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Curriculum Update

Research, trends and developments

Software Improves Middle And High School Reading and Writing Skills

High school literature teachers are not typically reading specialists, so when the Pittsburgh Public School District needed to help its high school students improve their reading skills it needed to find an alternative solution. On top of that, most reading software is geared to the preK and elementary-level set. After some research, Carmelita Korbett, special programs coordinator for the district, discovered AutoSkill's Academy of Reading. "The Web-based version looks like a high school hallway with lockers and a trophy case. It was familiar and not babyish," says Korbett. Today, Pittsburgh has classrooms dedicated to the program in all 10 high schools, the alternative high school and two special education centers; children go to there in addition to their regular language arts classes when the data shows that they need extra help. They take a test to discover their weaknesses and the program generates an individualized action plan. "If a student is having trouble, the program stops and says 'teacher time,' so a teacher can reinforce the skill before the student continues," says Korbett. She also likes that she can manage the program remotely and forward students' records when they transfer.

When Conyers Middle School in Georgia failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, former principal Sue Snow had to take action. Teachers began using data to find and address weak areas, but realized that writing skills were lagging. They decided to use Vantage Learning's My Access, a Web-based writing program that instantly scores essays and provides remedial instruction. "Teachers have a hard time grading all those essays," says Snow, a former English teacher. "The instant feedback allowed us to have more quantity, which led to higher quality." After one year, the results were phenomenal: eighth graders' passing rate on meeting state standards in writing went from 84 percent to 91 percent. Snow, now principal at Rockdale County High School, uses the product with ninth graders.,

Some Encouraging Facts About Math and Science

Class of 2004:

50% of graduates completed 4 years of high school math

72% completed 3 years of high school math

60% completed high school chemistry

25% completed physics

During the 2003-04 school year:

48% of all high school students took a higher-level math course

31% of all high school students took a higher-level science course

85% of high school teachers were certified in science

63% of middle grade teachers were certified in science

89% of high school math teachers were certified

61% of middle grade math teachers were certified

Engineering Gains Ground in the Classroom

In 2001, when Massachusetts became the first state to develop K-12 curricular standards and assessments for engineering, educators wondered, "How are we going to teach this?" Luckily, the Museum of Science in Boston was on the case. "We collected more than 400 pieces of curriculum from around the world that focus on teaching engineering technology and design," says Christine Cunningham, vice president of research at the museum. "After teachers reviewed the materials, we put them online in our Educator Resource Center."

While collecting the data, Cunningham's team noticed lapses at the elementary and high school level. The museum's goal is for every U.S. child to have a basic understanding of engineering, so it created curricula.

Engineering is Elementary, for grades one through five, introduces each unit with an illustrated children's book written by the museum. The lead character has a relative in an engineering field and the books come with teaching resources. "It builds upon what children learn in science," says Cunningham.

The high school course, Engineering the Future, prepares Massachusetts students for their sophomore-year exam. It comes with a textbook filled with magazine-like articles that teach about engineering careers. "Our research showed that most kids think engineers are auto mechanics, construction workers or computer technicians," says Cunningham.

Currently, the units are being field-tested by teachers in the state and all over the country. The museum has begun a middle-school initiative called Engineering Today that it hopes will replace the textbook- and worksheet-driven materials with inquiry-learning projects.,,,

Minneapolis Scores with Online Physical Education Course

When she was first asked to create an online physical education class, Jan Braaten laughed. "I thought it was a ridiculous idea," says the head of health and physical education for Minneapolis Public Schools. The district wanted to offer an alternative for students having trouble fitting gym into their schedules and for kids who were uncomfortable with traditional gym class due to health issues like asthma or obesity.

Since Braaten had already designed an online health course, she thought she'd step up to the plate. The biggest obstacle was that 60 percent of a student's grade is based on physical activity. How do you replicate that online? So Braaten collaborated with the district's top curriculum writers to see what they could devise.

"We've been spinning physical education away from sports to a fitness and wellness model," says Braaten. To that end, the course is called "Fitness for Life" and requires three 30-minute workouts per week. Students can select any activity as long as they measure their heart rate, study the activity's health benefits and keep an online journal. To ensure that no one cheats, a parent or coach must sign off on the workouts and students must show improvement on the fitness test they take at the end of the semester.

So far, the course is a success. There's a huge waiting list because the online department has not had time to train additional teachers. Renee Jesness, online learning coordinator for the district, is pleased with how it's working out. "We've had the highest success rate of students completing this course," she says. In their exit interviews, students say that the self-monitoring and ability to know where to find the knowledge about fitness is crucial, says Jesness.

Next up? Braaten's team hopes to put this program into a package and sell the framework to other districts.

Elementary Students Learning Arabic

When Amana Academy in North Fulton, Georgia, opened its doors this school year, one of its mandates was for its 190 kindergarten through six-graders to study Arabic. "We want to give our students a competitive edge and help them bridge cultural gaps," says Principal Shereen Salam. As part of the academy's expeditionary learning platform, the Arabic instructors collaborate with classroom teachers. If students are studying how to behave during a natural disaster as part of a unit on community responsibility, for instance, they might learn relevant vocabulary words in Arabic. "It's wonderful to have a language featured in a school as a required part of the curriculum," says Bret Lovejoy, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. "This is a great example of the type of programs we'd like to see throughout the country."