Jeff's Corner

Spring has finally sprung, Greg Norman just blew a 6 stroke lead in the Master's, and my brain has hopefully thawed from the deep freeze it has been in over the past six months (okay, I know what you're thinking, my brain has always been in a deep freeze!). I apologize for our spring newsletter being so late. The only person to blame is myself. I had written Jeff's Corner weeks ago about two topics that are of some concern to not only myself, but to educators in general. The problem is that these concerns are not only timely, but are controversial, and my views may not be those of main stream education. Therefore, I sent a draft of Jeff's Corner to a number of people (including the RPSEC/CSRA Hub staff) to review and comment. Although most of the comments were positive, there was enough concern for me to put the draft down for a week in order to give me time to decide what to do with it. Well, my week is up, and I have decided to print Jeff's Corner in two parts. This will not only help with the newsletter space problem, it will also give me time to get input from those who read this column (all three of you?!).
The issues that have caused me great concern over this past year are adoption of curriculum materials and the "Accountability Act". Since the "Accountability Act" has been put aside temporarily, I will tackle adoption of curriculum materials in this newsletter and the "Accountability Act" in the next newsletter.
Caution: The following may contain sensitive topics and may cause a violent reaction.....Read at your own risk!
As you know, the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center became the first operational hub as part of the South Carolina Statewide Systemic Initiative. This past January, the National Science Foundation ranked South Carolina as the TOP SSI state in the country. Believe it or not, other states and educational leaders point to South Carolina as the leader in science and mathematics education reform. Although this gives us reason to celebrate, it should also be a time for us to look inward and face some of our most daunting hurdles to overcome before we declare victory.
One of these hurdles is textbook adoption or, as I will refer to it, adoption of curriculum materials. One concern voiced by NSF in this January review was that schools in South Carolina did not seem to be using the best (as defined by current research) science and mathematics curriculum materials available. They were more pleased with the mathematics adoption list where 75% of the materials seemed to meet NCTM standards, but were less pleased with the science adoption materials where 90% of the materials did not meet national standards.
The Ruth Patrick Science Education Center/CSRA Hub recognized this a year ago. We also recognized that those curriculum materials that did meet national standards were vastly different from the standard textbooks used in the past. Therefore we wanted teachers to look at the materials closely to make sure they knew which materials would be best suited for advancing their students. It was because of this that we became involved with the textbook adoption process.
Although I am told that the curriculum materials adopted for classroom use do not necessarily drive the curriculum, I tend to believe the opposite. In this day and age where teachers have many more concerns and duties to deal with than in the past, the adopted materials do tend to drive the curriculum because the average teacher does not have the time, nor is provided the time, to search for outside materials to supplement the adopted curriculum. Therefore the adopted materials do tend to drive the curriculum.
This means the curriculum materials adoption process plays a critical role in science and mathematics education. However, the current adoption process is inadequate. Most adoptions that I have seen involve materials being sent to the schools a month or two before adoption. The materials end up in one classroom and one or more teachers may or may not get a chance to see them. If there is a formal process, there might be an assembly in which a teacher might get to hear a textbook representative for 15 minutes; get to thumb through the book and look at the pictures; and then base their decision on that 20-30 minute time frame. Therefore, the decision is based on the best salesperson and not necessarily on the best curriculum.
Over the past two years we have tried to improve the curriculum materials adoption process by holding two-day curriculum materials hearings where teachers spend 40 minutes with a company representative and then spend 20 minutes amongst themselves talking about the materials. Because teachers were from a four-county area, different viewpoints were aired and teachers who attended left better informed than in the past. Although an improvement, we were still dissatisfied. Teachers were more informed than in the past, but still hadnŐt had a chance to use the materials with their students.
This led to our pilot project this past (1995-96) school year. Six schools (sixteen teachers) piloted exemplary 1st-8th grade mathematics and K-5 science materials in their classrooms (beginning in September). Information gained through this pilot has been invaluable. What we found was that first impressions (based on information gained through the traditional adoption process and textbook hearings) were not necessarily the right impressions. In many cases, the materials that, at first, seemed teacher and student friendly were not, and those materials that, at first, seemed difficult for both the students and teachers to use, ended up being the best materials for the classroom.
Probably, the most useful information gained is that no matter what materials are adopted, teachers are going to have to be trained on the use of the materials. Therefore school districts, schools, principals and teachers must provide the time for staff development on the use of these materials. In our pilot project, we used very talented teachers who were familiar with the national standards. Even with this knowledge, they had to work very hard to stay ahead of their students. Every one of the pilot teachers communicated a desire to have had the time during the summer to prepare their lessons for the upcoming year. However, since we were not able to get the materials to them before the school year started, they were starting a step behind.
In addition to the local adoption process, the options for materials is imperative to the process. If the materials on the State adoption list are not the very best materials available, then there needs to be a change in the process of placing the materials on the state list. I believe the state is moving in the right direction, however, there needs to be a mechanism to ensure the very best materials are made available. One thought (and a radical one at that) is to give schools the autonomy to select the materials they want. Although this does not guarantee selection of the best materials (particularly if the teachers are not provided with the proper staff development on what to look for in exemplary science and mathematics materials), it would allow those schools that are ready to make a change to do so more easily than the process set by the current system. Change is hard enough without a system that makes it even more difficult.
Obviously, if I thought all of the materials listed on the State adoption list were exemplary and the best materials available, I would not be writing this column. However, I do not consider all of the materials exemplary. Although there are exemplary materials on the list from which to choose, I have great concern that these will not be selected. One explanation for why certain materials will not be adopted will be expense. Yes, I realize that schools are inadequately funded. However, I see schools from throughout the state, rich schools and poor schools, who find the money to purchase some of the more expensive exemplary materials.
Another explanation (and one that is more plausible and of more concern to me) is that schools are more apt to adopt materials similar to what they have used in the past because these materials will cause the least concern (for students, teachers, administrators and parents). Well, if that is the case, why not use the same materials that have been used in the past and save the money for something else. One of the reasons for the reform movement is that students have not been successful using the past curriculum materials, so why adopt something that looks the same?! To me, that doesnŐt make sense.
I realize that change is scary. I dislike change as much as the next person. However, how can one improve without change? Can you think of one meaningful, satisfying occurrence in your life, that did not require effort or change? If what we have done in science and mathematics education in the past has not worked, does it make sense to sail the same course? Is it time we look within and realize that maybe we need to change and try something different?
Many of the problems with our educational system are not within our (educators) control. However, there are many problems within our control if we choose to see them as being within our control. One of these challenges is curriculum materials. Too many times we settle for less than the best. What better time is there than during the curriculum adoption process for us, as educators, to stand united and demand the very best that is available?
Of course if we do so, we must be ready to meet the challenge. We must be ready to change the way we teach, and to rethink our practices. Although the demands on teachers are already great, making this paradigm shift will mean that we will have to work harder than ever to implement the changes. Change is never easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is!
No matter which curriculum materials are selected, next year will be challenging. I believe it will be a year that is a turning point in science and mathematics education. I hope it will be a year in which educators will unite as one and take control of their profession. With that I wish everyone a happy and safe summer. The next Jeff's Corner will tackle the "Accountability Act". See you in Alaska!

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