Four years ago the San Francisco Unified School District made a big decision. Not only would it abandon the push for 8th grade Algebra I for all that had swept the nation, but it would support a policy of 9th grade Algebra I for all. Only the small number of students who could pass a rigorous test could place out of the course.
With the policy change, tracking in the middle grades was ended. Math courses in grades 6, 7, and 8 became the same for all students, redesigned in accordance with the Commons Core State Standards. Math 8 included some Algebra I content such as linear equations and modeling with functions, as CCSS-M suggests.
Many parents were in an uproar, believing their students were being held back in the name of equity. They feared their sons and daughters would not have the opportunity to complete AP Calculus before graduating, reducing their chances for admission into the best colleges. In the context of the ongoing SFUSD math team’s collaboration with SERP, a strategy was devised to allow for compression in high school rather than acceleration in middle school. SERP’s Phil Daro made the case that the content of 8th grade mathematics is far more important than what comes later and should not be skipped. A working group planned a strategy to offer the opportunity for students to combine courses in high school—for example, both Algebra 2 and Precalculus could be taken together in their junior year—in order to be prepared for AP Calculus in their senior year. A position paper was written, proposed to the school board, and passed unanimously.
Confronted with protesting parents at the district office and at school board meetings, Superintendent Carranza (now Superintendent in Houston) stood firm, arguing “our San Francisco public schools are not afraid to take the lead to make education better for its students.” And the numbers appear to indicate that he was right. The last class of students who had Algebra 1 in 8th grade are now seniors. Of these students, 40% needed to retake Algebra 1 in a subsequent grade. The current 11th grade students were the first class in which virtually all students took Algebra 1 in 9th grade. Of these students, only 8% needed to retake Algebra 1. The decline in the failure rate was substantial for every ethnic group.
Meanwhile, in the detracked middle grades, the numbers of Ds and Fs have been reduced by one-third, and the pipeline to AP Calculus remains strong. While 1,170 seniors are in Calculus this year, there are 1,499 students currently taking Precalculus who will be ready for Calculus as seniors.
Jim Ryan, SFUSD’s STEM Director, said the numbers were almost too good to be true. “We didn’t believe the data at first; we thought there must be a mistake. But we’ve gone over and over it, and it’s real.” It’s rare for a school district to take this much heat from the public and still stand firm. SFUSD’s students and families have been rewarded.
The Strategic Adolescent Reading Intervention (STARI) tackles a stubborn problem: adolescents who struggle with basic reading skills. After a prior randomized trial showed positive impacts of the program on both an array of basic reading skills and on an ETS measure of deep comprehension, SERP applied for an Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant to build the capacity to scale the program. Partners in the project include school districts in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and South. MDRC will conduct an independent evaluation.
Addressing the needs of struggling adolescent readers is a wicked problem because students need to master basic reading skills at the same time that the demands of texts in middle grades are escalating (including historical perspective taking, scientific argumentation, and mathematical reasoning). The challenge is magnified by the prior experience of reading failure at an age when self-conscious adolescents struggle with academic engagement even in the best of circumstances.
STARI, a literature-focused, Tier II intervention, differs from other programs in the extent to which its content and practices engage and empower students. Relevant topics, such as “What makes a family?” and “immigration debate” challenge students to think deeply. Students collaborate with peers and regularly engage in discussion and debate, stretching the boundaries of age-appropriate critical thinking even as basic reading skills are being remediated. We believe it is this deeply engaging integration of content and skills that has made STARI successful. This opportunity will allow us to expand the capacity-building resources available for STARI and to put the program in front of more students.
Science Generation enters a new phase with our online expansion of our popular WordGen approach applied to NGSS-aligned topics. SERP is now beta-testing nearly 150 days of lively science curriculum for release in January.
SERP is currently seeking early adopters to influence the direction of the materials. Much of the curriculum has been tested in a broad range of classrooms, but we’d like to engage with classrooms on the newest units in cells, waves, density, atomic theory, and/or habitat threats. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to help us beta-test the units.
The SciGen curriculum includes hands-on science labs, projects, games, and explorations, as well as disciplinary-literacy activities that engage students in reading, writing, discussing, and building arguments about basic questions in science. New assets increase student engagement with the content. For example, we’ve added interactive components, videos, comics, animations, a novel approach to introducing cells (using robots as a model), a choose-your-own-adventure interactive fiction story, a combination oscilloscope-keyboard, and manipulable simulations.
This teacher platform, viewable with any web-enabled device, provides easy access to all of SciGen's lesson content and supplements. The 24 in-depth units cover topics of Science Thinking, Units of Measure, Energy, Life Science, and Matter that teachers identified as lacking high-quality treatments in other science programs. Our teams of researchers, practitioners, and designers built these as a sequence of activities with a storyline, but teachers can also easily sample these materials à la carte as best suits their lesson plans. Designed for grades 6–8, the lessons are adaptable to younger and older students.
The curriculum interface includes several features:
The SciGen Teacher Dashboard is supported by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science. The original 18 units of Science Generation were developed with support of the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) decided to invest in identifying and testing curricula that build the academic language of students in schools serving a mix of English learners and native English speakers, including non-standard English speakers. IES contracted with MDRC and its partners, Abt Associates and the Florida Center for Reading Research, to solicit applications and choose up to three programs to implement and evaluate in the fourth and fifth grades. These programs needed to incorporate features that the research literature considers essential and that have some evidence of effectiveness. After a multi-stage screening process, SERP’s WordGen Elementary program was the only one chosen for the evaluation.
SERP is supporting implementation this academic year in a set of schools in six urban school districts across five states. This study will cover a single year only, thus evaluating the ability of the program to make a difference in student learning with teachers who are new to the program. While many programs show a positive impact only after teachers are in their second year and have developed familiarity with the curriculum and instructional practices, this project seeks to meet the challenge of addressing and having an impact on students' language learning needs quickly.