June 15, 2001

Board Adopts Active Physics for 9th Graders: community says it's "comic book" education

By Yvette tenBerge

Battle weary parents and science teachers within the San Diego Unified School District won a small victory on Tuesday, June 12th.

Although the Board majority still voted to implement a controversial Active Physics program and went ahead with the purchase of $1.8 million in textbooks, significant changes where made to the original proposal as a result of concerns raised by parents and teachers.

Scientist Miyo Reff speaks out against implementing Active Physics in San Diego schools.

Many credit Dr. Sandra Mann, a science teacher at University City High School and a member of the Content Review Panel for the STAR Augmented Science Tests, with having influenced the modifications through meetings and e-mails to board President Sue Braun and Vice-President Ron Ottinger.

Although Dr. Mann visited board member's offices and solicited the help of university professors throughout California, she was still unable to persuade the board to postpone Tuesday's decision to implement the "watered down" physics program until the University of California system could determine if it is rigorous enough to be classified as a college-preparatory course.

"I am pretty discouraged and worn out after all the work that led to the board vote today, and then the actual vote. But we did do some good," says Dr. Mann, expressing her frustration at Tuesday's decision. The "some good" to which she refers is the appearance that, unlike the majority of other decisions made over the past three years, the board actually took the will of the district's tight network of parents and teachers into consideration before pushing through its own agenda.

While this determined group could not actually stop the program, itself, from being implemented, the way in which Active Physics will now be used is very different from Chancellor Anthony Alvarado and Science Director Kim Bess's original plan. Teachers remember Mr. Alvarado and Ms. Bess' April 17th announcement that every 9th grader, no matter their ability level, would be placed in the exact same Active Physics course, and that each student would be taught with the exact same curriculum.

Chancellor Anthony Alvarado discusses textbook issues with angry parents after Tuesday's board vote.

The changes that were made to this plan are as follows: First, the district "backed off" from requiring that all high school students, including 10th through 12th graders, who take a physics course must take Active Physics; second, the honors-level 9th grade course will be a pilot of Active Physics, and schools will be able to use other honors physics material to supplement the course; third, Active Physics will be used only for the students with little interest in science rather than for all students who take physics; and fourth, a physics implementation committee will review Active Physics, as well as the honors course, over the next year.

The debacle with Active Physics began earlier this year when Ms. Bess presented the district figures for the number of students currently enrolled in their first semester of physics. According to these figures, only 9.8 percent of the district's students were taking physics, compared to 20 percent nationally. Bewildered by the claim, district science teachers took their own survey only to find that 45 percent of district students took physics before graduating. Despite this huge discrepancy, Ms. Bess and Mr. Alvarado went ahead with their plan to "ensure that 100 percent of our high school students take college preparatory physics" in the 9th grade.

Martin Teachworth, a La Jolla High School physics instructor who has received numerous county, state and national teaching awards over the past 22 years, describes Ms. Bess's original April 17th meeting with the teachers as a "dog and pony show." The usual year to year and a half process by which districts choose new course curricula includes lengthy input by those teachers selected to participate in the intense review of a number of textbooks before settling on the one that best meets California standards. With Active Physics, though, parents and teachers were told that Ms. Bess, alone, selected the curriculum. When concerned parents questioned how a person with a background in history was qualified to make such a decision, Mr. Teachworth recalls that Mr. Bersin commented to parents: "I selected her, so we do not need to worry about her credentials."

According to Ms. Bess, her sole recommendation to go with the National Science Foundation-backed program was supported by the High School Reform Committee. She states that before being hired in October 2000, Mr. Alvarado made it clear that he needed a science director who could find a curriculum that would support good science learning for students who had difficulties with reading and mathematics.

"Active Physics has an 8th grade reading level and an Algebra math level. Every single chapter is independent of the next one, so if you fail and are not terribly successful at one, you get a fresh start. With Active Physics, every single physics principle is taught in the context of solving real-world problems," says Ms. Bess, who describes an exercise in which students develop a sport that they can play on the moon. "What we know is that kids are not engaged if they do not see why they are doing what they are doing."

Mr. Teachworth offers his theory as to why an 8th grade level program like Active Physics was selected in the first place, and why the normal textbook selection process was skipped. "The reason this program has been adopted is because it is a very, very low level program. You can put any student in there, and since they will be working in groups, they will not be individually responsible. You can then say, `Every kid in my district is taking physics' and that they received passing grades," says Mr. Teachworth. "The only problem with this is that these students have not actually learned physics."

Indeed the four, thin Active Physics "booklets" that students will be using next year are very different than the comprehensive, Conceptual Physics textbooks normally used. Words like "humorous," "entertain," and "magic" jump out at the reader, and comic book-like pictures decorate the pages. Although this might catch the attention of students who would not normally be interested in science, critics of Active Physics are concerned with the program's lack of mathematics and factual material, and the scarcity of quality sample problems and thorough explanations.

To counter skepticism, the district circulated a list of scientists and professors who support Active Physics, and they offered the names of districts in other states that have successfully implemented the Active Physics program. Within moments, parents and teachers dissected the list of scientists and professors and connected many of them to It's About Time Publishing, the company that publishes Active Physics.

Paul Clopton, a Biomedical Statistician whose daughter attends La Jolla High School, traveled to Fairfax, Virginia, home to one of the districts that uses Active Physics. He attended a board meeting, where he met with board members, science teachers and parents to discuss the curriculum. What he discovered was disturbing.

"The proportion of their students who are actually enrolled in Active Physics is about five percent per year. These students are clearly the least able of their students, the weakest of all. Unlike in California, where we have state testing in physics, they do not. They clearly do not believe that it is a real physics program," says Mr. Clopton, recalling his May 15th meeting. "The board members and teachers do not even feel that it is good enough for their weakest students, so they have to supplement conceptual physics."

Mr. Clopton sums up the opinion of the majority of teachers and parents who have done their homework on Active Physics. "The point of the program is for the least able kids to have exposure to science. It should be called `Pre-Physics' or `Middle School Physics Taught In High School.' Some people are saying that it should be taught in 8th grade, but I am not sure it is even that high of a content level," says Mr. Clopton, who equates the level of Active Physics to the level of books he bought for his children when they were nine and 10 years old. "The biggest consequence is that students will waste a year, and some people will believe that our kids will have actually learned physics. After taking this course, they can be considered to be done with taking physics, and they will not pass the state physics test."

Herein lies the major problem that teachers and parents have with the district's decision to adopt Active Physics. Although the course might capture the attention of thousands of students who might not normally lean toward science, they do not believe that the course will prepare students to pass the state physics exam, or that it will prepare them to meet University of California admission standards. In a move to put these fears to rest, parents and teachers flooded U.C. administrators with their concerns about the proposed course.

Although Carla Ferri, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions for the University of California, has yet to see an Active Physics textbook, she will be one of the people involved in scrutinizing the course this summer. "The University has been approached in a way that is highly unusual, and I am flabbergasted at the level of inquiry about this particular issue," says Ms. Ferri, who has been in contact with the district. She is careful to point out that that the district has no responsibility to change their curriculum based on their results. "We evaluate courses just for the purpose of university admission, but districts set up courses for a variety of reasons."

Although Mr. Alvarado offered his thoughts on the issue at Tuesday's meeting by stating that, "There are no materials in the history of high school physics that are perfect, they do not exist," it was the hope of parents and teachers that the district would have waited for the University of California's results before potentially "wasting" $1.8 million on textbooks that might do little more than help Little Johnny figure out a way to play basketball on the moon.

Return to the Frontpage