Identifying District Policy Aimed At Upgrading Math And Science Curriculum

Identifying District Policy Aimed At Upgrading Math And Science Curriculum

The following discussion is based on a study of curriculum upgrading by states, districts, and schools in response to these calls for reform. We have studied a relatively specific school output: the nature and quality of the mathematics and science curriculum as offered by teachers and experienced by students.

We recognize that much education policymaking occurs piecemeal over time, with each piece motivated by a different purpose. From the perspective of the classroom, the pieces often appear disjointed and fragmented, with no coherent message. Thus, despite our somewhat rational and linear approach to describing and analyzing policy initiatives and their effects, we recognize that, at least to date, education policymaking has been far from rational and linear (though the calls for systemic reform may change this in the future).

The policy instruments of curriculum control are, at this point, fairly well known. They include state and district requirements concerning curriculum, instructional materials, and student testing. The requirements are intended to prescribe desired practice, using a variety of policy instruments that are consistent among themselves in the practices they prescribe. Policy instruments influence practice through rewarding and sanctioning compliance and through the authority to persuade based on legal status, consistency with norms, a basis in expertise, and charismatic advocacy. Clearly, state high school graduation requirements fit the curriculum-control strategy.

In contrast, the policy instruments of empowerment are much less well defined. Generally, however, the intention is to move control out of the hands of the education hierarchy and into the hands of teachers. The policy instruments for this approach are site-based management and deregulation. From an accountability perspective, new reforms replace school process requirements with school output requirements, especially the output of student achievement.

Our approach to policy analysis is somewhat atypical. Most policy analyses focus on activity at one level or another of the education hierarchy, taking a broad view of initiatives at that level. Some policy analyses focus on a particular policy instrument, such as curriculum frameworks. These analyses have been enormously useful in clarifying such matters as policy formulation and policy implementation. In contrast, by focusing on a particular school output, the nature and quality of the enacted mathematics and science curriculums in high school, our analyses slice the policy layers vertically. We look through the layers of the education hierarchy and into the classroom to determine coherence across levels as seen from the perspective of teachers, and to identify the relative influence of various policy instruments. In conducting these analyses, we draw on a large and rich empirical data base consisting of both quantitative and qualitative data characterizing policy, classroom practice, and their connections. This attempt to connect classroom practice to policy has been identified as lacking and much needed.

The study involved math and science teachers in eighteen high schools (grades 9-12) in twelve districts in six states. In each state, one large urban district was contrasted with one smaller suburban or rural district. In each large district, we selected two high schools to give a sense of within-district variability. In the smaller district, we studied a single high school. In each school, four course sections – two for mathematics and two for science – were studied intensively.

At the state level, we interviewed key individuals at the department of public instruction to learn of state policy relative to standard setting in high school mathematics and science. At the district level, interviews determined administrators’ understanding of state policy and how it is passed on to schools, as well as identifying district policy aimed at upgrading math and science curriculum. The school-level data came in two forms: interviews of school administrators to learn of math and science practices in the school, and a questionnaire survey of all mathematics and science teachers in each participating high school. We obtained data on classroom practices from the target sample of courses. We collected classroom practice data through teacher interviews, daily logs describing the content and pedagogy of instruction, and weekly questionnaires describing special instructional and professional activities in which teachers participated. We used a prelog survey to obtain basic demographic information. In addition, we observed all target sample teachers at least once (and usually twice) as they taught the target classes.

The data set is large, rich, and complex. States were selected for contrasts in both the nature and the focus of state curriculum upgrading and standard setting. At the time of this study, Florida and South Carolina represented good examples of states using curriculum-control strategies to achieve basic skills goals. In contrast, California and Arizona were less heavily committed to control strategies alone. Missouri and Pennsylvania stood between these two extremes in the sense that they had relatively few state curriculum-upgrading initiatives of any kind. Our design also contrasted large urban districts with smaller suburban/rural districts to clarify the possible differing roles districts might play in interpreting or adding to state initiatives. Throughout, our focus was on schools serving high concentrations of relatively low-achieving students because these schools and students were the primary focus of the curriculum-upgrading initiatives. The contrast between mathematics and science allowed us to explore limits on generalizability across subject areas of our policy analyses. In selecting target teachers and target classes, we used the criterion of enrollment gains since initiation of increased state graduation requirements in mathematics and science. This selection resulted in a sample dominated by basic courses and beginning college preparatory courses in both subjects. The difference between our target sample of seventy-two courses and our achieved sample of sixty-two reflects sample attrition.

