More than 150 angry parents crowded North’s Media Center at a March 13 Coffee with the Principal meeting to voice their outrage over what they viewed as a failed experiment: the district’s radical new pilot program for North’s freshman biology, which left many students discouraged from pursuing the subject, their grades in shambles.
On March 21, superintendent David Aderhold sent an email blast outlining proposed changes to the current Biology and Biology Honors courses to the parents of all current eighth graders. These changes were implemented at the start of the fourth marking period and will be continued next year.
The changes aim to resolve problems with the self-directed and self-paced nature of the course. They include standardized assessments of content knowledge, grade adjustments that turned failing grades from the first marking period into incompletes, and a transition from a self-paced classroom to a hybrid model that will consist of both direct instruction and self-directed application.
This last change combats one of the most pressing issues. In the beginning of the year, freshman Biology teachers Kristina Nicosia and Robert Corriveau began to implement a pilot program, written by Nicosia, designed to make classes more self-directed through a self-paced student curriculum. Under the new system, students were graded based on their ability to meet so-called learning objectives, on a scale from Beginning, the lowest, to Mastery, the highest. Students were also offered “remediation,” a chance to explain their mistakes and demonstrate progress to their teachers.
The pilot program was originally a solution to students’ need for feedback-based grading in the self-directed, problem-based science curriculum that WW-P touts; however, such grading can be extremely time-consuming for teachers. In the pilot program, students were meant to submit assignments when they were ready, instead of on one set deadline, giving teachers more time to deliver comprehensive feedback and, in theory, foster genuine improvement.
Nicosia is opposed to the district’s response to the parental and student complaints, because, she said, the majority of the complaints weren’t accurate. “They were misconceptions. But instead of those misconceptions being dispelled, the response from administration was ‘OK, stop. We have a problem, we need to change everything,’” she said. “They were very reactionary. We know that’s not best practice in education.”
The changes are a response to complaints voiced at Board of Education meetings throughout the year, as well as at the March 13 meeting. “When word got out that out of 200 and some students, 50 or 60 were failing, the proverbial poop hit the proverbial fan,” Nicosia said.
Zapicchi said the source of the problem was not so much the self-directed nature of the class, but that students were forced to pace themselves. “Kids were falling behind because there were no finite deadlines,” he said. “And the learning objectives were difficult to follow on Infinite Campus, which also led to some parental discord.”
At the March 13 meeting, parents voiced those concerns with Zapicchi, Aderhold, assistant curriculum director Martin Smith, who could not be reached for comment, and science supervisor Rebecca McLelland-Crawley, who agreed to be interviewed but never responded to subsequent attempts to contact her. Two weeks later, the district made the proposed solutions public.
Based on the results of surveys given to both Biology and Honors Biology students, the pilot program has confused and discouraged students. According to data gathered, students showed a blatant aversion to the course, with 93.9 percent saying they were dissatisfied with their experience this year. In a March survey, 88.6 percent of students said they had been interested in biology at the beginning of the year—and 82.95 percent said that after three marking periods of bio they were not interested in pursuing the subject further.
In addition to the many quantitative questions, the questionnaire included room for student commentary. However, The Knightly News did not receive access to these comments—nor did Nicosia or Corriveau: “We weren’t allowed to see the comments that were made, because apparently they were too vulgar,” Nicosia said.
The transition from clear, direct instruction at the middle school level to the completely independent learning promoted by the biology pilot program proved to be a substantial jump for students entering ninth grade. “I think because it’s all skill based it makes the class a lot harder than it should be,” said Lindsay Devlin, a freshman biology student. “We don’t know how to achieve learning objectives.” Zapicchi said he acknowledges the difficulty of the transition. “It was a little more than we should have expected ninth graders to handle,” he said.
The teachers, however, think otherwise. “We gave lessons in class on how to time manage, but not every student was taking advantage of those. Kids were resisting,” Nicosia said. “I don’t know if it’s because they didn’t like the course, if they were shutting down because they didn’t think they could do it, but we had kids who were doing absolutely nothing. Even in Honors Bio.”
The changes proposed by the district appear to be meeting the concerns of parents and students. Freshman honors biology student Sagar Doshi contrasted units one through four, in which he said “no actual scientific content was taught or assessed,” to units five and six, in which he is currently “learning a lot from the direct instruction.”
“Test preparation now is not that stressful as I know the material well from direct instruction and the benefit of direct instruction is showing as I am doing well on tests,” Doshi said. Zapicchi said he felt the changes have made a positive impact: “There has to be some checkpoints in order to make sure that students, with the self-directed nature of the course, are learning the basic content of biology.”
But students remain frustrated that the district imposed the pilot program in the first place. “On the first day of school we were shown a video on how education should change in America and we were given examples of the idea of remediation,” Doshi said. “The next day we received the actual specifics of how the program’s design would work, and it went downhill from there. As far as I can tell, the pilot program was an utter failure.”
However, Nicosia said she still believes that the program is what WW-P students need to be real-world learners. “We’re trying to change a culture of learning in WW-P,” she said. “That takes time, and we’re also going to have to deal with resistors.”