San Diego School Board Retreats From 9th Grade Physics Course

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Five years after refashioning their science curriculum to move physics to the first year of high school, San Diego district officials have retreated from that approach in the wake of complaints from parents and teachers.

The San Diego school board voted 3-2 last month to drop a requirement that students take a physics course in 9th grade, followed by chemistry and then biology. That course schedule, first implemented in fall 2002, marked a reversal of the traditional lineup in American schools, in which biology comes first, then chemistry and physics.

Backers of the physics-first approach argue that it makes sense from a scientific standpoint. A true understanding of chemistry requires knowledge of physics, they say, and likewise, much of biology turns on chemistry.

But parents and others in the 132,000-student San Diego system said the math required in the freshman physics course was too difficult for many students, according to district spokesman Steven Baratte. Other critics, by contrast, said the course’s curriculum, known as Active Physics, presented watered-down science.

With the board’s action, Mr. Baratte said, students will be required to take three science courses to earn a diploma: physical science, which could be physics or chemistry; biology; and an elective. He believes individual schools will be free to set the sequence of those courses, but district administrators are still clarifying the board’s exact intent.

‘Revolutions Come Hard’

Leon M. Lederman, a Nobel Prize winner in physics and longtime supporter of the physics-first approach, said he was disappointed by the decision. But he predicted that interest in teaching physics in 9th grade—which he believes is occurring in about 1,000 schools nationwide today—would grow.

Mr. Lederman said teaching biology in the first year of high school wrongly encourages students to memorize facts without gaining an understanding of underlying scientific thinking and concepts. San Diego officials, he added, had not given the new approach enough time.

“They couldn’t take the growing pains of the revolution,” Mr. Lederman said. “Revolutions come hard.”

Vol. 25, Issue 39, Page 17

Published in Print: June 7, 2006, as San Diego School Board Retreats From 9th Grade Physics Course
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