In some ways, it is difficult to know what the full list of policies and practices relevant to standard setting and curriculum upgrading might be. Some policies have unintended effects, usually negative; others (teacher salaries, for example) may have effects but are so remote from high school math and science classroom practices that those effects are difficult to trace. The focus here is on policies and practices designed to have a direct influence on high school mathematics and science instruction.

Several facts are apparent from these state approaches to testing. First, testing is a much more common policy instrument at the elementary school level than at the high school level. Testing is also much more prevalent in mathematics than in science. While testing is the lead policy instrument in states with an emphasis on basic skills, it was not, at the time of our study, the lead policy instrument for either of the states emphasizing a curriculum oriented toward higher-order thinking and problem solving. At that time, states with a curriculum reform agenda had testing programs that were not aligned with that agenda. Efforts were underway to revise or replace old basic skills testing programs with testing programs aligned to the new state curriculum frameworks. Although all six states used testing as a policy instrument, four did little to add power to their testing programs.

As a way to preclude piecemeal approaches to reforms in curriculum, instruction, and testing, we have called for systemic school reform. This approach begins with clear and challenging standards for student learning. Policy instruments are to be tied to these standards for student learning and are to be consistent with each other, so that there is coherent instructional guidance to schools and teachers. Within this environment of clear goals and consistent policies, schools are to be given flexibility to develop strategies as needed.

In our study, we found that people at the district and school levels have different perceptions of what is intended by state initiatives. In addition, teachers also vary in the extent to which they believe state initiatives should or must influence their practices. The general tendency is thus toward uniqueness of response, not standardization of practice.

State initiatives in curriculum upgrading and standard setting tend to stimulate additional initiatives by districts. Even state initiatives with little power and modest prescriptiveness receive some attention by districts. Often districts go well beyond what is required, adding their own extensions and enhancements.

Generally, the more curriculum-upgrading and standard-setting activities at the state level, the more additional curriculum-upgrading and standard-setting activities at the district level. At least in curriculum matters, districts appear less inclined to fill voids left by their state than they are inclined to be stimulated into action by state leadership. Large urban districts are more active in standard setting and curriculum upgrading than small suburban and rural districts.

There are several possible explanations for why urban districts are more active in curriculum upgrading and standard setting than rural districts. First, the urban districts have larger bureaucracies for implementing state initiatives and for adding to state initiatives in ways unique to the district. Second, urban district personnel usually are more convinced that change is necessary; they are often more highly motivated toward change than are rural district personnel. Third, there appears to be a much greater commitment to controlling classroom practice in urban districts than in rural districts. This may in turn be explained by urban schools’ typically receiving less direction from parents than do rural schools.

The most substantial standard setting and curriculum upgrading we encountered occurred at the school level. One school had eliminated all remedial courses and required that all freshmen take college prep coursework. Slightly less dramatic, but still substantial, were school efforts to counsel students into the college prep track in greater numbers than had been done historically.

The impetus for increasing enrollments in challenging academic content cannot be found in any straightforward sense in state initiatives. State increases in credit requirements for high school graduation did not specify that credits be in demanding academic content. As was noted, one urban district was eliminating general mathematics, but one high school in the district had gone well beyond the district’s vague initiative, eliminating all general math and general science classes and requiring all freshmen to take algebra and chemistry/physics. The school hopes this will eventually lead to increased enrollment in upper division mathematics and science classes. Another high school in the same district had taken a softer approach, eliminating many, but not all, sections of lower level science and mathematics courses, while adding an advanced placement curriculum. A summer school program was instituted to assist students in advancing more quickly through the curriculum so that they could take higher level courses.

Even in districts with substantial curriculum control, we found many instances of important differences among schools. At one high school in the Florida urban district, site-based management was a high-profile issue, with teachers organized into a body politic that voted on a variety of issues related to the school. The administration placed a high priority on school esprit de corps and academic excellence. In that same district, another school was characterized by antagonisms among administrators, teachers, and students. This antagonism apparently originated with the creation of a “school within a school,” with two teacher cadres and two administrative units. In one school, teachers favored higher-ability groups and excluded at-risk students from advanced courses. Another school was committed to enrolling as many students as possible into college prep courses, nurturing different ability levels while challenging all students to try harder.

