Spring 2001



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The Tale of a Leaky Boat (The Case for a National Curriculum)

Howard Goldberg

Let me tell you a story of a leaky boat. A boat so leaky it may not float. But the leak can be fixed, with a little grit, and as the story unfolds I'll tell you how to do it.sailboat.gif (2284 bytes)

The prelude to our story begins in September 1974 when my eldest daughter came home with her 2nd grade science book. It was amazing. Dozens of topics in Biology, Astronomy, Chemistry, and Physical Science. Page after page of text and highlighted words. Where was the mathematics, the experiments, the organization of science? Nowhere. It was science as language arts. The true language of science, mathematics, was ignored. So, David Boulanger in the College of Education at UIC and I, in Physics, decided to do something about it, and started a teacher education course that tried to show how math and science could be integrated into the curriculum through hands on quantitative experiments in grades 1 through 8. Soon Phil Wagreich from the math department joined us, and by 1978 we had our first NSF grant to train classroom teachers in the Chicago area on the experiments and ideas we had developed. The teachers in turn tried them out in their classrooms and came up with new ideas for experiments. It was great fun and the results were encouraging. But one teacher in a school does not a curriculum make.

So in 1987, when our story begins, we received an NSF grant for a five-year program to introduce TIMS (Teaching Integrated Math/Science) into 11 Chicago area elementary schools. Besides the idea of integrating math and science, TIMS focuses on the fundamental variables of science (length, area volume and mass and graduates to density, velocity, acceleration, force, work and energy), stresses the processes of carrying out an experiment, works hard to develop higher level thinking skills such as multi step logic, all the while using mathematics as the language of science. Balls bounce, drops spread out on paper towels, carts roll, as the children immerse themselves into the whirlpool of math and science.

TIMS tries to present a very systematic picture of science. Each experiment has two primary variables and one or more controlled variables. In the case of the two primary variables, the children set up the appropriate values of the manipulated variable, say the drop height of a ball, and measure the value of the responding variable, the bounce height. The floor and type of ball are the controlled variables. To provide a conceptual framework in each experiment, the children follow a 4-step format that contains the essence of the scientific method:

1) They draw a picture and identify and label all the variables.

2) They set up and record their measurements in a properly labeled data table.

3) They graph their results, and yes every experiment requires a graph.

4) They answer a wide range of questions that involve reading graphs, making and checking prediction, changing the controlled variables and finding out what happens and why, and do lots of proportional reasoning.

In TIMS we have also stressed 4 types of experiments:

1) with strongly correlated primary variables (like the Bouncing Ball)

2) with weakly correlated variables (like Arm Span vs. Height or plant growth)

3) Classification experiments (how do I organize systems with multiple properties like color, size and shape)

4) Probability experiments (like rolling dice, flipping coins, counting pockets).

TIMS supplies the student lab write up with room for pictures, tables, graphs and with questions, and for the teachers a Teacher Lab Discussion (TLD) for each experiment and a TIMS tutor for each variable. There is also a set of pre- and post-tests. (To purchase a CD-ROM of the 147 TIMS experiments, the TLD's, Tutors and Tests call Kendall/Hunt at 1-800-542-6657)

During the first year of our story (August 1987 to June 1988) we trained two lead teachers from each school who in turn, during the second year (September 1988 to June 1989) presented one experiment per month, in each grade, to their colleagues and together with their colleagues (and help from us) implemented these monthly experiments with the children. Each experiment lasted a week, so that by the end of the second year the 210 classroom teachers and 5000 children in the 11 schools had experienced 10 weeks of integrated math/science.

The 11 schools were chosen with an eye toward racial and ethnic diversity, as well as a range of student achievement as measured by the Illinois Goal Assessment Program (IGAP). Four schools placed in the upper end of the achievement scale, three in the middle and four at the low end. The participating children turned out to be 5% Asian, 41% Black, 22% Hispanic and 32% White. Thus we had a nice mix of students and a broad range of scores on the standardized tests.

Before the children started doing the experiments we gave them a TIMS pre-test (Sept '88) to see how well they knew the ideas we wanted to teach. There were questions on length, area, volume, mass, density and velocity; on manipulating and controlling variables; on reading and making graphs; and on proportional reasoning. There were word problems and picture problems, altogether a total of 39 questions. We then administered 4 post-tests (in June '89,'90,'91,'92) to measure what we hoped would be the sustained intellectual growth of the children. So that you can see where we are starting from, consider our first question. The children are shown a ruler and a rod placed parallel to and at the center of the ruler. They are asked to tell us the length of the rod. We thought this would be a snap. You can imagine our amazement when only 2% of the 2nd graders and only 30% of the 8th graders could answer the question. Inner city--outer city, it made no difference. And things only got worse as the questions got harder. So, whatever the children had been learning, it wasn't much. But, after one year of TIMS, 30% of the 2nd graders and 70% of the 8th graders could answer the question correctly. But it wasn't 100% and that is the reason we had a five-year program. The 2nd graders become 3rd graders but continue to see new experiments that probe the same basic concepts but in a wide variety of settings. We hoped this would result in a continued improvement. And indeed that is what we found. By the 5th grade 80% of our starting 2nd grades could now answer the question correctly (and most others too), but we began to notice some odd things going on and this is where our story takes a couple of strange turns.

