The Beaverton School District laid off dozens of teachers, moved hundreds into new jobs, and scaled back programs to deal with a $37 million budget gap for this school year. But Beaverton is still pushing ahead with academic reforms.
As part of our ongoing series, “Learning With Less,” Rob Manning visited a classroom at the crossroads of higher expectations and lower funding.
More than 40 students are packed into a science classroom at Beaverton’s Southridge High. They’re freshmen learning physics, as part of a new program or "sequence" of courses called “Physics First.”
The district wants students to take a hands-on science class at the start of high school. This day, that means some students are drawing graphs on posters.
Matt Oliverio is in a group with three other students, launching marbles off of little ramps, and measuring how far they fly.
“We’re dropping it from five different heights, and we’ll drop it like five to ten times at each height, probably.”
Physics First isn’t a perfect fit in this crowded classroom. Matt Oliverio’s teammate, Santiago Tobon, is looking around for places to take more measurements.
Students are everywhere. So Santiago Tobon asks his teacher, Bradford Hill, about launching a marble off of shelves up near the ceiling.
Santiago Tobon: “Where do you think we can do one, like on top of the cabinets?”
Bradford Hill: “Yes.”
Santiago Tobon: “Should we just climb onto the counter or something?”
Bradford Hill: “Yes, but don’t do it near any posters – you don’t want to be disruptive – and you need to be extremely careful.”
Bradford Hill has taught physics at Southridge for years, but with freshmen, he used to teach just a 12-week class. The new “Physics First” is all year.
“There’s some research that says ‘yearlong courses have the best results,’ so that’s one of the motivations for us to do it.”
Hill says the idea is also to get students excited about science with a hands-on physics class. He teaches students scientific methods through experiments.
“We want to make them live the experience where their wild guess didn’t work, and the data-informed – not only did it work, but it worked better than they ever thought. When that happens, you get, even with 14 year-olds, you get a few fist pumps, and a few ‘yessss!’.”
And Hill says physics is one of the most effective subjects to teach students key skills, like critical thinking.
“In history, it takes days or weeks to build up a critical thinking argument. The nice thing about this is they can build an argument in 60 minutes for their prediction.”
Physics is also part of a national push for better science education. Some warn that a new achievement gap could be waiting for high school graduates, if they don’t have the science training to get a high-tech job.
“Decrease this gap in employability!” says Oregon’s chief education officer, Rudy Crew, speaking to educators in September.
He said he’ll be ready to celebrate if teachers can significantly improve kids’ mastery of science, technology, engineering and math – together known as “STEM.”
“Then we can actually sing ‘Kumbaya’ or whatever else it is we want to sing at that time. But literally, that’s the time when we can say ‘We moved the needle, we did something significant." And STEMs, in my mind, is at least one of those new conversations, one of those new acronyms, and if we don’t get this one right, it’s going be the equivalent of reading – and it’s just the definition of a new gap.”
Oregon’s Class of 2012 was the first required to complete three years of science for graduation. But the rules are loose on which classes to take.
Susan Holveck is a science teaching specialist in Beaverton.
“In the Beaverton School District, we had 188 different science sequences across our district for the three yearsthat students would be taking science.”
She says many students put together combinations of science classes that weren’t very challenging.
Administrator for Teaching and Learning, Robin Kobrowski says the district dug into how students were doing in science. She says there was a three-course sequence that best prepared high schoolers for college and the job market.
“In 2010, only 11 percent of our graduates took those three courses – physics, biology, and chemistry – and that was important data for us to pay attention to. If those are the three courses that provide a level of access to kids who are doing well, post-secondary, we needed to pay attention to that.”
Last spring, Beaverton’s high school science curriculum was in the middle of a once-in-seven-years update. Kobrowski notes that coincided with a national push for higher science standards.
“We knew that we were going to have to look seriously at our science programming based on more rigorous science standards. And we knew that the ‘Next Generation Science Standards’ were on the horizon.”
School districts often postpone curriculum updates to save money in tight budget times. And Beaverton was dealing with a 37 million dollar shortfall. The district cut 344 teaching jobs and trimmed music, technology, and library programs. But the science update went through. Streamlining science - from 188 sequences to a single approach – cost nearly a million dollars in new materials and training, over two years.
“What we were seeing was happening with our graduates was compelling to say ‘We need to make a change here, and it can’t wait five years.' ”
But investing in the science curriculum doesn’t mean science classrooms were immune from budget cuts.
At the end of class, Bradford Hill struggles to quiet his 42 students, and give them one last chance to ask questions before an upcoming test.
“A lot of you want to demonstrate you know this. Make sure you know it. It’s a big class, I am right here, no one is asking me anything.”
Students look at one another. No one asks a question.
Ninth grader David Camacho says he tries to get the information he needs without asking questions in front of the whole class.
“Oh yeah, I’m one of those people who’s shy, but wants to get a good grade, so yeah.”
After class, Bradford Hill acknowledges getting students to ask questions in front of a crowd doesn’t work – but he says getting around to each student, or at least each student team, can be hard.
Hill says his classes are bigger than last year. Having a standardized sequence though, means he can more easily collaborate with a “teaching team.” That’s spread the grading load and helped in other ways.
But student teams – the groups that tend to conduct the vital class projects – are getting too big. He says ideally, teams have three students. Now, they’re in groups of four.
“Appropriate, healthy level of stress keeps them focused and the switch from three to four made it easier for students to hide out.
Of course, when I come by, they all look busy, but they’re pretty savvy about where I am in the room.”
After physics, high schoolers will go on to take chemistry and biology. Ideally, students could take a college-level science class their senior year.
Administrators say parents have been asking questions about the science switch, but there's no criticism, so far. School officials plan to look at grades and standardized test results to see how the new science sequence is going.