Category Archives: Curriculum – Science

Science Standards Mediocre, Study Finds

Fordham Foundation criticizes focus on ‘discovery learning.’
More than two-thirds of states have science standards that earn a C grade or worse for their quality, in part because they overemphasize “discovery learning,” the idea that students should be encouraged to acquire knowledge through their own investigation and experimentation, a study issued last week concludes.
Too many of those standards—documents that spell out what students are expected to know—also present science in a sprawling, unorganized way that is short of facts and content, according to the report by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
By Sean Cavanagh, Education Week, December 14, 2005

Continue reading Science Standards Mediocre, Study Finds

Clarification of plans for 9th and 10th grade science at West HS

If you were at the West HS PTSO meeting last night (report to be posted soon for anyone who was unable to attend — the topic was an update on the SLC initiative by SLC Coordiator Heather Lott), then you know that the question of what 9th and 10th grade science will look like next year and thereafter was left somewhat unanswered. I had the following clarifying email exchange with West HS Principal Ed Holmes today:

Continue reading Clarification of plans for 9th and 10th grade science at West HS

We All Have a Lot to Learn

Fareed Zakaria:

This small event says a lot about global competition. Traveling around Asia for most of the past month, I have been struck by the relentless focus on education. It makes sense. Many of these countries have no natural resources, other than their people; making them smarter is the only path for development. China, as always, appears to be moving fastest.
But one thing puzzles me about these oft-made comparisons. I talked to Tharman Shanmugaratnam to understand it better. He’s the minister of Education of Singapore, the country that is No. 1 in the global science and math rankings for schoolchildren. I asked the minister how to explain the fact that even though Singapore’s students do so brilliantly on these tests, when you look at these same students 10 or 20 years later, few of them are worldbeaters anymore. Singapore has few truly top-ranked scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, business executives or academics.

More Money is Not Always the Answer: The New Space Race

Ed Bradley:

Interesting interview with Burt Rutan on his approach to space travel (low cost, efficient) vs. the traditional NASA approach (very expensive).

I found it interesting to listen to Rutan’s young engineer’s discuss the challenges and opportunities in their work. Two related articles worth reading:

The Education process is clearly at a tipping point in terms of conventional vs. new approaches. A teacher friend recently strongly suggested that we need to start from scratch (would that be a 0 based budget?).

Science, The Rebel Educator

Lynn Margulis writing in the American Scientist:

The ridiculous but effective public-relations tactics of hype and guile serve our television culture. Pressures to produce and consume generate deceptions and half-truths. On the dominant side of the cultural abyss, hard-sell tactics contradict the demands of science: honesty, rigor and logic. Scientific inquiry, on the other side of the abyss, is a search for truth—whether or not, to paraphrase the wise, recently deceased physicist David Bohm, the truth pleases us.
When he described America as a self-imagined nation of “pragmatic, pious businessmen,” Baldwin unwittingly exemplified science education. Science for schools is written, controlled and produced by publishers whose goal is to sell materials in huge quantities to avoid sales taxes. Qualified scientists and teachers are not paid for comprehensibility, accuracy or logic, but rather bribed to rapidly approve “content” that no one understands. Such beleaguered experts rush to meet publishers’ deadlines for “up-to-date” consumer products that quickly earn money. To maximize profit, books, digital media, supplies, even equipment are planned to be obsolete within the academic year.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due: A Look at the Educational Histories of the 29 West HS National Merit Semi-Finalists

Earlier this semester, 60 MMSD students — including 29 from West HS — were named 2006 National Merit Semifinalists. In a 10/12/05 press release, MMSD Superintendent Art Rainwater said, “I am proud of the many staff members who taught and guided these students all the way from elementary school, and of this district’s overall guidance and focus that has led to these successes.”
A closer examination of the facts, however, reveals that only 12 (41%) of West High School’s 29 National Merit Semifinalists attended the Madison public schools continuously from first grade on (meaning that 59% received some portion of their K-8 schooling in either private schools or non-MMSD public schools). Here’s the raw data:

Continue reading Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due: A Look at the Educational Histories of the 29 West HS National Merit Semi-Finalists

UW Signs Onto Satellite Teaching Program

Ryan Eisner:

EDUSAT, sent into space last year, is India’s first educational satellite. It will allow American instructors to lead classes in remote classrooms, thousands of miles away, via Web cast.
“Any Indian village could set up a receiving station and receive a signal, and schools would need only a computer and a simple Web camera to view the lessons,” Sanjay Limaye, senior scientist at the UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center, said in a release.
The targets of the satellite are rural Indian communities, which are plagued by a lack of educational infrastructure and a lack of good teachers.

