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Curriculum Update

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

Piloting a Paperless Curriculum

It's the Case of the Missing E-books, and Superintendent Mike Smith is the sleuth. In the growing world of electronic textbooks, there seems to be the fewest selection of books at the fifth and sixth grade levels and many more available for grades 7 to 12. So Smith and his team at Forney (Texas) Independent School District chose fifth and sixth graders to pilot a solution that's converting a full curriculum onto IBM ThinkPad notebook computers.

At Forney's Johnson Elementary School this fall, these students won't be inheriting their predecessors' textbooks. "We're actually trying to replace seven textbooks with this laptop," Smith says. The search for electronic versions, now underway, will result in each of the 100 to 150 students being issued a wireless ThinkPad containing the textbooks and 2,000 works of literature. The technology is available because of a partnership between IBM and Vital Source Technologies, which works with publishers to secure content.

Smith says he hopes to broaden the pilot to additional grades, once funding and other issues are worked out.

As a high-growth district expecting 20 percent more students this year, Forney has a lot riding on its success. State textbook procurement regulations limit orders to just a few percentage points over the previous school year's enrollment. By the time the district is able to order and obtain books for any additional students, they may have already completed an entire marking period without textbooks.

The e-books ensure that every student has access--and unlike with the traditional print medium, they can be kept up-to-date. "With social studies textbooks, we've had Third World countries change their names before I was out of the adoption process," Smith notes.

The project "started as a simple solution to a problem," he says. But the implications of Internet-connected technology for the expansion of learning are anything but simple. "We really start opening the doors for a child to be a discovery learner. It's really a whole new way to do school."

A Decade of Difference: More Credits, Higher GPAs

Have high expectations, and students will live up to those expectations. The recently released 2000 High School Transcript Study offers evidence that this common, long-held belief is true.

From 1990 to 2000, secondary school students earned increasing numbers of course credits in both core and non-core courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics study. The increases were evident for all examined subgroups, including student gender and race/ethnicity, as well as school type and region. Among the core academic subjects, the increases may be partially attributed to changes in state course requirements. Students have consistently taken more English and social studies course credits compared to math and science credits.

It may not be surprising, then, that of the 16 course subjects studied, math and science proved to be the most difficult for students. In 2000, high school graduates earned 2.60 and 2.67 grade point averages, respectively, in math and science courses. The overall grade point average of high school graduates increased from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000. Students who challenged themselves--by taking both math and science Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate courses--earned higher overall GPAs than those who took these courses in only one of the subjects or not at all.

Stepping Up for Civics

Districts in as many as 21 states may soon notice an elevation of civic education policy and practice, as the new Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools begins selection of its first grant recipients this month. Up to six $150,000 grants and up to 15 $20,000 grants will be awarded to groups of education leaders, legislators, student associations, businesses, government agencies and others who join together to launch state-level campaigns and projects.

For states with favorable civic education policies, a grant might provide teacher training and other support to implement them. States with little policy infrastructure may work to address that shortage. Smaller projects might include district surveys of civic education resources or plans to increase service learning with a civic focus.

The campaign is managed by the Council's Center for Democracy & Citizenship. Besides the grant program, efforts include preparing an extensive set of civic education resources and practices, addressing six approaches to the subject area that were presented in a report last year.

Fear of Shakespeare: Is There an Antidote?

One of an English educators' greatest challenges can be getting students to see that there's much ado about something when it comes to the works of William Shakespeare. Learning scaffolds such as reading along to an audio or video version of a play will probably always be popular. But side-by-side series--where the actual text is on one side of the page and a modern "translation" is on the other--offer a newer way of helping to produce future fans of The Bard.

The first series to hit the U.S. was Shakespeare Made Easy, acquired by Barron's from a UK publisher in 1985. In 2002, Barron's launched Simply Shakespeare, which includes icons throughout the text to denote foreshadowing, wordplay and other aspects of the play that merit particular attention, explains Frederick Glasser, director of school library sales.

Last year, SparkNotes entered (stage left) with the No Fear Shakespeare series. Commentary in the margins and complete character lists provide additional support.

While there are no statistics on how popular these series have become, Carol Jago, co-director of the California Reading and Literature Project and an expert on teaching classical literature, says she knows of educators who have tried these books. The choice is made in an attempt "to awaken in students a love of Shakespeare," notes Jago, an English teacher at Santa Monica High School.

In some schools, Glasser says the books introduce Shakespeare to gifted middle school students. Teachers of English language learners, remedial students, "reluctant" readers and special education students have also used them.

Stephanie Karmol, a SparkNotes spokeswoman, says educators seem to view the series as "a fresh way to appreciate Shakespeare's work." When teachers have "40 minutes to teach 60 minutes worth of information," the books help by picking up where the instructor leaves off.

"I think it's great. You've got the text unadulterated," says Dale Allender, associate executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English. He sees the series as one of a range of classroom tools, but not necessarily better than other methods. The books should be used "in the context of inter-textual instruction, versus some panacea tool that's going to save everybody's love for Shakespeare," he says. "Reading is never really isolated into just one text. Every text is related to something else."

Jago agrees that the series can be a helpful scaffold. But, she says, "I'm not a terrific supporter of these materials. ... What's going on in the classroom? Are kids only reading the page with the translation in goofy modern prose?" That extra text can wind up acting as interference. "Suddenly it's another play written by somebody else in between the student and the experience," she adds.

Another concern is the message educators may be sending by selecting these materials. "We're saying ... [students] can't read the real thing," Jago explains. "That's a dangerous assumption to make. Shakespeare wasn't elitist and suddenly we're becoming elitist in saying who can and can't read these texts."