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.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What the Research Says Re. More High School Math/Science

NOTE: This is an entry I orginally posted in May of 2008 -- when I believe I had fewer blog readers (in my second month on the School Committee). A poster asked for me to re-post this entry, since it examines issues that we are now discussing at length, so I am following this request.

This post describes an article published in Science magazine in 2007 on a research study describing the link between high school math and science courses and success in college science courses (Science 27 July 2007: Vol. 317. no. 5837, pp. 457 - 458). This research examines the link between amounts of high school science (number of years of coursework in a given discipline -- biology, chemistry, physics) and high school math (number of years of math coursework, including whether math stopped at pre-calculus or calculus) and grades in college science classes (biology, chemistry, physics). Not surprisingly, more years of high school science in a given discipline was associated with higher grades in college science in that discipline (that is, the more years of coursework in high school in chemistry, the higher the grades in introductory college chemistry). However, more years of high school science in one discipline was NOT associated with higher grades in college science in another discipline (that is, more years of high school biology did not increase grades in college physics). Perhaps the most important finding, however, was that more years of high school math was associated with better grades in college science in all disciplines (that is, students who finished calculus in high school receive higher grades in college courses in biology, chemistry, and physics). For those who are visual learners, the graph showing this association is below (high school biology is in orange, high school chemistry is in green, high school physics is in blue, and high school mathematics is in grey).

So, what does this mean for the Amherst Regional Schools? I believe it means two things. First, we should be placing a strong emphasis on making sure that all students have the opportunity to finish calculus in high school, which is associated with higher grades across all core scientific disciplines in college (note: this means pushing for all kids to take algebra in 8th grade). Second, we should be placing a strong emphasis on making sure that we offer two years (one introductory year, one second or AP year) of each science discipline in high school, since students who have two years of a given discipline in high school perform better at college classes in this discipline. Amherst Regional High School now offers AP science classes in biology and physics, and we should add an AP or other second-year/advanced chemistry class to make sure that students who are interested in college chemistry have this option.


Ed said...

I have heard similar things said at conferences...

Anonymous said...

Interesting information, Ms. Sanderson. I am curious, do you think this is the same for any discipline? While I think it is important to encourage all students to acquire science and math knowledge and understanding, I think it is also very important to have an equal understanding of civics, English, and geography. Would you agree?

lise said...

Anon 2:17

I was a double major in college, granted many years ago, in English and Electrical Engineering. Here is the difference. When I took a 400 level literature seminar there were any number of courses I could have taken be prepared for that level of analysis - Chaucer, Shakespeare, African-American Literature, Modern Drama, Poetry, etc. In contrast, there was no way to take a 400 level electrical engineering course without having taken a very specific Calculus course, and a very specific Physics course first. Science and math build sequentially, humanities grow more organically. Having taken specific prerequisite courses, e.g. calculus, is key to success in college in the sciences and math. In contrast, in the humanities, as long as a student has the basic skills, s/he can fill any high school gaps rapidly, and without any significant detriment to their success.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Maybe the focus on math and science has to do with the fact that ARHS has lower graduation requirements (two years) for these two subjects than they do for English (four years) and social studies (three years). The graduation requirements for both English and for social studies are much more in line with other districts in MA whereas the requirements for both math and science are, as Catherine has pointed out, lower. I agree that our students should have an equal understanding of civics, English, and geography...the key here is equal. I would like to see our math and science requirements equal those in the other disciplines.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 2:17, I'm glad to see your past English training kicked in and you correctly edited your writing error! Otherwise you would have made it too easy for me to point out the need for additional English classes. ;)

But your distinction between the specificity of STEM pre-requisites vs. a broader capacity offered by humanities courses is compelling and gives me pause. I'm not sure I agree with it yet, but I like how it is making me think more about the topic!

My first set of thoughts is that teaching a child how to think -- both creatively and logically, broadly and sharply -- would serve that child in any future subject (and in life). Knowledge alone is not sufficient; application of that knowledge to problem-solving and living is the ability that I'd most want to see.

And thank you for the additional information, Ms. Donta-Venman. I understand your point about science and math getting equal time; I didn't know the breakdown. But I wonder if those subjects get additional slots, what gets cut? (Or does the school day/year get longer?!) And what would that decision be based on? There's so much good stuff to learn!

Without question, math and science have enormous and necessary value, but I suggest to the readers that it IS possible to be successful in life and learning, and to be a contributing human being, without calculus! My life is proof of that.

Anonymous said...

thank you anom 11:05....i guess a bottom line evaluation: are the graduates of amherst high school not getting into the colleges of their choice...i am sure the guidence office would have many are getting accepted to their first choice..etc...where are the graduates going....and the follow-up...are students who go to college graduating??? how far are off from other districts...

Nina Koch said...

Actually, our graduation requirements are really close to those of Newton North High School, except that they have an arts requirement that I would like to see us adopt. Here is the breakdown (5 credits is one year)

English 20 credits

Biological Science 5 credits

Physical Science 5 credits

History and Social Sciences 10 credits

United States History 5 credits

Mathematics 10 credits

Physical Education 7 credits

Fine, Performing and Technical Arts 5 credits

I am fine with going to 3 years for math and science. The vast majority of kids already do that. But I think that graduation requirements should be looked at as a whole, from the point of view of "What do we want our students to be able to do?"

Abbie said...