Wisconsin Scores “F” on State Science Standards (continued)

The Fordham Institutes State of Science Report for 2005 reviews the state of State Standards in Science and found 15 states scoring “F”, Wisconsin among them. The states whose Science Standards were deemed worthy of an “A” are California, New Mexico, Indiana, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina.
Of course, standards are one thing, implementation is another. This report does not, and is not meant to directly address delivery of the content; but, it is likely to have either a positive or negative effect depending on the quality of the Standards. To quote the report:
“Academic standards are the keystone in the arch of American K-12 education in the 21st century. They make it possible for a sturdy structure to be erected, though they don’t guarantee its strength (much less its beauty). But if a state’s standards are flabby, vague, or otherwise useless, the odds of delivering a good education to that state’s children are worse than the odds of getting rich at the roulette tables of Reno.”
“Sure, one can get a solid education in science (as in other subjects) even where the state’s standards are iffy—so long as all the other stars align and one is fortunate enough to attend the right schools and benefit from terrific, knowledgeable teachers. It’s also possible, alas, to get a shoddy education even in a state with superb standards, if there’s no real delivery-and-accountability system tied to hose standards.”
The report, written by active scientists, is highly critical of the current approach to teaching science, and argues frequently against “discovery” methods, “inquiry-based” learning, and the false dichotomy between “rote-learning” and “hands-on” learning.
Interestingly, the Fordham Report is highly critical of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and the NRC (National Research Council) for producing very weak “national standards”, due to their enshrining of “discovery learning” pedagogy over “old-fashioned” instruction, remarking that this pedagogy essentially expects American students to learn science by reinventing the work of Newton, Einstein, Crick and Watson. “That’s both absurd and dysfunctional.”
Wisconsin’s Science Standards scored 29% — “F”. In the previoius Fordham Institute’s 2000 report, Wisconsin scored “C”. To quote the report on the current Wisconsin standards:
“The Wisconsin Model Academic Standards announce confidently that they “set clear and specific goals for teaching and learning.” That was not the judgment of our review. They are, in fact, generally vague and nonspecific, very heavy in process, and so light in science discipline content as to render them nearly useless….”
To make these matters concrete, compare the California Science Standards (a single PDF document) to the vague and disorganized Wisconsin Science Standards.
Then, review what your child(ren) has(have) learned or are learning in our schools. In spite of the Wisconsin Standards, are they learning, or have learned the curriculum as described in the California Science Standard document, or is their learning as vague and useless as the Wisconsin Science Standard?

Math, Science and Rigor

Sandy Cullen:

Gov. Jim Doyle supports the push to increase the math and science proficiency of high school students, which is primarily coming from business leaders.
They say a lack of these skills among those entering the labor pool is putting Wisconsin at risk of losing jobs because there won’t be enough qualified workers to fill positions ranging from manufacturing jobs to computer specialists, from engineers to mathematical, life and physical scientists and engineering and science technicians.
Art Rainwater, superintendent of the Madison School District, supports increasing the state requirements. Madison high schools require two years of each subject, but in recent years the district has strengthened its math requirement so that all students must now take algebra and geometry to graduate, Rainwater said.
If the state does not increase its math and science requirements, the district will likely consider raising them, he said.
But School Board President Carol Carstensen said she isn’t certain requiring more courses is the way to best prepare all students to succeed after high school.
And just increasing the requirements (emphasis added) won’t make the classes more rigorous, said Lake Mills chemistry teacher Julie Cunningham, who recently won the prestigious Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award.

Additional links and background on math and science curriculum.

Report Says States Aim Low in Science (Wisconsin’s Grade = “F”)

via reader Rebecca Cole: Michael Janofsky:

The report, released Wednesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, suggests that the focus on reading and math as required subjects for testing under the federal law, No Child Left Behind, has turned attention away from science, contributing to a failure of American children to stay competitive in science with their counterparts abroad.
The report also appears to support concerns raised by a growing number of university officials and corporate executives, who say that the failure to produce students well-prepared in science is undermining the country’s production of scientists and engineers and putting the nation’s economic future in jeopardy.

The full report is available here.

Wisconsin’s results are available in a one page PDF file:

The Wisconsin Model Academic Standards announce confidently that they “set clear and specific goals for teaching and learning.” That was not the judgment of our review. They are, in fact, generally vague and nonspecific, very heavy in process, and so light in science discipline content as to render them nearly useless at least as a response to problems for which state learning standards are supposed to be a remedy.

