Column One: Curriculum

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Aggrieved by a system that they felt "tracked" too many students into frivolous science courses, teachers in the science department at Robert Service High School in Anchorage, set out two years ago to make a change.

Under the old system, those who were guided into the basic biology course at Alaska's largest high school tended to continue through chemistry to physics and often into advanced studies.

But for the others--which some teachers estimate constituted as many as 25 percent of the school's 2,000 students--the track led to a "general science" survey course and then, too frequently, many felt, to an academic dead end.

"The teachers who were teaching that track absolutely hated it, and, basically, our general science became a dumping ground," says Debbie Fancher, a chemistry teacher at Service who helped revise the curriculum.

What she and her colleagues devised was an introductory course in which all but the most capable freshmen would study quarterly units of earth science, biology, chemistry, and physical science, before being allowed to enroll in other science courses.

The new course, they decided, would be taught by teachers with demonstrated expertise in each subject. Their hope was that the new arrangement would spark students' curiosity while, at the same time, build their confidence in their ability to comprehend scientific material.

But despite the teachers' noble intentions, the program was slow in getting off the ground, and is now set to begin this fall, a year behind schedule. While some teachers blame the delay on the inevitable hitches in getting a new program started and on bureaucratic rivalries, some do not hesitate to point the finger at what they consider a major stumbling block to reform.

"The biggest problem has been parents," Ms. Fancher asserts. "Probably three-quarters of the problem has been parents."

Faced with a new--and unproven--pedagogical strategy, and largely convinced that what worked for them should work today, many parents simply were not easily persuaded to support the change, she says.

Some parents, like Bill and Marilee Miner, a physician and a former medical technologist, argue that they were not simply oppposed to change. But, they say, they felt that they needed more information before they could support a revamped science curriculum.

"My husband and I felt that it was really important for students who have desire and ability to be able to take four years of applied science," says Ms. Miner, whose son Joshua is a junior at Service and whose daughter Mindy will be a freshman this fall.

Getting the Message Out

The controversy in Alaska comes at a time when at least two national organizations, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are spearheading efforts to revamp the way science is taught at all levels.

Although the two groups offer somewhat different approaches, both share the goal of paring away cluttersome detail in favor of a strong emphasis on the basic concepts, and the intellectual processes, underlying science.

But only recently have efforts been undertaken to convince those outside the science-education community that reform means more than a cosmetic change to the system that countless parents knew in their youth.

In an explicit attempt to reach out to the wider public, the a.a.a.s. last spring released a commercially published version of "Science for All Americans," a work which lays out the tenets of its reform effort, known as Project 2061.

While the 44,000-student Anchorage school district is not officially a part of the two national efforts, it has developed a reputation for its innovative science programs, particularly in the elementary grades.

Beginning in 1989, district officials embarked on what may be a decade-long effort to revise coursework for students in the higher grades, of which the pilot program at Service is an integral part.

As part of that effort, the district hopes to restructure its science courses in grades 7-10 on a thematic basis, basing lessons on such topics as "the environment" that would draw on chemistry, biology, earth, and physical sciences.

Eventually, the program may incorporate instruction from other disciplines as well, says Emma Walton, the district's science coordinator.

To help win support for the effort, the district has held, and continues to hold, extensive staff-development sessions at which national speakers lay out the case for reform.

But Ms. Walton notes that parents must also be on board if the new programs are to succeed. And that, she concedes, is a tough nut to crack.

"Everyone has gone through school, and they all feel that 'what was good enough for us is good enough for our children,"' Ms. Walton says.

Blind-Sided by Objections

Unlike some other communities that may be facing similar dilemmas, however, Anchorage enjoys several factors conducive to science-education reform, Ms. Walton notes.

Because of its location--near wilderness facilities--and its major industries--oil and natural-resources development--the city of 225,000 tends to attract parents who already value the teaching of science, she points out.

"We have a lot of young families, with parents in their 30's and 40's, who work for the [federal] Bureau of Land Management, the Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service," Ms. Walton says. "We have geologists coming out of our ears."

Other officials note that Anchorage, though an urban center, has more of a "small-town feel," which encourages more intimate attention to public affairs than is the case in many comparable communities.

And, Ms. Walton adds, the lure of Alaska tends to draw those who are more willing to question the status quo, which also may help provide support for reform.

"We have very independent people who are drawn here," Ms. Walton says. "They seem to be fascinated by the differences we have here."

Perhaps because of such factors, teachers at Service High say they were blind-sided by the parents' opposition to their reform plans.

Not all of the parents objected to the plan, notes Anne C. Ballow, the president of the high school's 400-member Parent/Teacher/Student Association.

Many parents are "enthusiastic that kids will be getting a meaty introductory course," she says.

But she and Ms. Miner, who recently returned to elementary-school teaching, agree that many parents feared that the change might diminish their children's chances to advance in post-secondary education.

"We thought the premise was all well and good," Ms. Miner says. "What we had problems with was that, at first, we thought [all students] had to take the exploratory program."

Others feared the new course "would be a wasted year in science" for high-ability students, Ms. Ballow suggests.

'Coming Out of the Woodwork'

To quell the parents' fears, district officials took steps to inform the community about the program in detail, and to emphasize that its aim is to improve science instruction for all students. Such efforts appear to have defused much of the controversy, parents and teachers agree.

"The one thing that has really changed the opinions of the parents is that the teachers [selected to teach the new course] are really first-rate," Ms. Ballow concedes.

Ms. Fancher also points out that the community meetings prompted officials to make changes to make it more palatable to the public.

"We were going to call [the new course] 'General Science,' [but] general science went over like a lead balloon" with parents, she says. ''So we decided to call it 'Enriched Science' instead."

The parents were also reassured that highly capable students would be allowed to enroll directly in a biology course.

Ms. Miner says she plans to make every effort to exercise that option when her daughter enrolls in the fall.

"I'm not pounding the table at all," she says. "But I am going up to the school in August to make sure that things will work out."

Ms. Fancher says that she sympathizes with anxious parents, but cautions that many parents are far less flexible and open-minded than the Ballows and the Miners.

"A lot of the parents that our school draws [its students] from are absolutely convinced that, if [their children] don't get into biology in their freshman year, they're going to fail at life," she says.

Because of such concerns, Ms. Fancher and her colleagues are cautious in their assessment of how welcome the change will be in the community.

She notes that approximately 30 highly able students in the 1991 freshman class are expected to be allowed to skip the enriched-science course.

"Come this fall, it will be a real interesting thing to see if the parents freaked out and [more] exceptions were made," she says. "Because if exceptions are made, then this whole program will die."

Parents also will be vigilant about the program's progress, Ms. Miner warns.

"I'm really for them taking the bull by the horns and trying to solve a problem," she says. "But I also feel that if it doesn't work, parents are going to come out of the woodwork."

Vol. 10, Issue 40

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