Teachers, reading scores are key

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What sets low-income schools with high achievement in science apart from those that perform poorly? To answer that question, Senior Editor Elizabeth Duffrin examined 2003 7th-grade ISAT science test scores at schools with more than 90 percent low-income students, to identify the 10 highest-scoring and 10 lowest-scoring schools. Interviews with principals, teachers or other staff at all but one of the 20 schools showed that, in addition to good teachers, the following three factors stood out:

Good reading scores

Educators often say that reading is the basis for achievement in all other subjects, and that appears true for 7th-grade science. Among the top 10 schools, the median 7th-grade reading score on the 2003 Iowa Tests of Basic Skills was 60 percent at or above national norms. Among the bottom 10 schools, the median reading score was only 18 percent at or above national norms.

Teacher collaboration

Some schools “departmentalize” in 7th and 8th grades and allow teachers to specialize in one or two subjects. Advocates of the practice, including the CPS Office of Math and Science, say it helps teachers develop deeper knowledge of their subject matter at grade levels where content becomes more difficult. Others educators feel young adolescents get more personal attention when they spend most of the day with one teacher.

However, Catalyst found that grade structures and teacher credentials mattered less than having a strong teacher with science training and a faculty that collaborates. Top 10 schools were no more likely than those in the bottom 10 to have an officially designated science teacher. Only half of the top 10 schools had 7th-grade teachers with state science endorsements. But those without science-endorsed teachers in 7th-grade almost always had a teacher with some intensive training in the subject.

For example, Becky Yau at Haines Elementary in Armour Square, one of the top schools, attended the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science (TAMS), a professional development program that addresses both content knowledge and pedagogy. Burroughs Elementary in Brighton Park, another top 10 school, sent most of its faculty there for training.

Catalyst also found that top 10 schools without officially designated science teachers tended to be strong on faculty teamwork.

Columbia Explorers Academy in Brighton Park was among four top 10 schools that didn’t departmentalize in 2003. But one 7th-grade teacher, Raul Bermejo, had a science endorsement and a knack for teaching ‘hands-on’ science. He says he collaborated during prep time with the other 7th-grade teacher. “We followed the same curriculum; we worked at the same pace.”

Bermejo is now coordinator of the school’s science program (see related story).

At Bethune Elementary in East Garfield Park, one of the bottom 10 schools, teacher teamwork was lacking, according to Assistant Principal Vincent Payne. Upper grades were departmentalized for several subjects in 2003, and the science teacher had an endorsement, he says. But teachers seemed to feel less responsible for students who weren’t in their homeroom. Last winter Bethune went back to self-contained classrooms, Payne reports. “We thought the teachers would be more accountable to their own kids.”

At Bunche Elementary in West Englewood, another bottom 10 school, teachers work well together, according to teacher Scydonia Walls.

The problem, she says, was that none of them felt comfortable teaching science. In 2002-03, some upper-grade teachers agreed to swap students for certain subjects, including math and social studies.

“Nobody took on science,” she says. Although Bunche has a science lab, some teachers avoided it, she recalls. But this year, upper-grade teachers are working to plan labs together, she adds.

Challenging, “hands-on” curriculum

At nine of the top 10 schools, teachers described a 7th-grade science curriculum rich in experiments, projects and writing assignments that pushed kids to think for themselves.

Teachers at Holden Elementary in Bridgeport concentrate on teaching kids the scientific process, says 7th-grade teacher Elizabeth Kelly.

“When they do experiments, they do several trials to see if they get the same results. They graph and they analyze their results to find out whether it’s what they expected to happen. If it’s not, we want to figure out why.”

At Taylor Elementary in East Side, Al Gagnon’s 7th-graders spend the warmer months at nearby lakes and thickets, identifying trees, eradicating invasive species and collecting soil samples with the Calumet Environmental Education Program run through the Field Museum. But labs and detailed weekly lab reports are year-round, says Gagnon.

“It’s a way to make sure they understand what they’re doing. I want them to think like scientists.”

After attending TAMS, Yau at Haines switched from textbook assignments that emphasized memorization to experiments that required kids to back up answers with evidence. Although her students found the new approach more engaging, some objected. “Some of my ‘A’ students said, ‘Can we go back to the old book? It’s easier to obtain an ‘A.’ I don’t have to think as much.'”

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