Many urban and rural schools serving high concentrations of low achieving students are impoverished, making it difficult for them to accommodate state and district policy, such as the requirements for more course offerings, and consequently, more qualified teachers. The new curriculum reform emphasis on active learning and real-world applications left teachers struggling to find the funds to purchase manipulatives and to take students on field trips.

Contrary to some findings, we saw surprisingly little evidence that teachers were unhappy about or resistant to state and district curriculum standard setting. Several reports from teachers indicated that state and district controls were appropriate and were having positive effects. Where complaints were registered, they tended to be the following types:

  • State/district requirements were too hard for some students;
  • The bureaucracy supporting state and district controls required too much paperwork from teachers; and
  • State and district initiatives failed to provide necessary resources for implementation (e.g., materials, laboratory space, staff development).

Perhaps teachers did not resist state and district standard setting and curriculum upgrading because they helped formulate the initiatives. If teachers perceived their viewpoints and expertise reflected in policy initiatives, they appeared more likely to support those policies.

Typically, teachers were involved in curriculum framework development, as well as textbooks selection, at both the state and district levels. They have also been included in curriculum guide revisions at the district level and in the development of new testing programs. Clearly, shared decision making and site-based management at the school level are consistent with teacher participation at other levels of the school hierarchy.

Despite this increase in teacher involvement, a tension existed between state and district standards and teachers’ expectations about what students can accomplish in those schools and districts most involved in standard setting and curriculum upgrading. All too often, teachers complained about students in college prep classes who didn’t belong.

Teachers’ expectations sometimes lead them to discourage students from taking demanding academic work. Many teachers who find their classrooms filled with low-achieving, disaffected students believe they must resort to highly controlling methods of instruction. Student collaborative work, student discussion, and independent projects, all of which are called for in the new curriculum reform, are seen as possibilities for losing control of students.

There are at least three plausible explanations for why, despite teacher participation in standard setting, some teachers feel that at least some of their students cannot meet the standards:

  • Because K-12 schooling is organizationally flat (especially from the perspective of implementation, which rests largely with individual teachers), not all teachers will necessarily feel represented in the standard-setting process.
  • Teachers may not agree with the standards that are established (regardless of their views on representation).
  • Even if they consider the standards appropriate, teachers may still feel that some students fail to get the support (whether from home or previous school experiences) or motivation necessary to meet those standards.

No state or district initiative that we saw had an adequate response for addressing these teacher concerns. To the contrary, much of the staff development, instructional materials, and assessment procedures reinforce their concerns and serve as a deterrent to desired change.

Characterizing policy effects on practice is not easy. Changes in policies, as well as changes in practice, must be documented. Changes in practice must be preceded by and correlated with policy shifts. Policy shifts occur simultaneously with each other and with other changes. What is causing what? To some extent, documenting intermediate changes helps to build links between policy and practice. Attributions by teachers and administrators can be helpful, but they can also be deceiving. Occasionally policy initiatives are attributed effects that they do not have (e.g., when teachers say they emphasize basic skills in their instruction because basic skills are emphasized on tests, but really they emphasize basic skills because they believe basic skills are most important and what they feel most comfortable teaching). The policy “effects” noted here are not without caveat and ambiguity. Still, based on our analyses, we are convinced of their validity.

Increasing the number of credits required for graduation has resulted in more students’ taking more mathematics and science, particularly the beginning academic courses. In states with high school graduation tests, enrollments increased in remedial courses for the tested subject, mathematics. In states without high school graduation tests, enrollments increased in college prep courses in both mathematics and science. Our findings are as follows:

