definitely something worth considering in terms of allocating resources.

Anonymous 10:40 - thank you for sharing your child's positive experience with HS teachers! I too hear many good things about our teachers and I think that has been a real strength of our schools for a long time.

Anonymous 11:06 - I think we do need to take a careful look at all of our academic and non-academic classes to see where changes might be made. One issue is that many of our academic classes are in fact a lot larger than non-academic classes (this is especially true for honors classes, which are in some cases already 27 to 30 students in some fields, whereas our elective classes are often in the 15 to 20 range). In times of tight budgets, it is harder to justify small enrollment classes which benefit fewer students.

Anonymous 11:10 - well said. I find it strange that a kid who loves wood-working can take four different work-working classes (a total of four trimesters). A kid who loves chemistry has ONE class (two trimesters).

Anonymous 11:17 - I know about Northampton's schedule and it does allow some flexibility (e.g., taking two math classes per year). I would be concerned, however, with the long breaks that could come with this block approach (e.g,. a kid could go a year without any language or math, etc. -- which is one of the problems I see with our trimester system, but 3 months worse!).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And more responses from me:

Anonymous 11:21 - reducing electives (or increasing enrollments in electives) isn't the same as gutting them. I have also said I think we need to look at low enrollment languages, and special ed, and intervention support, and athletics, etc. But electives (do we need the full rich array?) have to at least be considered.

Anonymous 11:24 - we have to prepare all kids to meet MA graduation standards and college admission recommendations -- and those are both based on academics, NOT electives. So we do need to cover those basics FIRST, and the consider what else we can offer. This to me means core academics (e.g., do we need a course in anatomy/physiology, or Russian) as well as electives (e.g., do we need so many classes in culinary arts or child studies?). I love psychology ... I have a PhD in psychology ... but is psychology a core academic in a high school? No.

Anonymous 11:32 - I think you raise a great point. There are options for people who really want many electives (e.g., PVPA, vocational school). But those who want a rich array of core academics are stuck with our public schools unless they can afford private school. So, we owe it to all kids to make sure our HS offers the full complement of core academic classes (and this core, to me, doesn't mean all academic classes -- we need to consider enrollment and supply/demand).

Rick - if you think adding AP Chem and AP Statistics are non-controversial, you should read the next blog posting and its comments! Similarly, I'm willing to bet some will oppose going to three years required math/science.

In terms of the 9th grade course, there are four options:

1. Require 9th grade biology.
2. Require 9th grade physics.
3. Allow 9th graders to choose between biology and ecology/environmental science.
4. Require all 9th graders to take ecology/environmental science.

So, let's look at my list of what other districts do -- and I see districts doing 1 and 2, and some districts sort-of doing 3 (allowing kids to choose between biology and another class, although that class is NEVER ecology/environmental science). There are ZERO districts other than Amherst in the country that require ecology/environmental science. So, I'm comfortable with 1, 2, or 3. I'm not comfortable with 4. But the science teachers seem to be only comfortable with 4 -- although no other districts do this and we have no evidence it works.

Is it equity to make sure all kids are held back from taking biology since not all kids can do it? Sure. And that seems to me to be a very, very dangerous slope -- are we next going to require all kids to take "math concepts" in 9th because some kids aren't ready for geometry? Again, I worry that equity means making sure NO ONE can do something (e.g., biology) if EVERYONE can't do something.

I think equity could also mean making sure all kids take biology -- a core science that is required in many districts of all 9th graders and prepares kids for taking three years of core sciences and an AP or elective of their choice. That sounds like equity to me.

Remember, kids who go to college without having a class each in biology, chemistry, and physics are at a DISTINCT disadvantage in terms of any science major (and kids would have to skip one of these core sciences - physics - to take AP chemistry if offered in our district because they can't start on core sciences until 10th). There are no colleges in which kids who come in without a class in ecology or environmental science are at a disadvantage -- even kids who MAJOR in these topics aren't expected to arrive at college having had these classes in high school. That is not, however, the case for kids who want to major in, say, physics.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - one more thing:

You also say that maybe it is just the name of the course that is different ... but if that is true (e.g., do you think ecology/environmental science is really just biology with a different name?), then the teachers would have eliminated the biology class because otherwise kids would have already had biology. The ecology/environmental science class doesn't prepare kids for any of the MCAS tests or SAT II tests -- and that is totally different from biology as a class. It is not just a name change. It is a totally different class (and a class commonly seen in other districts as an ELECTIVE after one has exposure to the core sciences).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Anonymous 11:46 - I also find the equity statement from Rick concerning ... we do allow kids to take different math classes based on interest/ability. Why do we insist all kids take the same science class? But I do find more concerning our willingness to REQUIRE all kids to take anything that isn't required in any other districts at any grade.

Joel (at 12:53) - I agree with your point re. Abbie's point re. Russian and the rich array of electives in world language. I also agree that the semester system would make taking classes at the colleges/universities easier (and hey, that could help with our budget if some kids took classes elsewhere!). I also agree that Mark Jackson and the HS science teachers owe it to the SC and the community to show us that the class is working, and/or to show us how they will evaluate (and WHEN) it is working. I hope that happens, but I've asked for it so many times with no support that I'm not hopeful it will.

