Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Is NCLB Encouraging Dumbing Down?


If we're seeing this in science my guess is that it's happening in the other subjects as well. I'm talking about a move on the part of school systems to "dumb down" curriculum, maybe without specific intent (though I'd hazard to say that this may indeed be the case in some places) but the end result seems to amount to just that, "dumbing down".

This occurred to me regarding chemistry as I find myself in the middle of a course on how to use a textbook called "Chemistry in the Community", otherwise known as ChemCom or CC for short. CC falls under what is more and more known as conceptual science, which in short means that we take out the math (not entirely, but if it involves very large or very small exponents it's gone, and most equations found in a "traditional" text are not dealt with) and we drive at chemistry through a basic, non-mathematical understanding of chemical concepts and how they're seen in the world around us, i.e. the community. CC courses tend to be populated with a higher number of IEP/504 students, students with behavioral problems, and students with poor math skills - they're not necessarily mixed together, but that would depend on the school. For this population of students CC seem to work based on the emphasis of the text and how the course flows from that, which is different enough that you're encouraged to take a special course on how to teach the text. The fact is that traditionally these students were the ones chemistry teachers really didn't expected to have to deal with in the past as it was not expected that any of them would ever take a chemistry course.

First, why the new interest in CC? There's an argument to be made that a course like this should have always been available, especially for those students who have poor math skills and who would likely legitimately get something from taking such a course. But there's now a big push to get those students who traditionally never stepped into a chemistry class to take courses like this because NCLB says, essentially, that all students should be striving to attain similar levels of learning, therefore all students should have the opportunity to take chemistry. That's not a bad thing, though I'm sure some chemistry teachers would disagree. What's bad is when an entire curriculum throughout a department is driven by the less rigorous course.

CC is not a traditional chemistry textbook, there's little emphasis on the math that normally comes with chemistry in HS, the problems are more conceptual vice mathematical, and the classes tend to be driven to more hands on exercises/labs, which tends to work well with the population of students that CC is normally used with. What has surprised me is the number of
teachers in the course I'm taking who are using CC for ALL of their chemistry courses. On the whole, based on my assessment of the text (and I've informally surveyed a large number of teachers through two listservs and my take on this is overwhelmingly supported by chemistry teachers) CC would not work as a college prep textbook, nor would a CC class be considered a college prep class if one were solely using the CC text. Of course there's the trick, use the CC text for college prep/honors, that's fine, but you need to "supplement" it. Of course all textbooks require some supplementing, but if you take a textbook like CC and use it with a more advanced class to what degree is it reasonable to expect to have to "supplement"? Of course we're talking more work for the teacher, which we can only hope that he or she is up to. In addition, the more advanced students have to rely on handouts and in-class lectures outside the scope of the text to get the information that they'll find themselves needing in college, or for the SATs/ACTs for that matter.

So let me lay this out: NCLB drives a chemistry program to accommodate ALL students. CC, or something like it, is brought in to do that. The school needs new chemistry textbooks for all its classes, so let's buy CC for the entire chemistry curriculum and expect the teachers to simply supplement whatever is felt should also be included in the curriculum for the more advanced
students. A lrger textbook buy is a plus for the school district as more books per school means lower prices and more bennies like extra teacher editions, software, pre-made overhead slides, etc., to come with the purchase.

This isn't entirely a problem with NCLB, hardly. I don't know if NCLB legislation includes a provision for funding schools that have to introduce new courses, my guess is that this isn't the case, so indirectly NCLB sets the situation up. This situation is more the problem of school districts which are trying to save money, and in this case rationalizing that a less-than-ideal
textbook buy, in this case a significantly less-than-ideal buy in my mind, can be compensated for by dedicated teachers who'll supplement the text - and of course many will, and some won't.

Part of the problem is that there's a lack of standards laying out what a conceptual science course should be, what a regular chemistry course should be, and what an honors/accelerated course should be. We don't have that problem with AP chemistry as everyone knows what they're shooting for there, and what sort of textbook should be used to get there; not at all the case with all the other chemistry designations. This lack of clarity allows one to substitute a text like CC which most chemistry teachers would say is not appropriate for students who have decent math, class, and study skills. In the end a situation is created where meeting the standard means meeting a minimum requirement, and for those districts looking to save money the minimum requirement can then be stretched to an entire departmental curriculum, which without question sets up a situation where that curriculum is easily watered down at the higher levels.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

CC predates NCLB by at least five years. The American Chemical Society developed it in the 90s and has been pushing hard to get more students to take "chemistry." I know that in the late 90s, faculty at San Jose State (where I taught General and Physical Chemistry for a year) complained bitterly about "Chem Com" kids who lacked any ability to combine math and chemistry.

NCLB and the push for testing and accountability may be part of the story here, but isn't all of it.

6:45 PM  
Blogger James said...

I do appreciate that CC, and books of its ilk, came before NCLB. My point wasn't so much about CC, but rather that the drive to meet NCLB standards, in whatever guise a state may put them, is pushing schools toward books like CC to get the lower-performing students, and in turn this serves as an excuse to buy the book for everyone, for whom the book isn't appropriate. My guess is that this sort of push downwards is happening in many different places, in different ways, and effectively NCLB is indirectly driving it.

7:20 PM  

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