Continue reading Report Says States Aim Low in Science (Wisconsin’s Grade = “F”)

Catholic Schoolgirls Unravel DNA

Michael D. O’Neill:

There were many big-league DNA scientists at the annual genome sequencing conference held here last month, but no one stood out more than a slight high school teacher in religious habit towing five of her students through the imposing crowd of genetics pioneers with a quiet grace.
The unlikely delegate was Sister Mary Jane Paolella, of Sacred Heart Academy, an all-girls Roman Catholic high school in Hamden, Connecticut. She wasn’t here on a sightseeing trip. Paolella showed up with her students to make an official presentation of DNA sequencing data that her honors biotechnology class generated from genes associated with osteoporosis.
Paolella’s been bringing her students here for eight years. The point, she says, is to give her class the opportunity to rub elbows with top scientists working at the cutting edge of research — luminaries like Craig Venter, who led the private effort to sequence the human genome, and Dr. Hamilton Smith, who won the 1978 Nobel Prize for his work on DNA-cutting enzymes. She credits the experience for inspiring more and more of her students to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated scientific fields.

A History of Changes at West

Last spring a longtime parent at West HS was asked to write a description — content area by content area — of the curriculum changes that have occurred at West HS in recent years that have affected the academic opportunities of West’s “high end” students. Below you will find what she wrote. It includes changes that have actually occurred; changes that may and probably will occur; and important questions about what else may happen in the future.
This summary was then forwarded to two other longtime West parents for their comments. Excerpts from those comments may be found just after the original description. Next, the description of each content area was sent to the appropriate department head at West, for their comment with the goal being to produce a brief, descriptive document that everyone would agree was factually accurate, for educational and advocacy purposes. Unfortunately, none of the department heads responded.
Here is the original description:

Continue reading A History of Changes at West

Curriculum Changes Proposed at West High

As discussion continues over the lack of AP courses at West High School relative to the other three Madison high schools, West prepares to further reduce the course opportunities for students.
Many West parents wrote this past spring and summer to Principal Ed Holmes, Science Chair Mike Lipp, and District Science Coordinator Lisa Wachtel advocating for more not fewer sections of Accelerated Biology. Parents have also written to express concern about plans to homogenize the 10th grade English curriuculum, eliminating the options currently available to 10th graders, and requiring students to wait until 11th grade before they can take elective courses in English.
There had been no response to these concerns until a recent letter went out at the end of September from Principal Ed Holmes.
Dear Interested Parent:
As we continue to improve and expand our curricular program to meet the needs of a very diverse student population, I want to assure you that we are working with best practice models and some of the most informed professionals in the field to make sure we offer a quality academic program for your child. Our goal is to do our absolute best to provide a challenging rigorous curriculum that meets the needs of every student that we serve at West High School.
The following information represents the work that has been done over the summer and at the outset of the 2005/06 school year in the areas of science and English. The people involved in the work in biology have been Welda Simousek, Talented and Gifted Coordinator for MMSD, Lisa Wachtel MMSD science coordinator, Mike Lipp, West High, science Department Chairperson, and members of the West High biology teaching team. Work in the area of English has been done by Keesia Hyzer, West High English Department Chairperson, Ed Holmes, Principal, West High School and members of the West High English teaching team.

  • There was over 25 hours of district-supported science professional development this summer focusing on quality instruction and differentiation at the high school level. Members of the West biology staff participated in this professional development opportunity along with high school science teachers from all the other MMSD high schools.
  • There are eight professional development days scheduled during the 05-06 academic year to continue the work begun over the summer and further develop the honors designation in science.
  • While there has been initial work over the summer on the honors designation in science there remains a lot of work to be done by the West science staff
  • We are keeping in mind the following critical components as we plan:
    • More work is not the goal. Qualitatively different work is what will be expected.
    • Not all of the work can be done inside of class. There will be homework assignments just as always, but again, the work expected will be qualitatively, not quantitatively different.
    • We are looking for ways to enable students working toward the honors designation to spend some time together as a group as well as to work with other groups of students.

Over the summer, members of the English Department worked to create an English 10 curriculum. We will continue to fine-tune this curriculum over the school year. During the summer of 2006, English 10 teachers will meet to plan and differentiate particular units. Criteria for an honors designation in English 10 as well as additional attention for struggling students are both specified in the curriculum.

  • All students have the option to elect or drop the honors designation.
  • Honors designation does not guarantee an A.
  • One English teacher, as part of her allocation, will be assigned as Skills and Enrichment Coordinator. This teacher will meet with those students who have elected honors twice weekly during lunch to lead discussion of the enrichment literature. This person will also grade honors exams and papers.
  • The Skills and Enrichment Coordinator will meet twice weekly during lunch with students needing additional help. Books on tape, as well as reading and writing assistance will be provided.

