CPS pushes new science curriculum

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After years of neglect while the district focused on reading and math improvement, science is getting attention from Chicago Public Schools.

That attention comes none too soon at high schools, where scores are in the basement. At 36 high schools, the percentage of 11th-graders who met or exceeded state science standards is in the single digits, according to preliminary results for the 2004 Prairie State Achievement Exam.

Citywide, only 27 percent of 11th-graders met or exceeded standards.

Elementary students are doing somewhat better. Citywide, 41 percent of 4th-graders and 56 percent of 7th-graders met or exceeded ISAT science standards in 2004.

As in many urban districts, CPS students cope with a lack of resources that impact scores: under-trained science teachers, dilapidated school labs and below-average math and reading skills that hinder learning of other subjects, observes Norman Lederman, chair of math and science education at the Illinois Institute of Technology, IIT. As a result, students are often not taught to think critically and analytically about science. “It’s not that the teachers think the best to [learn] is to memorize, but when you’re under-resourced, you fall into a didactic approach.”

The district is rolling out the Chicago Math and Science Initiative (CMSI) to improve classroom instruction, materials and laboratory facilities. But a lack of funding and questions about teacher training could undermine the ambitious effort.

Through CMSI, CPS is touting a standardized curriculum and ongoing professional development.

One example: Last year, CPS began offering financial incentives to encourage more elementary and high school teachers to earn math or science endorsements from one of 14 district-approved university programs. So far, the district has budgeted $1.6 million to subsidize tuition for teachers.

In addition, dilapidated labs at many high schools are getting major repairs. [See story.]

Resources should go to training

“If you want science scores to go up, you’ve got to have better science teaching. Not stupid test prep, not more ancillary activities,” insists Michael Lach, director of science for CPS and a former physics teacher who was one of the first teachers in the district to earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. “It’s getting good tools in the hands of teachers and enough support and an environment where they can learn and grow.”

So far, CMSI is getting mostly positive reviews from principals and teachers. But money is a major sticking point. CPS says it cannot afford to help schools, even those on probation, pay for the recommended materials or for teacher training, which can run more than $100,000 the first year .

Lederman argues that scarce resources are better spent on professional development than on expensive programs. With training, teachers can learn to transform existing programs into “inquiry-based” ones in which students devise scientific questions and design experiments to answer them.

A new, high-quality program won’t improve instruction if a school can’t pay for the training, he insists. “Curricula are not teacher-proof.”

CPS, to its credit, selected CMSI materials from programs developed with support from the prestigious National Science Foundation.

However, Lederman says that even NSF programs can fall short of the ideal. While they teach students scientific procedures, such as how to create a scientific experiment with a control group, they fail to teach the reasons behind those procedures, such as why a control group is needed. “Just because a kid can do something doesn’t mean they understand what they’re doing,” he says.

Another expert cautions that the pick-and-choose method CPS used to create the K-8 program could weaken instruction. Because the selection committee couldn’t find a single program that met all the state’s science standards, they collected units from four different ones, says Lach.

“State standards have become very prescriptive in many states, including Illinois,” observes Janet Carlson Powell, associate director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “And to meet those standards, districts cannot attend to the coherency that’s in a well-designed program.” Still, she adds, a collection of NSF programs is generally better than a traditional curriculum.

Area coaches guide teachers

This year, CPS is requiring all 45 high schools on probation to take a number of steps to improve instruction in biology, the discipline with the largest number of science teachers. About 60 percent of freshmen take a biology course.

Teachers are required to meet for an hour weekly and set specific goals regarding achievement; instructional practice, such as doing one lab activity per week; and literacy, such as having kids revise lab reports. Collaboration will help improve instruction, Lach explains.

Science coaches from high school area offices will meet with teachers “as often as possible,” Lach adds, to help them craft common exams, reflect on teaching, analyze test results or even to model a science lesson in a classroom.

Meanwhile, all high schools that decide to update materials in core science courses must select them from a list approved by CPS, which was compiled with the help of district teachers, area science coaches and university professors.

