The issue is accountability. Mine.
Each school year, I get only one chance to get it right. Only one chance to properly and thoroughly communicate to and with 145 children the abundance of concepts, big ideas, and understandings related to our science program. I get one shot at teaching the science behind simple machines, for example, in a way that is meaningful and effective, so that the students in my classes learn and understand the big ideas. Careful instruction takes time and deliberation, from curriculum selection and on-going teacher training, through planning, preparation, and delivery of the lessons. If I am unable to translate for each of my students the volume of information and the connections and relationships represented by my daily lessons and instruction, then I have not really done my job. “If no learning occurs, then no teaching has taken place.”
I teach 6th grade science. I currently use a standards-based curriculum developed over ten years ago by classroom teachers and teacher leaders in Delaware, along with science education experts from across the country. It is inquiry-based and mostly hands-on science. We teach the same four science kits (one life science, two physical science, and one earth science kit) in 6th grade in each of our public middle schools across the state. This state-supported, kit-based curriculum was adopted by my school district and most of the other 16 districts in Delaware, so that a 6th grader in Dover is studying the same science topics using the same materials and pedagogy as they are in Woodbridge or Hockessin.
It is an outstanding curriculum, nationally recognized for its depth and developmental appropriateness. The science kits are housed in a warehouse in Dover, in the center of the state, and are managed and distributed by the Delaware Department of Education. Kits are circulated 2-3 times a year by truck on a tightly-controlled schedule and pick-up/delivery system. School districts pay a fee for the delivery and refurbishment of each kit, as well as for in-depth training of every eligible teacher. The state’s science program begins in kindergarten; the curriculum and kits run through 8th grade. There is greater local variation in our high school science programs, with districts more or less adopting the state’s standards-based curriculums.
Middle school students in my district have science every day. The four topics in grade six are studied in relative depth. This is vastly different from the textbook-based curriculum that was in place when I recreated myself as a middle school science teacher back in 1990. The curriculum at that time was “a mile wide and an inch deep”–a classic way of describing a style of curriculum that seemed to cover a multitude of science topics in a very general way, with very little depth or focus. I can recall counting upwards of twenty different topics to be “taught” by following the 6th grade textbook: plants, animals, oceans, the Earth, planets, constellations, weather, rocks and minerals, energy, ecology, simple machines, nutrition, the human body, cells, just to name a few.
Plus, the science program could be incredibly redundant. Kids were “studying” topics like dinosaurs and weather over and over again, year after year, with not a great deal of differentiation or increasing depth. We were mostly forced to read about science, rather than encouraged to do science. Any science activities—misnamed as “experiments” in the text—were of the kind where if we could correctly follow a set of step-by-step instructions we could end up “proving” what the book said we would prove. Not much mystery or engagement there! Plus, I had to purchase my own materials by way of trips to grocery stores, hardware stores, and drugstores.
After a while, I suspected that this was probably not the best way to get children to actually like science or understand scientific principals. I always loved science. But most kids saw it as tricky and overly-complicated. Parents repeated stories about how they had always struggled with science and that science was HARD. Many kids had a difficult time seeing the relevance of science or that it possibly held a future for them. When asked to draw a scientist, kids twenty years ago would invariably draw a middle-aged white guy in a lab coat.
I taught elementary school for the first 17 years of my career. I was hired at my current school to teach science. I loved the idea of finally getting to specialize, to dedicate my classroom and my time to one solid subject. In spite of having two small children, I threw myself into my new subject area with great energy and enthusiasm. I took classes and workshops. I read and studied. I turned myself into a science teacher.
No one seemed to really be in charge of science back then. I was allowed a great deal of leeway as to how and what and when I taught each topic. I wondered which school personnel knew (or cared) what I was doing in my classroom. On the other hand, I always did know exactly to whom I was accountable each and every day: to my students and their parents.
Today, we have a scope and sequence for science, a pacing chart (I will never be on target for this!!), as well as GLE’s and guidelines. We have no other science curriculum available, save the kits. There is a science supervisor—someone actually in charge of making sure that science is taught correctly.
Finally, all science teachers, K-8, must take the proscribed training in order to receive the science kits. No training–no kits, and the kits are the only science program around. The kits require 12-30 hours (depending on the complexities of the kit lessons) of comprehensive training by science specialists who know the kits inside and out. The training has really boosted the quality of science instruction in our classrooms.
I love the science kit program–can you tell? And, I appreciate all of the work that has gone into making Delaware’s K-8 science program one of the best around.
In the last 10-12 years, key Delaware educators have taken the initiative to make valuable and significant changes in order to match national standards, to select or create top-notch curriculums, to infuse “best practice” teaching skills and strategies, and to help all of us work more effectively to meet the needs of all students.