Jun 18, 2012

One Short-Lived Physics First Program: A Cautionary Tale

One short-lived implementation of Physics First at a New York City public school should serve as a cautionary tale of the challenge faced in convincing a local community that ninth graders can succeed at physics. The format of a Modeling Instruction summer workshop can establish a productive relationship between teachers to help take on this challenge.

Some time ago, I sat down to talk with the principal of a high school in New York City that opened in 2010 with a commitment to teach physics to all ninth graders. The decision to teach Physics First was one of many qualities that made this school unique in its geographical area, including an emphasis on the arts, interdisciplinary coursework, and a consistent focus on three essential questions: Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get there? The Physics First component, however, was a sticking point for many, from the administrators who approved the school's application to the parents who enrolled their children at the school. Many voiced skepticism that ninth graders could do physics, but the school's principal, herself a ninth grade physics teacher, assured them that Physics First could be successful. The administration selected a curriculum that was backed by promising research involving ninth graders and teachers underwent a week-long training session during the summer to prepare to use the method.

The ninth grade physics courses, however, got off to a rocky start.  As early as the initial training period, teachers felt that the chosen curriculum program lacked sufficient hands-on work to engage students. The program emphasized group problem solving with a heavy quantitative emphasis accompanied by a small component of direct instruction* involving interactive whiteboard technology. Teachers were encouraged to follow a predetermined script dictated by the developers of the program, and the training itself was lecture-oriented. When students indeed proved unreceptive to the approach, individual teachers tried to reorient the course to their own priorities, diverging independently from their common training experience in an attempt to improve their own class.

Meanwhile, skeptics of the program looked for evidence of failure that would bolster their argument to convert to a conventional curriculum order. No other schools in the immediate area were teaching Physics First, and parents lacked a concrete measure for the success of the program. Most students wouldn't be sitting for their first state-standardized NY Regents exam until eleventh grade and parents were terrified that their children would fail this exam and be stuck without having fulfilled basic graduation requirements. Midway through the second year of implementation, this lack of direct evidence for the success of the program won out. The DOE stepped in, making the decision to abandon school-wide Physics First and removing the principal from the school completely.

How might things have gone differently at this school? Could anything have been done to set doubting minds at ease? I think that this story provides an important case study in examining what a Physics First program needs in order to be successful. In this case, the pressure to abandon Physics First was rooted in parents' mistrust that this non-traditional program would not meet students' needs, driven primarily by a concern over fulfilling testing requirements. Ironically, results from other public Physics First schools indicate that students do quite well on a standardized biology test when they take the test for the first time as Juniors (at least in part due to the fact that these tests are generally written to be taken by Freshmen). Even if this is confirmed at this school, no one will know until next June, when the test is given to the school's first ninth graders. But in an environment of high stakes testing, parents and students can't simply be asked to muster the patience to "wait and see" if such a program has been effective.

Any school planning to institute a Physics First program can expect that this decision is not going to get the benefit of the doubt from parents, students, or even faculty and administrators. Perhaps a gracious transition is more likely in an independent school, where parents might feel bound by a tuition to maintain faith in the school and its decisions. Private school students are not usually subject to external testing requirements, and if a family doesn't support a curriculum decision made by a school, they're free to take their child and their money elsewhere. But in the public school system, inertia rules. "You basically have to teach an existing class," the principal of this school told me. "New York State has defined the Regents classes, and [physics] means a very specific vision involving eleventh or twelfth graders. It's hard to do [anything different]." A larger movement toward Physics First, perhaps on a district level, might help reassure parents that their individual child won't be left out in the cold, but failed Physics First initiatives such as the program in San Diego in 2001 demonstrate that this reassurance will only go so far.

A cohort of teachers implementing a new Physics First program needs not only formal training in how to teach Physics First effectively, but time and freedom to develop unified goals and methods for a specific population of students. In interpreting this particular story, I've come to the conclusion that in order for a public school implementation of Physics First to be successful it has to meet a much higher bar than a traditional science program. Traditional physics courses that conform to parents' and administrators' expectations are simply awarded the benefit of the doubt even when the value of this status quo is deeply doubtful. The paradigm of a Modeling Instruction summer workshop suggests a means by which to lay the groundwork for implementing a program that's both informed by PER and responsive to the needs and concerns of the school community. Since Modeling Instruction is so visibly different from conventional physics teaching, individual teachers learn early in their exposure to Modeling that, regardless of their personal experience and expertise, they'll need to attend a workshop training in order to apply the method in their own classrooms. When a group of teachers in a school or district is implementing a Modeling curriculum together for the first time (as was the case at my first workshop last summer), many teachers from the same school have time during the workshop to share ideas, reactions, and come to some agreement on their collective goals for the course.

Although it's been said many times, many ways, effective classes are created by effective teachers! Likewise, effective curriculum has to foster teachers' ability to remain flexible and creative with the application of that curriculum to a specific student population. Training workshops are as much about developing a camaraderie and common language between cooperating teachers as they are about exposing teachers to new methods. As one ninth grade physics teacher at this school wrote to me, "In order to be effective, teachers need flexibility to break the rules if something isn't working. Nowadays the trust in teachers has diminished, causing classrooms to resemble more a preparation for standardized test centers than anything else." Physics First provides an opportunity to break this pattern, but only if the classes can convince local communities to give this unconventional sequence a chance. Teachers are the only people who can make that work, and to do it they need time, training, and the freedom to implement curriculum they're invested in.

* Anything that I've seen called "direct instruction" has seemed like a desperate attempt to hang onto lectures within a sea of research showing that they're simply not effective. Just like the speaker says in the video linked to here, "If you look at the trends in education today, the majority of schools are looking for scientifically based instructional programs." So... lectures work because they have to? Hmm... At least it provides for some fine comedic material!!

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