The English Department meets at least once monthly; professional development days will also be used to continue our work on planning English 10. We plan to present information regarding grade 10 English curriculum at the November 7 PTSO meeting. All parents are invited to come to hear about the work the English Department has been doing over the last few months. We will continue to keep parents involved in the process as we determine the future of curricular and academic programming at West.
Ed Holmes

IBM To Encourage Employees to be Teachers

Brian Bergstein:

International Business Machines Corp., worried the United States is losing its competitive edge, will financially back employees who want to leave the company to become math and science teachers.
The new program, being announced Friday in concert with city and state education officials, reflects tech industry fears that U.S. students are falling behind peers from Bangalore to Beijing in the sciences.
Up to 100 IBM employees will be eligible for the program in its trial phase. Eventually, Big Blue hopes many more of its tech savvy employees – and those in other companies – will follow suit.

Aptitude Aplenty

Kathy Lally:

Ohmygosh. She screamed and turned to her father, Martin Fraeman, who had picked her up at Blair in the family Toyota. I’m a finalist! A finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, the competition that might as well be a junior Nobel Prize. Abby called her mother and screamed again. The hundreds of hours she’d spent researching her astronomy project at Washington’s Carnegie Institution had given her a shot at winning one of the nation’s most coveted science awards.

Blocking Reform

Joanne Jacobs:

From the Huffington Post: Mike Piscal, founder of the very successful View Park Prep charter school in the low-income, minority Crenshaw District of LA names names in analyzing why 3,950 ninth graders at South LA’s four major high schools turn into 1,600 graduates, 900 college freshmen and 258 college graduates. More here.

This is related: Shanghai Jiaotong University won the recent ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest. The US hasn’t won since 1997. The University of Illinois finished 17th, CalTech,Duke and MIT finished 29th while UW-Madison earned an honorable mention.

Biotech: Teachers Key in Setting Student on Biotech Path

“I don’t think you’re smart enough to be a doctor.”
Bernadette Tansey:

People sometimes look at Teresa Ramirez with wide eyes when they find out she comes from Compton.
The city south of Los Angeles is not the hometown that many expect to turn out a biotechnology fellowship winner who’s doing research at the National Cancer Institute before applying to medical school.
In Compton, Ramirez was grazed with a bullet when a junior high school classmate dropped a gun he had brought on campus. Some of her classmates joined gangs, and some have already died. She faced skepticism when she said she wanted to be a doctor.
“I came across people, even the priest at my church, who said, ‘I don’t think you’re smart enough to be a doctor.’ ”

Many are counting on biotech to drive Wisconsin’s economy (and provide the tax base for growing education demands…).

Gray Matter and the Sexes: Still a Scientific Gray Area – by Natalie Angier and Kenneth Chang – NYTimes January 24, 2005

I hope scientists researching the differences been the sexes’ gray matter take more time digesting their results than Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, did before he made his comments about the innate difference between the sexes in a recent speech.
“Researchers who have explored the subject of sex differences from every conceivable angle and organ say that yes, there are a host of discrepancies between men and women…,” write Angier and Chang,
“Yet despite the desire for tidy and definitive answers to complex questions, researchers warn that the mere finding of a difference in form does not mean a difference in function or output inevitably follows.”
“We can’t get anywhere denying that there are neurological and hormonal differences between males and females, because there clearly are,” said Virginia Valian, a psychology professor at Hunter College who wrote the 1998 book “Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women.” “The trouble we have as scientists is in assessing their significance to real-life performance.”
Continue Reading Gray Matter and the Sexes: Still a Scientific Gray Area – by Natalie Angier and Kenneth Chang – NYTimes January 24, 2005

West again proposes eliminating Accelerated Biology

Information from West High reveals that once again the Accelerated Biology course is being slated for the chopping block. The cutting of this course is being proposed as part of the initiative to maintain all inclusive, heterogeneous classrooms. Proponents of this cut, propose an alternative “Honors” designation for interested students who wish to be challenged above the standard course curriculum. Under this proposal, these “honors” students would do additional work alongside the standard curriculum that they would be completing in the heterogeneous classroom.
It was just this past spring, that a community letter writing campaign kept the accelerated biology class from being eliminated. If interested in sharing your thoughts on this program cut, please contact Mike Lipp, Science Dept. chair, Mikki Smith, Vice Principal in charge of scheduling, or Principal Ed Holmes.

School Technology Monoculture?

The Madison School District has more or less standardized many computers on Microsoft’s Windows operating system software. This approach, pitched as “sensible” because “that’s what most people use” ignores the explosive growth of other technology platforms such as:

The MMSD technology approach also ignores the fact that much will change by the time today’s K-12 students enter the workforce. At the end of the day, the network (the internet, essentially built on unix) is truly the computer.
Finally, one of the arguments for a windows monoculture is price. Advocates argue that windows pc’s are cheaper (generally ignorning the cost of virus, worm and other TCO (total cost of ownership) issues such as ongoing security patches, software compatibility issues and network support). Some of the cheapest pc’s around are linux based “LindowsOS PC’s, starting at $278.00.