  • Based on transcript analyses in four of the six states studied, increases in the number of students taking science courses was substantial, with beginning academic courses the biggest enrollment gainers. The numbers taking mathematics courses also increased, again with beginning academic courses the leading gainers. On average, increases were one year or more in science and one-third of a year in mathematics. There was no evidence of increases in dropout rates or decreases in high school graduation rates.
  • In states with high school graduation tests, enrollments increased in remedial courses designed to help students pass the tested subjects. Low-achieving students met their entire mathematics requirement through remedial work. This was not true in science, which was not tested. Thus, although low-achieving students took more credits of mathematics, the nature of the mathematics that they studied was sharply limited. They did not take high school college prep mathematics, such as algebra, geometry, and calculus.
  • In the absence of high school graduation tests (and for students who easily meet the test requirements), there was an enrollment increase in college prep courses in both mathematics and science. As one mathematics teacher stated, “When you require more mathematics from students who are average or bright, then they will take classes where they will learn something.” This practice was reinforced by college requirements, which universally stipulated not only the amount of mathematics and science they required for admission, but also the nature of that mathematics and science.

In addition to states and universities’ mandating the number and nature of science and mathematics courses, districts and schools took further steps in determining course requirements and designing course content, as follows:

  • In addition to state and university initiatives to increase the amount and quality of mathematics and science students take, some districts and schools took additional steps. Remedial classes in mathematics and science were eliminated, or all freshmen were required to take a particular math or science course (e.g., algebra and chemistry/physics). Obviously, these initiatives changed the course-taking patterns of students; they did not necessarily guarantee the nature of instruction students received in those courses.
  • As mentioned earlier, an especially promising strategy for curriculum upgrading was the development of “bridge” courses in mathematics.
  • In the three instances in which we had detailed descriptions of the enacted curriculum for courses required of all freshmen, the content of these required courses looked much like that of courses with the same title that were not required of all students. Eighty-seven percent of instruction was on algebra, as opposed to other content areas in mathematics, such as arithmetic, measurement, and geometry. The average amount of time spent on algebra across all algebra courses was 82 percent. These data are largely reassuring that when college prep courses are required of all students, the content of instruction is not necessarily compromised.
  • Despite the new curriculum reforms calling for hard content for all students and reinforced in the frameworks, some form of tracking occurred in every high school studied. Many administrators and teachers reported that they intended to eliminate tracking in the near future; some schools had initiatives in that direction already, but the results were discouraging.

Although the curriculum-upgrading initiatives had an effect on the numbers and kinds of courses students took, the instruction students received did not necessarily reflect much of the new curriculum reform, with its emphasis on instruction that places a premium on student understanding and problem solving and that places students increasingly in control of their own learning.

Despite state and university requirements for lab work in science, only 10 percent of science instructional time was spent in lab work and field work combined. As for expected student outcomes, heavy emphasis was placed on memorizing facts, understanding concepts, and completing routine procedures such as computation. Virtually no time was spent involving mathematics students in data collection and data interpretation, and only 2 percent of time was spent involving them in solving novel problems. Even in science, only 10 percent of instructional time was spent on data collection and interpretation.

Based on our analyses of math and science instruction in eighteen high schools across twelve districts in six states, a pattern emerges as to the nature of curriculum standard-setting and upgrading policies that are most influential on practice. Simply put, the most influential policy initiatives are the ones backed with authority and power that clearly describe the goal and specify how it is to be obtained. This confirms and extends previous findings on policy implementation, whether initiated at the federal level or focused on elementary school mathematics. As the clarity, focus, and power of policy initiatives decrease, influence becomes more variable.

High school course requirements for graduation are an excellent example. Requirements, and consequences for not meeting those requirements, are clearly specified, easy to communicate, and simple to understand. What schools must do is less clearly specified; as a result, we saw considerable variance in school response. Some schools attempted to push students into demanding content in higher level courses while others did not. In some cases, schools did receive direction as to the nature of changes they were to make. However, this lab work requirement is much more difficult to monitor than student course completion. These state requirements for lab work in science had much smaller and more variable effects on practice.

Requiring students to pass tests for high school graduation had predictable effects as well: more remedial work for low-achieving students in tested subjects. Again, the policy is clear and so are the consequences for lack of compliance. Students know what they must do. As in the case of high school graduation course requirements, what schools must do is less clear. Schools must determine for themselves how best to serve students. Because the requirement is a minimal standard, schools serving high concentrations of high-achieving students-and high-achieving students in other schools-meet the requirements without even trying. In short, minimum test performance is prescriptive only to a subset of students and only in the subjects tested.