Joel (at 1:02) - excellent point re. equity. Equity in Amherst means dropping all kids to the lowest common denominator - all kids can't take advanced math in 7th grade, so we eliminate all math track options in 7th; all kids can't take 9th grade biology, so we eliminate that option for any kids; all kids can't take honors/AP English in HS, so we create entirely heterogeneous English classes in which advanced kids work independently (e.g., teach themselves) to do honors work. That is PRECISELY why some families have left the district and why some families won't support an override -- the public schools don't seem to be focused on pushing all kids to do what they can do, but instead are focused on keeping some kids back if all kids aren't ready.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Rick (at 1:28) - what ALL districts other than Amherst do is provide 9th graders with a core science (either required or offered) to prepare kids for the full array of honors/AP classes in science. Amherst doesn't require or offer a core science in 9th grade, nor does Amherst offer AP chemistry. So, what a strong foundation in science means in other districts is apparently NOT what it means in Amherst. That concerns me a lot.

Rick (at 1:44) - as I've noted above, I think there are times in which giving a choice is good and times in which requiring something is good. I would be comfortable with EITHER approach as long as it was something that was done in other districts: give a choice about taking biology (or ecology/environmental science) or require something core and standard in other districts (biology or physics). This isn't about my opinion about what is the right approach or the right science -- it is about reviewing what other districts do and then choosing what makes the most sense for Amherst (and I can honestly see any of the three options I laid out as fine). But what I do NOT think makes sense is ignoring what other districts do (as if kids in Amherst are so unique that they couldn't possibly learn science the same way as kids in other districts) and making up an entirely unproven science class and requiring it.

Joel (at 2:07) - you are exactly right in all respects. I was in the audience with Joel the night this decision was made, and he is describing exactly how it was presented. It was discouraging to me then, and still is today.

Ed said...

being the only district to require 9th graders to take a non-core science

More than anything else, this is significant. Assuming that the E&E is intended to be more than dogmatic indoctrination, you need to have taught the core subjects first.

So you either put it to the 8th grade and teach it at that level, or you make it a 12 grade elective.

Anonymous said...

My son took the ecology/environmental science course last year. I believe there was an attempt to evaluate this course because I completed questionnaires about it. I don't know why people are saying there has been no evaluation, unless there weren't enough parents who completed the surveys for it to count as a reliable measure. I thought it was an excellent course, although I don't necessarily agree that it should be required of all students in 9th grade. I like the idea of having it in 8th grade and letting 9th graders start to take core sciences. My son is a strong math/science student and wants to apply to highly selective colleges, but is at a distinct disadvantage because the high school has so few AP science classes. He is going to have to teach himself the curriculum and take the AP exams.

Anonymous said...

The kind of evaluation they're talking about is more of a peer reviewed critical evaluation, and one that shows at least a couple years data as to how this class prepared kids for the next level.

Joel said...

An argument in favor of the new curriculum was that it would increase student interest in the sciences.

One simple metric is to see how many upper level science courses students used to take versus how many they are now taking after they've been subject to this new requirement. Remember, the claim was that Environment Science as the single required class would show an increase in science enrollments in 10-12 grades.

The district could also track majors in college and AP tests taken and scores received. They could compare those numbers from before the change and after. This seems worthwhile given we are the only district anyone can find that has this as the single 9th grade science requirement.

During the discussion about making the change, the community was promised two things:

1) the new requirement had no negative consequences. This turned out to be untrue; and

2) the new requirement would increase student interest in science.

They had no way of knowing if the second was true and that's why some parents feel as though their kids are being treated like guinea pigs. The teachers must have known that the first assertion wasn't true.

That's part of the reason behind the erosion of trust between the HS and many parents.

Meg Rosa said...

Just curious, and forgive me if it has already been talked about. I haven't had much time to read on here recently.

When was Earth Science dropped as 9th grade science class? That is what we had, then took Biology in 10th and Chemistry in 11th as the required amount of classes. Many went on to take Physics in 12th.

This was at least until 1996 though. I am just trying to figure out when all that changed.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

While Meg is a lot younger than me:-) I went to public school in central Pennsylvania, & we had the exact same science sequence she described when I graduated in 1982:

When was Earth Science dropped as 9th grade science class? That is what we had, then took Biology in 10th and Chemistry in 11th as the required amount of classes

Of course, that particular high school also had 1) swimming pool used at some point for PE every year 9-12 (plus the MS kids across the parking lot), rather than the one year PE that's all we have now, 2) a set of smoking lavatories -- yes, they really said hey, the kids are gonna smoke anyhow, might as well keep only one set of lavatories stinky;-), and 3) a planetarium. Yes, really. And that was not an academic (or politically liberal) town by anyone's stretch of the imagination.

I didn't much like science OR math, but we were definitely expected to take three years of each back then (unless you were going to the half-day vocational program). I have to assume there were good reasons to not require this here in Amherst/Massachusetts because I know lots of smart and thoughtful teachers and administrators, and I also see that it's perfectly reasonable for the schools to be able to explain why we're doing what we're doing here.

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