Thursday, July 20, 2006

Please disregard California

In 1985, California stared down Texas over the inclusion of the term "evolution" in science books. Texas' Mel and Norma Gabler were trying to establish Texas as an evolution-free zone. Publishers were warned that books containing the word "evolution" would not be adopted in the Lone Star State. California's Bill Honig promptly fired back: books that excluded evolution would not be adopted in the Golden State. Thus the nation's number one textbook market successfully quashed the wrong-headed notions of the number two market.

When I read about this clash, I decided I could work in a state like California. By the autumn of the next year, I had the job that I hold to this day. I love my chosen state and I love my chosen profession. I bear no body art, but if I were ever to inject ink into the epidermis of my derriere, it might say "California Physics Teacher."

But now I go to national physics teachers meetings with some embarrassment. When I tell my fellow high school physics teachers from around the country that I'm from California, I'm also on the verge of an apology. While the Golden State was a leader on the evolution front, it plays a rather different role in terms of Physics First (PF, the movement to teach physics at ninth grade, chemistry at tenth, and biology at eleventh).

My state has banished PF from public schools.

The No Child Left Behind legislation demands each state test its students in various subjects at various grade levels. One requirement is a science test to be administered to all students at a specific, senior high grade level (grade 10, 11, or 12). I serve on an panel that advises the State Board of Education on issues of assessment. It's called the Assessment Review Panel. The SBE solicited the ARP's opinion, then decided the implementation of NCLB would be a test of all grade 10 students in life science.

That's how the SBE killed PF with NCLB. With schools testing all grade 10 students in life science, PF students wouldn't likely perform well. The test would come before their study of high school biology. Of course, you could try to reason with your principal: "Hey, I've got this great idea for our science sequence. The students will learn science better, but our NCLB test scores will drop." Look, I made a funny!

What makes me groan even louder about this mess is that I was a player (albeit a small one) in the decision-making process. Clearly, the SBE did not implement NCLB as I would have liked, but my arguments failed to carry the day.

To my colleagues in private schools and to those in other states, I truly wish you well in your attempts to implement PF in your schools. There is merit to the approach of a physics-chemistry-biology sequence. So for this issue, pretend like California's not even here.

1 comment:

Dan Burns said...

Disregarding Physics First, the imposition of the NCLB test is one of the worst cases of a top-down authoritarian restriction of local control of schools. I have always maintained that what works best for one school district may not work the best for another. Districts should be free to determine the sequence of their science classes without taking a hit on their API. This test detrimentally affects schools with Physics First, Integrated Science, and remedial science programs. After some encouraging movement to consolidating some of the state mandated testing, this NCLB life science test is a big step backwards.