The list gives schools a choice among programs that emphasize hands-on learning and those that offer traditional textbook-based instruction but were still deemed to be high-quality. The hands-on programs are better, in Lach’s opinion, but harder to teach. “Not every school is ready for them.”

Selecting a common textbook, even a traditional one, makes it easier for teachers to share ideas and resources, says Lach. “It creates this culture at schools where people can go to each other for advice. You can share equipment, share activities, and analyze them together.”

It’s too early to tell how much impact CMSI will have on high school achievement, but schools are giving mixed reviews.

Teachers at Kelly High in Brighton Park find their coach helpful and willing to listen, says Gretchen Bates, science department chair. Common planning time and common exams were already par for the course, she adds. “We always share ideas, share labs.”

Kelly’s biology department has also selected a new textbook from the approved list, Bates says. “Looking at the list helped us make our selection. And we liked the book, anyway.”

However, Clemente High’s biology department has reservations about common exams, according to one teacher. The West Town school is comprised of several learning communities, each of which has its own theme, such as foreign language or fine and performing arts. As a result, says teacher Tara Dunne, teachers prefer the option to emphasize different content.

At Kennedy High in Garfield Ridge, biology teacher Angelique Smith prefers to write her own exam, going into greater depth on topics she chooses to emphasize. For instance, she has students research and present reports on genetic disorders, and identify trees behind the school using a dichotomous key.

Pilot schools got funds, but others won’t

While science teaching at high schools has too often been below par, at elementary schools it has often been missing altogether.

“The big issue at the elementary level is science just doesn’t get taught,” Lach says. “It gets drowned out by reading and math.” Elementary teachers often lack science backgrounds, rely too much on textbooks instead of hands-on activities and end up skimping on science teaching.

Last year, CPS piloted CMSI’s K-8 science program in 21 schools that opted to be part of the program (see story on page 14). This spring, those schools outpaced the city on science test score gains, but most had higher-than-average scores to begin with.

At one pilot school, Peck, most K-6 teachers had never taught science before, according to Marie Clouston, the school’s science specialist. “Some felt they didn’t have the materials they needed. They didn’t feel comfortable with the content.”

But thanks to the new materials and intensive training, all Peck’s teachers are now leading hands-on science experiments several times a week, Clouston reports. “And they’re enjoying it.”

This year, the 167 elementary schools on probation have been told they must use the CMSI program if they decide to purchase new science materials. More than 20 have already done so.

But CPS says it does not have money to provide the probation schools with the same extra resources given the 21 pilots, including free staff development; substitute teachers to cover classrooms of teachers undergoing training; $1,000 per classroom for materials; and, at most schools, a science coordinator to assist teachers for two years.

Since last year, another 45 schools not on probation adopted the program at their own expense. Start-up costs can include $800 to more than $5,000 per teacher for materials (depending on the grade level); a $25-an-hour stipend that teachers receive for training on school days, after school or weekends; salaries for substitutes; and the salary of a science coordinator if a school opts to hire one.

In part due to the high price tag for a full-fledged program, some schools chose only parts of it.

Pershing Magnet in Douglas bought the program for grades K-4, while Randolph Magnet in West Englewood bought materials for three 7th-grade classrooms, according to the principals.

Some schools chose to limit teacher training.

Rather than send all K-8 teachers, Drake Elementary Principal Delena Little will only send one. Randolph Magnet sent its 7th-grade science teacher for one week of summer training, but will probably not be able to afford the full 50 hours the district offers, says Principal Joan Forte.

Lach says that the Office of Math and Science is encouraging schools to buy what they can now and build their programs as funding permits. The higher-quality “hands-on” materials are a better investment for schools in the long run, he believes.

But Lederman says that without ongoing professional development for every teacher involved, the expensive science materials may go to waste. “When we’re asking for teacher change, over and over we find that without professional development, the initiative dies. People need that support.”

Interns Alejandra Cerna Rios and Sunny Xiang contributed to this article

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or send an e-mail to duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org.