Friday, November 07, 2008

"...Ensur(ing) that all children have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels."

From the Obama education platform and transition website:

They will also work to ensure that all children have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels.

What do you think that means? I think we're going to get this, more or less:

  • Courses for each grade. There would be course materials for mathematics and science for all students in each of five grades 6-11, and four advanced courses would be generated for grade 12 science students. Engineering topics would be woven into each course.

  • Research-based. The design would incorporate insights from research and best practice. Learning would be contextualized, inquiry-based, hands-on, and adapted to student capacities and understandings.

  • Integrated. Mathematics and science would be tightly integrated and the math/science/engineering topics would be integrated across grades. Grades 9-11 would feature a physics-chemistry-biology sequence.

  • Focused on core concepts. The treatment would make extensive us of computational models and tools to help students learn concepts and avoid getting lost in details and exceptions. Formalism, proofs, and computation would be minimized.

  • Online, free replacement for texts. All materials, assessments, and teacher support would be available free online using the open source and open access models of electronic distribution. This would free schools to use $600M/yr in textbook money for the requisite technology and break the tyranny of state textbook adoption procedures.

  • Tested, revised, and validated. An extensive formative and summative research effort would support revisions and measure student learning gains.

I hope this will be an example of what will become a trademark Obama move: innovative, large-scale, forward-looking, controversy-defusing, and massively cost-saving. In particular, this is "controversy-defusing" in comparison with the conventional ("center-right") wisdom, that we need national standards. Yeah, right. That'll take forever, produce something that the Republicans will rail and run against for years, and result in slightly realigned textbooks landing in classrooms around 2012. Yay. Just pick some good standards (or if there aren't any by this point, that's pretty much a definitive proof that the entire standards-driven approach is a failure anyhow) and write the curriculum.

You don't have to make it mandatory, and because it is open source it is really just a starting point. States and vendors can modify it to suit their needs, researchers can build on it and refine it. Flat-earthers and creationists can just ignore it.

This is also the lever point for computers in schools. Computers for the sake of computers is a dead letter, yet, we need computers! Especially for teaching forward-looking math and science. So you write the curriculum assuming that every kid has access to at least an XO-style laptop/e-book reader, and provide about a $100 subsidy per student for laptops. Then you're talking about a device with a clear, specific pedagogic purpose and low-cost. That will work. If people really don't want it, I'm sure Pearson will sell them the doorstop version, or if they want better computers, they can get those too. But we can get enough computing into kids' hands at a low cost.

I was going to make this an 8-year prediction (with the implicit prediction of two terms for Obama), but now I'm feeling like it will be sooner. What's the argument against it?


Jackie Ballarini said...

"Grades 9-11 would feature a physics-chemistry-biology sequence."

Are you implying there will be a push for physics first?

Tom Hoffman said...

Not really. That's an implementation detail in Bob Tinker's plan that I'm linking to, but the key point is a national open source STEM curriculum.

However, it seems pretty likely to me that it would end up being Physics first by default. And, part of the point of doing this open source is that if you don't like Physics first, remix your own Bio first version.