Although increased graduation requirements and test performance have had the intended effect, calling for hard content for all students and emphasizing conceptual understanding, problem solving, and higher-order thinking, is a long way from being reflected in high school math and science. Tracking is alive and well; and although some states have intensified basic skills instruction, no state has attempted to systematically coordinate policy to emphasize the goals of curriculum reform. Whether the policy instruments used to intensify basic skills can be turned to these newer goals remains an open question.

Curriculum frameworks are neither very prescriptive, nor, by themselves, a strong influence on practice. Not surprisingly, many teachers interpret the frameworks as justification for their current practice. Many other teachers are unsure of how to change their instruction to make it consistent with the framework. Where frameworks are translated into clearer statements of what is desired, the effects are much more pronounced and much more predictable.

We found plenty of evidence that there was a serious lack of teacher capacity for achieving the new curriculum reforms, at least among schools serving high concentrations of low-achieving students.

Teachers, counselors, and administrators did not know how to deal with the student diversity resulting from the elimination of tracking. This is perhaps the single greatest tension created by curriculum upgrading. As more students are pushed into more demanding academic work at the high school level, teachers are confronted with new and more pressing problems: how to communicate with students, how to motivate students, and how to conduct classes in which students’ prior achievements, aptitudes, and interests differ dramatically.

Compounding this problem of how to deal with student diversity is a lack of clarity as to exactly what is meant by frameworks and professional standards calling for hard content for all students. Does this mean that all students are to study exactly the same curriculum across the entire K-12 experience? Or does this mean that all students should be exposed to and master a core curriculum containing a balance between facts and skills, on the one hand, and higher-order thinking, problem solving, and reasoning on the other? If there is to be a common core of content for all students, what is the definition of that core, and how should schools and teachers be best organized to deliver that core to students in a way that benefits them regardless of their backgrounds and aspirations? Amidst this confusion caused by lack of a clear goal, schools and teachers are trying a variety of approaches, but without total commitment.

Teachers‘ qualifications present yet another problem in mathematics and especially in science, where graduation requirement increases were most dramatic.

What these figures cannot show is how much high school math and science teachers are prepared to change their instruction to fit a new vision. Such a change depends on teachers who feel comfortable with their subject matter in a way that allows them to be flexible and responsive. We saw considerable evidence that teachers lack the knowledge and energy to deliver a curriculum that places a premium on deep conceptual understanding and that facilitates problem solving and reasoning. There are many probable explanations for such deficits:

  • Instructional materials consistent with the goal of hard content for all students are not always available.
  • Testing practices at the state, district, and classroom level often are not consistent with the new reforms.
  • Access to good, concrete models of the desired instructional practices is limited.
  • Instruction consistent with the curriculum reform is simply more work.

We saw painfully little indication that states and districts are prepared to spend the time and money necessary to support the types of changes required to address these deficiencies. Money was a serious problem in all urban sites except those enjoying special benefits from desegregation rulings. Even basic instructional materials, such as textbooks, were in short supply. Lab space was inadequate – in amount, conception, and maintenance. Although we saw some serious efforts to address the assessment problem at the state level, we saw no serious efforts to address the shortage of appropriate instructional materials.

Most disappointing was the quantity and quality of staff development. Although a great deal of money is spent on staff development in the United States – millions per year – only a few dollars per year is spent on each teacher. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in fragmented and episodic approaches to staff development. Often, someone far removed from the classroom decides what teachers need and arranges to have it delivered in the form of a half-day workshop to those who volunteer. We saw no evidence of states’ using the money in a programmatic approach to supporting teachers in curriculum upgrading. We are convinced that staff development needs to be completely rethought so that schools and teachers are the initiators and main providers of their own professional development. Experts from beyond the school should be called on only as needed and only as they can serve a school-based strategy for improvement. Developing such a strategy, of course, would require schools to see their responsibilities in a new light. It would also require additional funds, first and foremost, to provide teacher release time.

We did see a few exciting projects for curriculum upgrading, but invariably these were add-ons not part of a main program-with questionable futures. We saw little sign, however, that empowerment strategies were replacing curriculum-control strategies as the primary mechanism for curriculum upgrading. A focus on understanding and applications was to characterize instruction in all academic subjects and for all students.





Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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