Hi Nina,

I respect you as a very concerned and engaged professional educator but I would HATE to see a "requirement" for the Arts. We should not have to create the market for art by "educating" kids to appreciate it. Making the "Arts" a requirement in my view would be sooo typically "Amherst", in the sense of "art will save the world..." I know very cynical.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 11:05PM, you ask "what would be cut" if we increased our math and science requirements. Instead, think of it this way. If we were to to back to the semesters, require 4 years of English, 3 years each of math, science, and social studies, have one semester each of health and PE, and maybe add in one semester of computers (thinking 21st century as Nina requested), that would take up the majority of the students' schedules, especially since most of them would also be taking something like a music ensemble or a foreign language. So there wouldn't be as much need for the extensive array of electives that are currently offered. Instead, we could make them into clubs. There could be cooking club to get in that all-important paella making, art club, and woodworking club. We could offer the basics for all of these non-academic electives but students who want to pursue them at a more advanced level can join the clubs. Fee-supported, just like athletics. Yes, some kids only come to school for their woodworking class but some kids also only stay engaged with school because of football or softball and we don't use that excuse to create entire classes for athletics. Our athletes must pay a fee to participate and we could extend that same policy to clubs and expand our after-school offerings. It would be great if our teens had active, productive things to do each day after school until 5 or 6PM. Engaged kids who are academically prepared for both college and the workplace and who are actively participating in our schools is what we need. We owe that to our kids.

lise said...

Please note that Newton North requires at least one year of physical science. At ARHS the two year requirement can be filled without ever taking any physical science, just EEC and Bio. That is one of my biggest issues with the new 9th grade science class.

Also, I would not recommend a mandatory computer course. The vast majority of these kids are more proficient with computers than their teachers. I would however recommend leveraging technology as we build our 21st century school. Many high schools use cooperative on-line classes to teach electives and expand course offerings. In addition, many textbooks now offer on-line help sites, practice drills, etc. This could be an effective and inexpensive way to offer extra support to those who need it, even if the school district has to buy the access.

Anonymous said...

Lise, good point on using emerging technology to teach our kids. Hadley (which has a waiting list for kids to get in on school choice--unlike Amherst) offers most of their electives on-line to juniors and seniors. They also have more stringent graduation requirements than Amherst. All supported even with their lower tax rate!

Anonymous said...

I guess the waiting list at Hopkins is a new thing because my kid had no problem choicing in as a ninth grader 2 years ago. At that time- they had two AP classes, no real honors program and a choice of French or Spanish. They have no strings program and minimal athletics. Socially- it was very hard to intgerate into a fairly closed community of students- this is esepcially true if your kid doesn't play a sport or a band instrument. It is still a very homegenious place so if you are out of the norm-say you're Jewish or come from a non-traditional family you are definitley an oddity. It's not that it is an unaccepting place -it's just not welcoming.The staff were very supportive for the most part. My kid eventually choose to return to ARHS- which she found infinitely more academically challenging. So as is always the case- different schools work differently for ddifferent kids.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:34, thank you for that information. Can you share why your daughter opted out of the Amherst School system in the first place?

The wait list has been there for the past two cycles so I think your daughter just made it in! The waiting list is for both elementary and middle/high school.

I think you are right that if you are "very different" you might not fit in at Hopkins, but if you are not, you might actually feel more welcome. That has been our experience. "Traditional" kids are not necessarily valued in the Amherst system.

Anonymous said...

She felt like she needed a smaller school.

Anonymous said...

I think more to the point however is why she wanted to come back to ARHS and that was largely becuase she felt the academics at Hopkins were lacking,the students were unsophiscicated and Hopkins didn't offer the academic courses at the upper levels that she wanted. She has no regrest about coming back to ARHS. So the grass isn't always greener..

Nina Koch said...

Hi Abbie,

Don't move to Connecticut-- they have a four year arts requirement!

Connecticut diploma requirements

I just found out recently that 40 states have an arts requirement.

I think sometimes people react to the name of a course and think it means something lightweight or unimportant-- known as "Mickey Mouse" in my generation. I think actually any course can end up being Mickey Mouse and any course can end up being challenging and worthwhile. It all depends on what you are asking kids to do. For me, it's all about the kind of thinking they have to do. As someone who teaches both a core academic and an elective, I really like seeing what happens when the kids need to take their knowledge and apply it to make something they want to make.

By the way, if you look at the Newton requirement, it includes a broad range of arts (fine, practical or technical). So it is definitely not limited to art appreciation.

Anonymous said...

Nina said: "I just found out recently that 40 states have an arts requirement. "

Once again the Amherst schools, with no arts requirement, are an outlier!!! We should bring our high school program in line with what the majority of the country is doing - we should have an art requirement - 1 year, 2 years? As we are bumping up the math/science requirements to conform to what a majority of schools nationwide are doing we should at the same time make art required to conform what a majority of schools nationwide are doing!!

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that the State of Connecticut does NOT have a four year arts requirement, although there may be individual schools that do. Sites like are not an accurate source for that kind of information. You'd need to check the state dept. of education websites.

Nina Koch said...

oh dear, my bad! I am wrong about Connecticut. It's a one year requirement.

the info about the 40 states, however, comes from the Arts Education Partnership, which I hope is a better source:

Arts Education Partnership

I am trying to find some info about technology requirements. I think about half the schools in Massachusetts have that. That was on the Dept of Ed website but it was pretty old.

curious said...

Nina, If you are supporting an arts requirement are you also supporting a 3 year science requirement like the comparison districts?

Anonymous said...

the high school cuts seem potentially dangerous and risky, vague and nebulous. principal jackson is looking for a magic lottery ticket. Perhaps some coaching would help him find the savings he needs.

Nina Koch said...

to Anon 9:19 am--yes I said at the outset that I am fine with increasing both math and science to 3 years. I believe all of the different types of thinking are important.

Catherine, when you have a chance can you explain the graphic that you posted here? I can't understand the vertical axis-- when it says 1, 2, and 3-- what is the measurement scale? 1 what? It's hard to judge the size of the effect. Maybe the effect is not that great. Hard to know without a scale.