Two years into the program one of our lead teaches asked us to write a letter of recommendation so that she could move to a higher paying teaching position at another school. The opportunity arose because her TIMS training made her a math/science "expert" and, therefore, marketable. This was the first of many lead teachers who left their schools. Greener pastures, early retirement, transfer by the district of other school, you name it, we saw it. But the end of the five years only half the lead teachers remained; we had no inkling this would happen. But this leak was nothing compared to the hemorrhaging of principals. You can imagine our shock and disappointment to find only 3 of the 11 principals remained in the schools after 4 years. One tragically passed away but several retired or went to new schools. Taken together only one of the eleven schools retained both its lead teachers and its principal. That is a batting average of 0.090, which is not very good in any league.

Now we come to the cohort of the original 2,835 children in grades 1 through 5 whom we hoped to study over four years. Talk about a leaky boat, after four years we could account for only 837 children who had taken 4 consecutive exams. This is a loss of 71% of the children. Were they just absent on exam day? Did they spell their name wrong? After careful checking we found that they were really gone and the teachers were not surprised. One said, "Oh yes, every year ten or so (out of 60) do not come back." Looking at the type of schools, we found that after 4 years the percent of children we remained was 40% for the predominantly white, 38% for the predominantly black city parochial, 32% for the predominantly Hispanic, and only 9% for the predominantly black city schools. These students are replaced by an equal number of new children. Thus, throughout the Chicago area there is this enormous mobility on the part of principals, teachers and students.

What did all this leaking of people have on the children that remained? Either not as prepared or not as committed, the new teachers often stopped doing the experiments, while just next door the "old" teachers soldiered on with 10 experiments a year. And the differences in the TIMS test scores between these two groups of children were amazing. The scores of the children continuing in the program continued to rise. But for those who stopped , the scores either stayed the same or fell often by as much as two years!

The degree of decrease depended on the type of school. For the high scoring IGAP schools the TIMS scores stayed about the same, but for the low scoring IGAP schools the TIMS scores went down even after one year of no experiments. Apparently, these children have a harder time retaining what they have learned when the source is shut off. Interestingly enough, when they moved to another room next year and were back on the experimental trail again, their TIMS scores started back up. So, for all the children, continuity is important, but for our inner city children it is essential.

This leads to a troubling question about education in our metropolitan area and, for that matter, the entire nation. How can we maintain educational progress when children, teacher and principals change schools at such a high rate? An inner-city child who moves out of a quantitative hands-on program (and 90% do so every four years) and into an ineffective conventional curriculum will lose, as we have shown above, much of what he or she has learned in just one year. The very group that needs help the most is the most at risk.

And this risk is exacerbated by the trend in many metropolitan areas, including Chicago, to decentralize in the name of school reform. Grassroots control of schools sounds fine in theory, but it doesn't work very well when teachers, principals and students have no roots.

It is clear that children, particularly those in the inner city, need stability and continuity at school. Yet our education reformers push decentralization, which promotes instability and discontinuity. How do you achieve wide use of successful programs, such as TIMS, when each school is allowed to do pretty much whatever it wants? And even when a school does adopt a program, somebody—principal, teacher, student or all three—is going to move to a school that doesn't use it.

So how do you fix this leaky boat? We certainly can't stop people from moving, but we can ensure that there is a continuity of instruction. In other words, we desperately need a national curriculum. With a national curriculum, no matter where the children, teachers or principals go, they would all have to come to terms with specific content—say, the TIMS bouncing ball experiment in the third grade, along with graphing, data taking, questions and math that the experiment poses. Schools of education would have to prepare future teachers to teach this basic math-science curriculum and principals would have to organize the school accordingly.

Before all the local school boards and school councils go through the roof, let me add that I'm not recommending a national curriculum for everything that is taught in school. Just the basics: math, science, reading, writing. The national curriculum might take up 50% of the year. For example, 18 TIMS experiments spread over the 36-week school year. The rest of the time could be devoted to tackling a textbook, helping those who are slow, enriching those we are ahead and dealing with regional or cultural specialties. We can still preserve a great deal of local school autonomy.

But the basic national curriculum—not national standards, they are too vague—would be in place. No more falling scores, nothing but progress. TIMS math/science is ready to go. With a little good will and common sense, we can do this in reading and writing as well. Why not?

Howard S. Goldberg is Professor Emeritus in the Physics Department, University of Illinois at Chicago and creator of the TIMS program.  He participated in the fixed target program at Fermilab beginning in 1973 and in 1996 was the Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year for Research Universities.