As part of an effort to meet new state standards, city students learning about cells in science classes will now take a look at the cell’s structure under a microscope first before they learn the exact terminology for what they’re seeing.
That flip from the way that science has been traditionally taught is one example of instructional changes being rolled out across New Haven’s public schools.
In response to new state science standards, teachers will seek to have their students figure things out on their own, rather than accepting material as a given before they see the proof. That means prioritizing time for experiments and discussion first, rather than lectures and reading.
Simply put, students are learning by doing.
At a Board of Education meeting at L.W. Beecher School on Tuesday night, the district’s science supervisor, Richard Therrien, said the change should reverse a downward trend in standardized test scores and open up careers in STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.
“This is what we want our kids to get out of school: how to think, how to express that, how to come up with their own explanations,” he said. “We don’t care about them memorizing a bunch of facts; they can look that up. We care about them knowing how to think.”
The science curriculum is just the first subject areas that district officials are overhauling this year, said Ilene Tracey, an instructional director and candidate for superintendent. A systemwide review will aim to boost literacy, math skills and attendance.
The driving question: “What are we doing to support this person to become a graduate who will be a critical thinker, a critical reader as they move into the world of college, career and life?” Tracey said. “Supervisors are teaming up to look at what high-quality instruction looks like.”
Kickstarting the process, Therrien explained that the district is aligning its instruction with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), approved by the state in 2015. That framework, developed by the National Research Council and the National Science Teachers Association, has been adopted by roughly 30 states (with some alterations for climate-change deniers and creationists).
The standards are supposed to better reflect the way science is done in the real world, especially by teaching students to model and analyze mathematically, Therrien said. Much of the curriculum’s pure science has been “boiled down” to the essentials, he said, and replaced with more about how science is relevant to their lives, with units on climate change, biotechnology, electronics and more. Therrien added that should better accommodate students’ different learning styles.
Why Airplanes Can Fly
At the school board meeting, he tried an example on the attendees. He asked everyone to hold up a piece of paper to their chins and blow over the top of it. Mayor Toni Harp ripped a sheet from her notebook and puffed out a deep breath. The paper’s far edge rose slightly — proof of a physics principle that helps explain why airplanes can fly.
“All right, turn and talk to someone and explain why that happens,” Therrien instructed. Carlos Torre, a board member, turned to her and started chatting. After a moment, Therrien said, “I don’t really care if you can explain what happened.”
He explained, “The act of what you just did is science. We want our students to think about experiencing something, playing around with it and then coming up with an explanation,” Therrien said. “How does it change if you’re getting more information? You can do two sheets of paper. You can blow harder. You can change the angle. We can take all sorts of measurements and we would be doing science. That’s what we want for our students.”
Therrien contrasted that format with the prior state standards. “In the old way, a teacher might have had kids look up the meaning of air pressure, or something called the Bernoulli effect and maybe they saw a picture of an airplane wing and asked them to discuss (with the teacher) how the shape caused the airplane to fly, then they ‘proved it’ by blowing on the paper,” he said. “In the new way, the experience becomes a jumping off point for their own investigations and discoveries.”
Beyond asking students to regularly carry out the scientific method, teachers are also prioritizing the way that students communicate what they’ve learned — a common connection with the district’s literacy goal.
As the schools rolls out the changes, classes will reflect the new emphasis. Elementary school students will receive 100 minutes of instruction a week, taught through science kits. Middle schoolers will get a daily lesson from a grab-bag of fields. High school freshmen will start off with “PhyChem,” a cross-cut about science’s role in society. That will be followed by mandatory biology for sophomores and chemistry for juniors. Most seniors will take physics.
Students will take state standardized tests in 5th, 8th and 11th grade, all of which will factor into the school performance index. “The standardized test is the big unknown,” said Chris Willems, a science teacher at Metropolitan Business Academy and member of the New Haven Educator’s Collective, which has called for teacher-generated performance assessments. Compared to online tests like the Smarter Balanced Assessment Test, “There are better ways for students to demonstrate competence, as well as inspire them to enjoy learning,” Willems added.
In recent years, a little over half of New Haven’s students have tested proficient on the science portion of the standardized test. “It’s not great. I’ll be honest with you,” Therrien said of the scores. “We are certainly doing better than we were in 2008, but we dipped a little bit in the last couple of years in certain areas.” From 2014 to 2017, proficiency fell by roughly five points at all three stages.
However, Therrien pointed out that the district’s been able to decrease the achievement gap with the rest of the state for high school sophomores by nine points over the last decade, down to 21.8 points last school year from 30.9 in 2008.
Recent data also shows that New Haven’s alumni who go on to complete college are more likely to graduate in a STEM major than national averages: 39 percent of all students, and 58 percent of those who participated in Yale’s Pathways to Science program. And that’s based on 2011 data, before the New Haven Promise was fully implemented. “We’re doing one of our major goals, which is getting our students ready for STEM careers,” Therrien said.
While Therrien noted that he could use more help rolling out the changes, in the form of coaches to train 125 secondary-school and 400 elementary-school teachers, he said that he’s making progress in professional development.
He also asked for parents to also pitch in. “We need you to treat doing well in science as a given, that it’s not something special,” he said. “The worst thing you can do is tell a student, ’Ah, you know what, I was really bad in chemistry in school.’ ‘Oh yeah, your physics homework looks really hard.’ ‘Wooh, that fifth-grade science stuff, I could never understand that.’” Instead, he requested, “Speak positively about science.”