You are here


Curriculum Update

The latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies

"Pre-AP" Hits Houston Middle Schools

If Houston's pre-teens weren't already thinking about college, they will be now. Beginning next school year, sixth graders in the district will be required to take pre-Advanced Placement English courses, announced Superintendent Kaye Stripling during a February State of the Schools address. In addition, all high school students with demonstrated ability will be required to enter AP courses.

"This is a logical progression for us," says Chief Academic Officer Bob Stockwell, who notes that English was chosen because students were doing particularly well in that subject. Other subjects may introduce pre-AP courses as middle school performance indicates students are ready. "It is setting the bar high, but if history repeats itself our teachers and our students will respond and we will receive higher performance as a result. It's the art of setting that net stretch goal," he says.

The district is reaching for higher enrollment in high school AP programs and greater numbers of students scoring three or better on AP tests. "Ultimately the measure will be downstream when our numbers come up," Stockwell says.

Houston is certainly not the first district to have increased expectations for all students, and they're not even the first to have "pre-AP." That term was born in the late '80s, as educators realized that growing AP enrollment would mean preparing students ahead of time, explains Martha Salmon, vice president of the Southwestern regional office of The College Board, which administers the AP program.

Still, says Salmon, who has worked with Houston on the pre-AP effort, it's a "bold step for a superintendent to make such a decision and to make it very public, because it says we want more for all students. ... That's all a part of the opening up of AP. I think that's what Stripling is saying--'We want everybody to have their options open.' "

And it's not only education options. AP "is about college, but it's not just about college," Salmon adds. When students learn analysis and other AP skills, they will wind up becoming better employees.

For Houston, the development of pre-AP English has meant "laying the AP guidelines and targets next to our curriculum and making revisions," Stockwell says. As next year's sixth graders move on to complete the following two years of middle school, they'll continue with the more challenging pre-AP curriculum. To get students used to AP-type assessment items, the district's regular assessments will probably evolve.

But first, teachers must prep for pre-AP. This summer and fall, those who need extra training will be brought up to speed on AP curriculum and certification requirements, Stockwell says. The College Board's regional offices offer districts teacher training in delivering pre-AP strategies, Salmon adds.

Stockwell has noticed a sense of cautious optimism about the higher standards. He's heard that a few teachers, particularly those in high school, have expressed some concern about how the effort fits into other improvement initiatives. But the educational community generally seems excited about the challenge, the CAO says.

As with nearly all initiatives, it will be a process. "It's one thing for the superintendent to make the pronouncement. It's another thing to have every person in the district who touches a child's life to be able to deliver," Salmon says. "But they can do it."

NASA Leader On Loan to NSTA

There's a new face at the National Science Teachers Association. As the organization's first visiting associate executive director, Frank Owens will spend up to two years assisting in the design and implementation of a strategic plan for international engagement of science educators. The 25-year NASA veteran, who is a senior executive and education policy advisor there, will also support NSTA in corporate outreach.

NSTA already has many international members and partners, points out Executive Director Gerry Wheeler. "Expanding NSTA's international efforts will enable us to live up to our mission to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all," he says, adding that interacting globally will "ensure that we communicate with and listen to a diversity of individuals and viewpoints."

Making Sense of Societal Issues

When Green (Ohio) Middle School's 350 sixth graders learn about China's construction of Three Gorges Dam, their teachers want to be certain they don't just scratch the surface of this deep current event.

In fact, they'll learn about all aspects of the project itself and its consequences for the people of China. When completed, Three Gorges will be the world's largest hydroelectric dam, producing 18,000 megawatts of electrical energy. Yet, its 250-mile reservoir will "drown" more than 100 towns and displace 1.2 million or more people.

From the environment and the spread of disease to the federal budget, understanding and acting on an issue often involves interpreting numerical data and statistics. To help students make sense of societal issues that rely on quantitative data, Green's sixth grade math and social studies teachers are piloting the Thinking with Data initiative. They're collaborating with researchers at the independent research institute SRI International and Kent State University's Research Center for Educational Technology on the 18-month project.

"Data is the big word now," says Russell Chaboudy, Green's principal. He's referring to the importance that districts have placed on helping teachers, administrators and students to use data effectively. Because Thinking with Data is "real life learning, students buy into that and grow from that," he adds.

The interdisciplinary part of the project also appeals. "What we've been trying to teach kids all along is that what's in one subject isn't isolated," Chaboudy says. This means that data being introduced in social studies class will be graphed in math class. The project offers a technology integration opportunity, too, as students use the Internet, handheld computers and wireless Dana devices to collect and share data.

The project team plans to design Web-based educational tools that can boost student interest and capabilities in analyzing data as a basis for thinking about societal issues.

Ignorance Is Bliss

Apparently, ignorance may be enough of an excuse to slide past a state graduation requirement. California's State Board of Education has accepted applications from districts looking to waive the state requirement that students pass Algebra 1 to receive their diplomas. In fact, legislators are considering postponing the edict for at least one year.

Why all the hubbub? There's a concern that all students may not know about the rule. According to The Sacramento Bee, some districts are claiming to be unaware of the requirement. Others say they failed to inform adult education and special education departments of their need to comply. Confusion over whether algebra was included in the state's decision to postpone an exit exam requirement is another reason districts have applied for waivers.

Meanwhile, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell is proposing that the overall expectations for all students be raised. His plan would involve requiring every high school student to complete a strict list of courses--including three years of college preparatory math--to graduate. Currently, those courses are required for entry into the state's public university system.