N.J. Standards Beginning To Alter What Is Taught, But Not How

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New Jersey's 4-year-old academic standards have started to influence what is taught in math and science classes throughout the state, but they have yet to significantly alter how teachers teach the subjects. That, in part, is because professional-development opportunities for teachers have been inadequate, a new report says.

And, while students in the state's poorest districts have far greater access to textbooks, manipulatives, and other classroom resources than they did a decade ago, they are less likely than their peers in better-off districts to encounter more active methods of learning, according to the first year of findings from what will be a three-year study.

The findings were released last week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New Orleans.

In an effort to gauge how the state's core-curriculum content standards have influenced teaching practice, researchers at Rutgers University asked a representative sample of 4th grade teachers to document how much time they spent on specific topics. The researchers found that while teachers had continued to spend much of their time on conventional math and science topics, they had also begun to cover newer themes.

William A. Firestone

"It's good to see that the curriculum is actually changing," said William A. Firestone, a professor of educational policy at Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J., and one of the authors of the report. "There is past qualitative research suggesting that it's not hard to change the topics taught, but it is harder to change pedagogy that encourages deeper thinking about math and science."

Newer Topics Added

In mathematics, the report says, the traditional classroom diet of whole-number facts is being balanced with such topics as probability and the use of data. In science, lessons in chemistry, physics, and investigative skills, as well as the use of math in science, are supplementing long-standing coursework in areas such as weather and ecosystems.

The researchers could not determine from the surveys, however, the quality and depth of coverage of the subjects.

The kind of innovative teaching that helps students understand mathematical and scientific concepts, however, has yet to take hold, Mr. Firestone said.

Moreover, he said, teachers in the state's poorest districts tend to adhere to conventional, textbook-oriented instructional strategies, while their colleagues in wealthier districts offer students more exploratory and active modes of learning.

But New Jersey officials say that the state is still in the early stages of its standards-based improvement program and that change will be incremental.

"It will take some time to align curricula to standards, and to have teachers embrace the expanded content and a change in practice," said Jay Doolan, the director of the office of standards and professional development for the state education department.

The new professional-development standards—which, beginning next fall, will require 100 hours of rigorous content-area training for teachers every five years—will significantly improve instruction, Mr. Doolan predicted.

The study, over the next two years, will take a more in- depth look at instruction, professional development, and the content of courses.

Vol. 19, Issue 34, Page 7

Published in Print: May 3, 2000, as N.J. Standards Beginning To Alter What Is Taught, But Not How
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