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Earth Science Education in Chicago Public Schools  

I received the following post from colleague Mary Savina at Carleton College. I invite discussion of the report, its implications, and steps we might take in response.

Cathy Manduca

U. of Chicago just released a report assessing the new Chicago Public Schools policy of requiring all students to take at least three science courses in grades 9-12. Their conclusion is that the policy doesn't result in improved science learning or college success. has a summary and a link to the report. I found the statements on p. 21 (with no citations to back them up) about the relative merits of "earth and/or environmental science" and "chemistry and physics" distressing, as well as the lack of distinction between earth sciences and environmental sciences.

Please pass along to anyone else you think might be interested. It's likely to be influential - even if there are untested assumptions and other odd things.

Mary Savina


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I think what they are driving at is revealed on pages 16 & 17. There, the authors note that the inclusion of a 3rd science class requirement was accompanied by the inclusion of an earth science requirement. They go on to say that this restricts students from taking BOTH chem and phys in high school - they would now have to take 4 science classes. The completion of chem and phys is an indicator of being college ready.

More troubling to me is this statement (pg 17): This is of particular concern because there are indications that chemistry and physics are more challenging courses while, on average, students are less engaged and less challenged in earth and environmental science courses.

More revealing is the box on page 18. Statistically, students who complete earth science and bio only are less likely to go to college than student who take chem and phys also. This is a fundamental problem that students in earth science are considered non-college track.

I'm curious if when the earth science requirement was instigated, if teachers with this specialty were hired? That might influence the outcome - an unmotivated teacher teaching outside their interest area might not prepare a challenging curriculum.


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Having been in several of the upper tier CPS high schools observing teachers who were candidates for positions in my district I have to say that I have been nothing if not underwhelmed by the quality of instruction and level of expectations in science classes in general at CPS. I've interviewed or observed many who are desperate to get out of those schools because of the lack of support, resources and professional development opportunities. I know of several re-purposed biologists and chemists who have accepted CPS ES positions because it was the only job offer they had. I'm sorry to say that I have a very pessimistic opinion of the CPS science program overall and even more so of their ES program.

I'd like to touch base with some of my Northwestern OSEP friends and see what additional light they can shed on discussions they have had over the past few years with CPS regarding the ES and Enviro curriculum. (I know they were working together pretty heavily for some time with the Just in Time Enviro curriculum.)

What next steps should NAGT be considering at this point?


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This is disturbing, but unfortunately affirms our sense that earth science is regarded and taught poorly. There’s a lot to ponder here but I’ll offer some notions that are occurring to me:

1. The report fairly points out that there is more to improvement science that just requiring more of it. Issues of staff qualifications and teaching repertoire are huge variables. We in Michigan are reeling from similar challenges because of our 3 credit requirement. Many chemistry and physics teachers are for the first time dealing with students of ‘diverse ability levels’ for whom their grinding pace just doesn’t work. The bottom line for us is that it’s as important for us to ensuring that Earth Science is taught well, as it is to be taught a lot.
2. Program coherence and sequencing: I thought the section on ‘No Hierarchy’ was interesting but I don’t agree that some topics aren’t prerequisite to others. Modern biology standards are clearly based on chemistry and the earth science that has depth and substance depends on chemistry, physics and mathematics. Depending on how you divide topics chemistry is a branch of physics. Around here we advocate physics first for our high schools, and if there are only 3 credits to be had a ‘Physical Science, Biology, Earth Science is appropriate. I could even get behind a physics-chemistry-Earth Systems sequence, with significant biosphere/evolution component in that capstone. Our districts are slow to move for similar reasons regarding staff qualifications (shortages of physics teachers), but there are a lot of sensible arguments to support physics first even though there is little research supporting (or refuting) the approach.
3. We need a substantive conversation on what exactly ‘college-prep’ means, or ought to. I would start with asking, is college prep the same as college-like? I presume a lot of people subconsciously operate from that premise. But it ought not be. More discussion needed here.


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I'm also wondering what next steps might be. One thought would be to try to get a letter to the editor into a Chicago paper. Mike do you have thoughts on how to engage the discussion of what college prep should be? We could ask Eldridge Moores for advice. AGI has a group on perceptions of earth science -- we could see what they are up to and if they have an idea for where this discussion could take place.


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Hi Cathy and others,

Sorry to have been pulled away from this tread by general busy-ness. I do have some notions on what college prep should be, but honestly it’s an open question that deserves some discussion. I draw in part from some surveys (that I can’t cite off the top of my head) that ask college professors what they need from entering freshman. Almost unanimously, they omit any mention of a knowledge base and instead cite skills in writing, discourse and character traits such as curiosity, perseverance and a tolerance of analysis. One of Phil Sadler’s correlation studies showed that successful college science students were very likely to have taken high level math – while taking high level science had less of an influence. If you look at the ‘college readiness standards’ from ACT, which has now greatly influenced the Common Core Standards in ELA, it really is about perseverance and analysis, more than specific science knowledge. In addition, we have discussions on so called 21st century skills, as in Tony Wagner’s book “The Global Achievement Gap” (or the article “Rigor Redefined). Interestingly, Wagner lists 7 survival skills for the 21st century, most of which would be achieved by a state of the art, inquiry oriented science program.

It’s common for to see the notion of ‘college prep’ to be ‘college-like’ as though it’s about giving students practice surviving a teaching style that covers vast swaths of content through lecture and high pressure tests. I propose we think of college prep more about developing the skills and attitudinal attributes one needs to thrive in college. Where the most important disciplinary content is pursued in depth and used to teach about the nature and relevance of science; and where the most effective teaching strategies are employed.

I am on the perceptions sub-committee, but haven’t checked into the wiki lately.


.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 162kB May10 10)


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BTW - I started to upload Wagner's article, but ran into a buzz saw of copyright questions. I tried to abandon, but it looks like that small .pdf link above will get you there.


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